You might think they’re buzzing little villains but the fact is they’re integral to our planet. According to Albert Einstein: “If the bee disappears from the surface of the Earth, man would have no more than four years left to live.”
Mark Doherty’s new musical for young audiences, produced by WillFredd Theatre, draws on ecological concerns with zoological zing. A soft-spoken beekeeper (composer Jack Cawley) enters with a smoker, a device used to calm bees, and in this case any phobias (they only sting when they’re scared). He opens his hive to discover that the swarm has fled.
But inside an art nouveau-inspired world of honeycomb flats and hexagonal cushions designed by Sarah Jane Shiels, a honeybee has hatched to find herself alone. Charming and dexterous, Mary-Lou McCarthy darts around the stage, hunched forward and dusting her feet in Emma O’Kane’s funnily erratic choreography.
Director Sophie Motley has a good record of finding theatrical ciphers for hard fact, honouring a bumblebee character by its Latin assignation Bombus lucorum, and shortening it to Luke. Played spiritedly by Sean Duggan, he bops to reggae beats in Cawley’s music, and clumsily falls about the stage while hoping for the summons of a queen. He encourages the audience’s participation in a flying lesson, as an auditorium of buzzing lifts the bees into flight.
The range of Cawley’s score is to give each character’s buzz its own genre. The solitary bee Nomada mashamell, or Marsha, sings glitzy pop songs, spelling out the difference between solitariness and loneliness in Marie Ruane’s coolheaded turn. She makes a case for the vulnerability of bees, with threats ranging from killer animals to insecticides.
Doherty highlights the far-reaching effects of pollination, as one scene has the performers listing off fruits and vegetables to the young audience’s approval (garlic is a hard sell). Furthermore, familiar stylings of Sarah Bacon’s urban costumes, adorned with small wings made of plastic tubing, make the action more locatable to reality than fantasy. WillFredd is more a designer’s theatre company than most, and you’ll see in a magical moment towards the end where Shiels’s lamps lead the action with pearls of light representing dragonfly guides.
As Motley makes the most of McCarthy’s dance skills towards an energetic climax – a honeybee’s celebration at finding her colony – flower seeds are trusted in the hands of the audience. To aid the dwindling bee population, we have to help it grow.
BEES! played at The Ark as part of Dublin Theatre Festival until 27 Sept. For more information and tickets, see Dublin Theatre Festival website. Photo by Ros Kavanagh.