How to Plant a Tulip

07 04 2023

"Duck, Death and the Tulip". Photo: D. Matvejev

Author: Tjaša Pirnar

Duck, Death and the Tulip is originally a picture book by Wolf Erlbruch, which, as the title suggests, revolves around death. We like to describe the latter as a complex subject that is difficult to convey to children. However, since many creative teams have already successfully and innovatively taken up this challenge, we can dispense with such clichéd remarks and instead focus on the specifics of the production of Duck, Death and Tulip, directed by Jūratė Trimakaitė and produced by the Vilnius Theatre “Lėlė”.

In the story from the picture book, Duck notices that Death is following her. It follows her to the end of her life, when it gently places the duck in the water and puts a tulip next to it. In the Lithuanian production, the two protagonists are very simple little stick puppets that can only move in space and float on stage like little pictures next to words penned by Wolf Erlbruch. The Lithuanian production interweaves this story with two other narrative strands. The basic frame story is set up by the actor in the role of the gardener, who encourages the children to imitate the movements of planting tulips. This narrative layer is a cute and effective frame until it begins to interrupt the story we are let into. These interjections feel forced, as if the creative team does not trust the audience to keep their attention and follow the story from beginning to end without the gardener's interventions. The non-dynamic nature of the puppets perfectly matches the poetic tenderness of the content and the reliance on the text. Together with the dark depth of the stage, they create an atmosphere that is destroyed every time the gardener interrupts, only to have to be rebuilt.

So it is the gardener who announces the story by saying that his mother used to tell it to him. Here we pick up the third narrative thread - it leads from the little boy and his mother to the growing boy and the shrinking mother. It is left to the interpretation of the individual audience member whether the story of Duck and Death is told by the mother on stage or whether the disembodied voice that fills the auditorium is an entity in its own right. Duck, Death and the Tulip is a story rich in style and content, superbly realised. Although the inclusion of the human story could be seen as another example of a lack of confidence in the staging material, the two stories are so thematically aligned and complementary that it is not difficult to understand the purpose and desire to intertwine the two. The duck's confrontation with his own transience and curiosity about the afterlife meets the boy's perception of change and acceptance of his neighbour's transience. Both narrative strands remain unobtrusive and trust the audience to approach with them the unanswerable questions and the unknown that accompanies dying.

The puppets of mother and son (or several of them, in different dimensions) accompany the narrative of the Duck and Death, as they take on the function of set design in addition to their primary role of embodying the characters. It is an interesting concept that is somewhat contradictory, as it keeps the audience at a distance by objectifying the protagonists. The production successfully bridges this gap with animation and the use of various puppets.

Duck, Death and the Tulip comes across as slightly didactic, especially in the scenes with the gardener, but mostly as a production that lacks confidence. The three works, ideally matched in theory, do not breathe in harmony, but rather than constructing a common poem or thematic landscape, they interrupt each other, holding up the rhythm of the performance and juggling the audience's attention. In its execution, the production works, leaving only a hint of bitterness in the gap between what is possible and the exhausted potential that the production did not dare to fill.

This publication is written in the context of the project "European Contemporary Puppetry Critical Platform"