Dead Puppet Society has arrived in the Cremorne Theatre at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) and the space is buzzing with movement, energy and anticipation ahead of the world premiere of Ishmael, which will open as part of Brisbane Festival 2021 after a 12-month postponement.

Ishmael Dead Puppet Society

Rehearsals for Dead Puppet Society’s new production Ishmael. Photo © Dean Hanson

Presented by Dead Puppet Society, QPAC and Brisbane Festival in association with Screen Queensland, Ishmael is a contemporary reimagining of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick, set one thousand years in the future when humanity has been forced to look off-planet for the resources to survive. Ishmael (Ellen Bailey), a young climate refugee from Earth, and Queequeg (Patrick Jhanur), an artificially intelligent droid who has escaped from a laboratory, board the MV Pequod captained by the obsessive Captain Ahab (Barb Lowing). On a dangerous journey to the outer solar system, the three find hope, connection, and redemption in the vastness of space, with all of the possibilities and terrors it holds.

Dead Puppet Society Creative Director David Morton has written, directed and co-designed this contemporary space opera, starring a trio of acclaimed Brisbane actors and featuring an original score by indie pop musician Bec Sandridge. Initially scheduled to premiere at Brisbane Festival 2020, and with Brisbane’s recent lockdown further shifting timelines, Ishmael will now open on September 3 and run until September 18.

Labelling Ishmael a reimagining rather than an adaptation, Morton said that Dead Puppet Society has focused on breathing new life into existing stories and cultural artefacts in recent years. “We always look at the intention behind this artefact or work in the time that it was created,” he said. “What was it exploring, and how can we rework those themes to have either a similar or a contrasting impact in our current socio-political environment? The characters have similar arcs, but the context is wildly different.”

Another notable difference in this reimagining is that both Ishmael and Captain Ahab are written as women, which Morton felt went hand in hand with the updated setting. “Why shouldn’t these strong characters be female? It seems a bit ridiculous that it hasn’t happened before,” he said. “They’re talking about a human experience here, and there’s a strength in what Ellen and Barb are bringing to the characters that is just amazing. In our rendering of them, there was just never a version for us where they were male.”

Ishmael Dead Puppet Society

Rehearsals for Dead Puppet Society’s new production Ishmael. Photo © Dean Hanson

Cameras and a range of intricate miniature models and sets line the sides of the Cremorne Theatre stage, all of which will be visible to the audience throughout the performance. The cast will move these models in front of the cameras, setting locations for the action and, using live compositing technology, weaving an intricate visual tapestry that blends live footage of the models with pre-rendered animated content by Justin Harrison. In this way, the actors are not only responsible for bringing their characters to life, but also have a direct hand in building the world those characters inhabit. “It’s such a stimulating show,” said Patrick Jhanur, likening these immersive elements to the telling of a campfire story. “The music is so moving, there’s so much depth and complexity to every character, the world that the whole team has created is such a spectacle. It’s a feast for the senses.”

Dead Puppet Society has always sought to expose the mechanics of the illusion to their audience, supported by strong narratives and emotional investment. “The way that this piece is structured, we are trying to indoctrinate everyone in a theatrical literacy which is different to the norm,” said Morton. “The wires are exposed, quite literally, in all of this.”

Brisbane Festival Artistic Director Louise Bezzina is excited for Brisbane audiences to experience this “truly groundbreaking” production. “The technology for this is truly next level…I’m blown away every single time,” she said. “They really have pushed themselves so greatly, artistically, and everybody’s really taken this enormous leap of faith. I think that there will be a really interesting range of people that will connect with the work. I just can’t wait.”

Ishmael will play at the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC, 3–18 September, and is recommended for audiences aged 12+. Following its world premiere at Brisbane Festival, Ishmael will play at Sydney Opera House in 2023.


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