Couplet: Dark tales for tall children

Take Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, turn Vladimir and Estragon into the characters Fear and Doubt, mix in some puppetry, 19th Century steampunk costumes, and vaudeville layered over cautionary tales in rhyming verse, and you can begin to imagine the world conjured in Couplet.

While it could be a cauldron with too many ingredients, in the experienced hands of director and designer Steven Feinstein with the equally experienced Michelle Douglas and Julie-Anne McDowell on stage, it’s a tantalising broth served in five portions.

As a set of contemporary Aesop’s Fables, the trio describe Couplet, which is on at the Fringe, as children’s theatre for adults. Like revisiting a childhood home now deserted and full of ghosts, but still familiar.

We originally started looking at creating children’s theatre, but as we developed it, it evolved into a work for adults,” says Douglas, who wrote the script of five self-contained story lines.

Yet children can, and do, watch it.

In fact Douglas recommends taking your children along, so long as they are about nine or older.

It’s been interesting balancing between catering for adults and children seeing the show,” she says.

Some of the tales are essentially dealing with characters who behave badly and receive their comeuppance, there’s no ‘happy ever after’.

Actually, we intentionally move away from that kind of model,” says Feinstein.

Mixing vaudeville, musical theatre, drama and puppetry makes the show essentially post-modern and particularly interesting for audiences, who Feinstein says have been moved by the different stories.

Having had a pre-fest run at the POPArt Theatre in Joburg led to interesting feedback, particularly from the children.

McDowell says people went away with one story that was their favourite, but speaking to them a few days later, they would speak about a different story they’ve been talking about with their kids at the dinner table.

Parents engage with their kids through this play,” says McDowell, as the characters have to make a choice.

During our run in Joburg, we were aware of the children in the audience and thinking the show was far too dark, but speaking to them afterward we discovered they didn’t think it was dark, especially compared to what they watch on TV,” said Feinstein.

It was fascinating to observe how the children were gripped, paying attention, remembering and holding onto lines that came much later in the show,” says Douglas.

Feinstein, who is of the view that theatre’s role is to provoke thought, rather than be merely entertaining, says they believe in challenging perspectives.

Why should children’s theatre be immature, or talk down to children?”

Pushing the boundary between family fare and adults’ theatre led to a number of people commenting that the show stayed with them for a long time as they processed what they had seen.

Feinstein is a great fan of Douglas’s writing. “It’s phenomenal,” he says of the script which is written in iambic pentameter.

It’s wonderful to see the effect of that, that it still has an effect on kids and people. Shakespearean verse and rhythm still has an appeal, it doesn’t just sit in a 400-year-old time lock.

Rhyme enables you to get away with a lot, says Feinstein. “It’s playful but can deal with dark issues.”

Combined with the rhyming verse, 19th Century steampunk and gypsy aesthetic, the stories are timeless and universal. They could be anywhere, except one which contains some local satire, but even that could stand outside of South Africa.

While personal transformation is the overarching theme, the stories individually deal with issues of deceit, prejudice, xenophobia, forgiveness and fear and doubt.

McDowell says that “a lot of people said they connected a lot with fear and doubt.”

When Michelle and I were talking about these stories, we were thinking about what messages children should be absorbing, what they might be struggling with,” says Feinstein.

There aren’t any bows,” says Douglas “I hate bows,” chips Feinstein. “There’re no neat endings that you can see coming, it’s more BBC than Disney.”

We’re not being prescriptive, not giving advice, just presenting a situation,” says McDowell.

Not only do the genres comprise a post-modern mix, the puppets are also an amalgam, ranging from masks to hand-held to Handspring style moving puppets.

To add to the expressionism, with aspects of Brecht and Beckett, the set itself is somewhat of an extra character.

Design was a heavy part of the production,” says Feinstein. “I was often thinking, ‘how the hell do you stage this?’”

It’s a spectacle of design. It’s treated very much like its own character.”

While there is a dip with two more emotionally-centred stories, the show is “a rollercoaster from beginning to end,” says McDowell.

Couplet is on the Fringe at the National Arts Festival until Wednesday 5 July. Book here.


Steven Feinstein (Director, Couplet) is a director, producer and acting coach. He has directed school productions (Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Knowing When to Whisper, Oedipus, Heart’s Desire and Romeo and Juliet) and professional directing credits include Glass Roots, Art, Waiting for Godot, Doctor Faustus, 4.48 Psychosis, Bewitched, Medea and The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Managing Director of the Advanced Actors Academy in Johannesburg (a 6-month training programme), he has also directed 15 showcase plays (2015) and 40 showcase pieces (2016). His other initiative, Indigo View Originals, mentors actors in directing, producing and writing original plays.

Michelle Douglas is an Actress, Writer and Voice-over Artist. She has worked in Rome, Italy, as well as in the UK, playing the lead in various productions at Il Teatro Colosseo. Professional theatre credits in SA include AREPP Theatre for Life, Green Man Flashing, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Television and Film credits include Soul City, Generations, Jozi H, Scandal, Saints and Sinners, Inside Job, Ordinary People and most recently, Farewell Ella Bella, directed by Lwazi Mvusi. She is also a working Voiceover Artist and Writer/Director of Industrial Theatre.

Julie-Anne McDowell studied Classical Ballet and Speech and Drama up to RADA level, and then went on to perform in numerous musical theatre productions around Northern Ireland. She trained and performed with The Lyric Theatre, The Ulster Opera House and The Ulster Hall and toured Ireland in several productions with the Belvoir Players. Her television experience includes In Cold Blood, Tree Story, A Knight in Shining Armour, The Head Case, and Farm. Theatre experience includes The Crucible, The Beaux Stratagem, Oedipus Rex, The Memory of Water, Beauty, Me and My Best Friend, (Northern Ireland Arts Festival), Continental Quilt, and Becca in The Rabbit Hole.

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