Written in 1929 by German author Erich Kästner, Emil and the Detectives was one of the first children’s detective books and was also unusual at the time because of its realistic contemporary setting. Just a few years later, most of Kästner’s books were destroyed by the Nazis, who banned publications considered subversive or symbolic of “moral degeneracy”, but Emil was spared.
Slingsby artistic director Andy Packer, who describes it as “a really beautiful story about growing up”, suggests one reason it may have escaped censorship was that it was so popular.
The first film adaptation was made in Germany in 1931 and it has since been the subject of several more films, a television series and a number of stage productions, with the book translated into almost 60 languages.
“It’s the first story or book that had children versus adults, which is one of the things I really like about it,” Packer says. “It pre-dates all the Enid Blyton books.”
“It’s a really lovely story about how the small people in society can band together to demand justice from a trickster.”
The original story follows a boy named Emil who is robbed during a train trip from his rural home to visit family in Berlin and ends up banding together with a group of young “detectives” to bring the thief to justice.
Playwright Nicki Bloom has adapted the book for the Slingsby production, which will see actress Elizabeth Hay playing Emil, while Tim Overton – from the company’s award-winning 2016 Adelaide Festival show The Young King – plays all the other roles, including that of narrator.
Slingsby describes it as “a story of light and dark”.
“Like most children’s classics, the key themes of the story are as relevant today as when the book was first published and audiences will relate to many of the challenges and decisions Emil faces,” Packer says.
“Emil and the Detectives explores the benefits and pitfalls of children having greater freedom, being allowed to make mistakes and finding solutions to their own problems without undue adult intervention or interference.”
Returning to the site of the former Dazzeland indoor amusement park on the upper levels of Rundle Mall’s Myer Centre, where Slingsby staged The Young King, has enabled the company to create an immersive and transformative setting for Emil and the Detectives.
The production design plays with scale, and on arrival audience members will be invited to help make cardboard buildings that are part of a miniature city. Adding to the visual magic will be an impressive train carriage with animated sequences showing through its windows.
“We like to create very evocative theatrical worlds,” Packer says.
“This story was written between the world wars at an interesting time in Germany’s history when people were doing it really tough, and we do reference that in the design.
“There’s kind of a feeling of post-Blitz in the design because we’re making work for a village audience – children and audiences together – so we like that gritty feel.
“We are trying to acknowledge that there are difficult times in life but out of the darkness comes light and hope.”
Quincy Grant has written a cinematic score recorded with 10 musicians and a choir of 40 children.
Emil and the Detectives will be Slingsby’s first major new production since The Young King, also adapted by Bloom, which recently won the 2017 International Performing Arts for Youth (IPAY) Victor Award and will have a season at the Sydney Opera House in November before touring overseas.
Although the company was left reeling after losing its multi-year Australia Council funding last year, Packer says it has been buoyed by receiving around $88,000 in private donations since then. It also secured project funding from the Australia Council and support from Arts SA for the production of Emil.
“This is a show that’s been made possible because of private donors,” Packer says.
“It’s been an incredible 14 months for us since losing our Australia Council funding … the uncertainty still exists without that surety of multi-year funding but we’re feeling very optimistic and blessed.”
Emil and the Detectives will be presented at level five in the Myer Centre, Rundle Mall, from July 19 until August 5.
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