In the entertainment industry, if you can create something that will be loved by both children and adults, you may be onto a winner. If you can create something that will effortlessly lull children into a mindless sense of enjoyment while sending out cryptic messages that make adults ponder their entire living existence, even better. Animal Farm is one of those pieces; it dangles a nice tale about a smallholding in front of your eyes while secretly shovelling uncomfortable truths into your brain. The Little Prince is also one of these marvels.
Whether you know it as Le Petit Prince, Der Kleine Prinz or Ke Keiki Ali’i Li’ili’I, you’re probably already familiar with the plot. For the uncultured abominations who have thus far lived in a state of ignorance (i.e. me two days ago), it recounts a playful encounter between a pilot who has crashed his plane into the Sahara Desert and is desperately trying to repair his engine before inevitably dying of thirst, and an inquisitive young alien, whose only concern is for a rose he left behind on his tiny asteroid. Guided through the tale by the words of the lone narrator, the Prince explains how he came to land on Planet Earth. It transpires that he fell in love with a beautiful but overbearing flower, and when the frustration wrought by this love became too much, he left on a solo adventure through the stars.
Young children might not grasp much from this story beyond an interstellar voyage about friendship. Grown-ups, on the other hand, might find the plot is little more than background noise to a presentation of society’s greatest failings. For one, the adult’s insipid view of the world is tightly clamped under the spotlight throughout the play. The very first example of this is in the pilot’s resentment at his dwindling artistic career. Each time he draws a picture of an elephant inside the boa constrictor that has just eaten it, the short-sighted adult replies, “it’s a hat, of course”. Only the Prince, with his lingering naivety and imagination, sees the drawing for what it truly is. Likewise, the Prince’s sprint through the universe brings him into contact with an unusual host of familiar-sounding characters, each with their own bizarre quirk. There is a king with no subjects, a businessman with no assets, and a drunkard who drinks to forget he is a drunkard.
In spite of these metaphorical aspects and the social commentary at work, the show still markets itself as a children’s story, as confirmed by the sprawl of cushions and crayons laid out on the theatre floor. Miraculous circus trickery and an accompanying projection of illustrations certainly seem to underline this. And yet, I wonder if a child’s attention will sustain through the slower parts of the play, as even mine strayed on occasion.
The pilot, narrator and lone star of the show is Martin Oelbermann. There is no swarming cast and very little music here; rather, it is a gentle affair, more like a bedtime story set in a room of blushing stars (simply, and yet elegantly designed by Alison Neighbour). Oelbermann is a confident performer and undoubtedly a great storyteller. In fact, it may be his willingness to approach the stalls and look the audience in the eye that ultimately saves him; children’s minds may wander, but engagement can pull them back.
I would be lying if I said this was the format I would have chosen. Sometimes you just want a big cast to come along and act the show out for you. And yet, perhaps this is the danger The Little Prince is warning us about. We prefer to have something spelled out for us in its simplest form, whereas really, we should reach for that childlike imagination we’ve all left behind. Really, we should look for the elephant in the boa constrictor.
The Little Prince is playing at The Playground Theatre until 7 January 2018
Photo: Tom Olney