The legendary director and producer Hal Prince once told me, “I think it’s very important in the development of an art form to revisit highlights in its history. Watershed productions encourage us to aspire to watershed productions.”

The Little Prince does just that. The brainchild of choreographer and director Anne Tournié, associate director Chris Mouron, and composer Terry Truck, it is a work so ingenious in its conception and seemingly effortless in execution, that one could be forgiven for underestimating their incredible achievement.

The Little Prince. Photograph © Philippe Hanula

There is no mistaking Tournié’s pedigree. The experience she gained during her years working alongside Franco Dragone of Cirque du Soleil fame is clearly on display. However, together with her co-creators, she expands on that vocabulary, cherry-picking throughout the history of theatre to create a work that both celebrates its greatest milestones and lays a path for the future of storytelling. Some may choose to describe this approach as derivative, but that is to miss the point. In honouring the past, the creators of The Little Prince have themselves become innovators and the result is an apotheosis of everything that came before it.

As the curtain rises, we are greeted by an empty white stage and a pair of acrobatic aerial straps hanging from the flies. It immediately recalls Peter Brooks’ groundbreaking 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with its white box and trapeze set. At its centre is the narrator, performed here by Mouron, who is also responsible for the adaptation of the original 1943 book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The resulting libretto captures the essence of the original, while introducing a contemporary nuance that will resonate with modern-day audiences.

Austere yet pixie-like in her sculptured coat by costume designer Peggy Housset, Mouron echoes Kayoko Shiraishi’s unforgettable performance as the authoritative narrator in Julie Taymor’s 1993 production of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. However, Mouron’s performance is also tinged with the irony and melancholic innocence of Édith Piaf and Charles Aznavour. A master at vocal characterisation, Mouron’s own talents as chanteuse come to the forefront during the show’s finale, The Song of the Little Prince.

As the Narrator lifts the veil on the story about to unfold, the white floor and wall come to life with video projections that constitute virtually all the scenic elements of the show. Designed by Marie Jumelin, they often evoke the works of René Magritte, especially in their rendering of the planets of the Lamplighter, the Vain Man, and the Drunkard.

The Little Prince. Photograph © Philippe Hanula

In 1958, Josef Svoboda, Alfréd Radok and Miloš Forman introduced the world to multimedia theatre with their Laterna Magika at the Brussels Expo. Since then, it has influenced theatrical presentation around the world and their seminal work, The Magic Circus, is still performed in Prague today. Its influence on Jumelin’s work cannot be denied, especially in scenes like the Planet of the King, in which the animated backdrop blends seamlessly with the stage to create an almost limitless landscape beyond the proscenium, or where the Little Prince runs along a railroad track in a dizzying roller-coaster ride. While some producers tend to overuse this technology, productions like The Little Prince and Opera Australia’s recent Whiteley are perfect examples of how powerful the interplay between filmed and live action can be.

Projection, song and narration are also techniques of the Epic theatre. Their use here is totally apt, considering the almost Brechtian themes that The Little Prince addresses, especially the materialistic obsession of the adult world. Fortunately, Tournié and Mouron are not as heavy-handed as Brecht in bringing the characters of Saint-Exupéry’s book to the stage. Mathieu Cobos’ selfie-taking Vain Man, Luca Cesa’s Businessman playing the stock market, and the Railway Switchman performed by Riccardo De Totero, all underline the message with hilarious wit and panache. The latter in particular, steering commuters in their aimless pursuit of wealth with an oversized toilet plunger, is a wonderful nod to the sight gags of French filmmaker Jacques Tati and his own social critiques like Mon Oncle and Playtime.

Another beautiful effect, and probably the only other physical prop of note, is the lamp post that descends from the heavens, with the brilliant Marcin Janiak hanging from it to display his acrobatic prowess as the Lamplighter. In the original book, his planet is so small and spins so fast that he has to extinguish and relight his lamp every 30 seconds. Here, it becomes more a critique of our frenetic pace of life and ‘the New York minute’. Saint-Exupéry would know. In 1940, he travelled to Manhattan in the hope of persuading the Americans to intervene in the Nazi invasion of France, and he lived just off 5th Avenue for the next two years. In his book, the Nazis are symbolised by the baobab trees the Little Prince tries to uproot from his asteroid. Here they are represented more as an ecological threat through a combination of video mapping and choreography that perfectly captures the insidious nature of a weed attacking the stage floor.

The Little Prince. Photograph © Philippe Hanula

Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince is both a fable and an allegory of his own life that laments the loss of childhood innocence and honours his tortured relationship with his wife. After the Bible, it is the second most translated book of all time and the literature that surrounds it is endless. Nevertheless, it is important to note that much of the story is a fantastical account of real events, which Saint-Exupéry had already documented in his award-winning 1939 autobiography Wind, Sand and Stars. Like this earlier work, The Little Prince includes his plane crash in the Libyan dessert in 1935, which is the starting point for the story. Then there is his relationship with his wife Consuelo and her homeland El Salvador. The country’s characteristic volcanos are generally considered the inspiration for the Little Prince’s home on Asteroid B-612, itself a reference to the serial number of one of Saint-Exupéry’s earlier planes.

Saint-Exupéry was protective of Consuelo and he immortalised her in his book as a rose that needs to be constantly tended by the Little Prince. Here they are wonderfully danced by Charlotte Kah and Lionel Zalachas in a beautiful sequence choreographed by Tournié that reveals the choreographer’s own background in classical ballet. The Little Prince’s subsequent adventure in the field of roses is symbolic of giving in to temptation and Saint-Exupéry’s own infidelities. In the costume design and staging for this scene, the creative team seems to have reached even further into the past to the 1895 Annabelle Serpentine Dance, performed by Annabelle Moore in the first hand-tinted film ever made.

Just as the Little Prince travels far and wide only to realise that he really yearns for a simpler life with his first true love, we too are reminded that, in spite of our constant obsession with the latest technological breakthroughs, something as simple as the century-old footage of a dancer can still enthral.

As the author of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers, wrote in The New York Herald Tribune in 1943, “The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it.”

For the adults in the audience last night, that time had finally come.

The Little Prince plays in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until 6 June


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