Review: Vikram and the Vampire – Zen Zen Zo at the Old Museum Building

I need to start this off with the confession of a cardinal sin of Brisbane theatre. I haven’t seen a Zen Zen Zo show in a very, very long time. My omission hasn’t been deliberate. Nevertheless, the years have slipped by without visiting this Queensland cultural institution. In truth, it was my assumptions about a ‘physical theatre company’ that kept me away. These were fairly predictable. While displaying admirable and impressive physical skills, these productions too often leave narrative far behind, creating works that are inaccessible. I’m very pleased to say that this is not at all the case for Vikram and the Vampire, the first production overseen by the company’s new Artistic Directors, Michael Futcher and Helen Howard.

Indeed Vikram and the Vampire is all about narrative. The show’s essence is from The Twenty Five Tales of a Baital, a collection of ancient Sanskrit tales from India. The company did a version of this back in 1995, called The King and the Corpse.

Re-imagined by director Michael Futcher and a large ensemble, Vikram and the Vampire is a nod to story telling at its bed-time best.

These are fantastic fairytales largely unknown to Australians, and are an absolute joy to visit.

The story opens on King Vikram (Sandro Colarelli), who longs for power over all the earth. He is visited by a monk, Shantil (Chris Beckey), who promises to grant his wish. But first, the king is instructed to collect a corpse, and walk it back to the burning grounds that Shantil inhabits. The corpse is inhabited by the mischievous spirit Vetal (Lizzie Ballinger). With Vetal strapped to his back, King Vikram begins the lengthy journey back to the burning grounds. Vetal makes a wager with the king. If he should speak, then Vetal will return to where Vikram found her and he will have to begin the journey all over again. And so Vetal distracts the King with stories, played out to us in full colour and spectacle, inevitably provoking a response from King Vikram, who seems unlikely to ever reach his goal.

There are a lot of things this production does right, and the treatment of the narrative here is a big accomplishment. Michael Futcher and Helen Howard are credited as the writers and adapters, with additional credit given to Danny Murphy for material that survived from the 1995 production.

The show manages to straddle both a linear and episodic structure simultaneously, and it works. At an hour and forty-five minutes, the show is a little long, with the first ten minutes seeming to be slightly extraneous. But the magic and beauty of what follows makes this slight indulgence easily forgiven.

Michael Futcher is incredibly intelligent with his casting. In lesser hands, some of the bigger roles could’ve easily been undermined. Sandro Colarelli attacks the role of King Vikram in beautiful comic style. He manages simultaneously to be a subject of ridicule and sympathy. His dexterity in inhabiting other roles, particularly that of women, is done with grace and ease. You believe Vikram’s abundant masculinity, but Mr Colarelli’s ability to change into a pure and beautiful woman within a single breath is stunning. His consistent and demanding character changes are a highlight of the production.

Colarelli’s ability to change into a pure and beautiful woman within a single breath is stunning. His consistent and demanding character changes are a highlight of the production.

And what is there to say about Bryan Probets that hasn’t been said before? He is predictably funny, flexible and ingenious. Director Michael Futcher assigns Mr Probets a series of roles that allow him to showcase his natural comic abilities and skill. His performance as a parrot (in particular) is hilarious.

Other major performers do a great job. Chris Beckey is convincing as Shantil and other minor parts. Lizzie Ballinger as Vetal is a reliable and entertaining anchor that sweeps the story along. She lacks a certain amount of the power that Vetal needs, but she is given an incredibly difficult task. Vetal is called upon to be terrifying, funny, mischievous, powerful and sympathetic, while also serving as a narrator. Ms Ballinger handles the task extremely well.

The acting ensemble – thirteen in all – accomplish their roles with strength. Their physicality, however, is a few notches off slick. Moments that call for breathtaking synchronicity fall short. Scene transitions edge towards clumsy. Mr Futcher’s collaboration with the dance choreographer Melissa Budd and fight choreographer Earl Kim, however, is a successful one overall. There is ingenious clarity in the way these stories are staged. Given the multiple layers of story, character and location, it is a credit to the team that I never felt lost or confused. In this way, Vikram and the Vampire is excitingly and uniquely theatrical.

The live music provided by Cieavash Arean, Ravi Singh and Guy Webster is an absolute treat. Without them, the production would lose its tangible energy. Can we please have more live music at shows, O Theatre Gods of Brisbane? The gift they give is beautiful. (Ed. I’ll second that).

All elements of the design are successful. Thanks to Tiffany Beckwith-Skinner the colours of this show are vibrant and joyful. Ben Hughes does a fantastic job of lighting an unusual and open space. It is through him that the studio hall is allowed the occasional moment of closeness and intimacy.

My biggest criticism (and it’s a small one), would be with the venue. The Old Museum Building is absolutely beautiful, but the transition into a theatre space feels forced. Vikram and The Vampire would feel better in a small theatre. The audience are seated on uncomfortable chairs on a noisy rostra. I can’t help but think that given the content and atmosphere of the work, we would have been better off on the floor with bean bags, blankets and cuddles. The space is crowned by a gigantic concave dome, which means that voices are lost at times and made unclear. Everything about it just feels too open.

Go see Vikram and the Vampire. If you’ve got a young person in your life, who doesn’t mind loud noises and a bit of a scare, take them with you. This is a mostly family friendly show (there are a few sexual references), but I suggest this because Vikram and the Vampire is exciting theatre – no projections, no tricks. It’s all beautifully live and present. At fifteen, this would’ve blown my mind.

Kudos to Zen Zen Zo for putting shows like Vikram… on. It may have been a long time between drinks, but you can absolutely count me in for their next show.

Vikram and the Vampire plays at the Old Museum Building from 3-19 May. Ticketing details from the website.

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David Burton

Playwright, podcast producer.