SA-based Slingsby Theatre Company likes to invite audiences to “journey in wonder” with it through theatre works that are both engaging and emotionally challenging, so when artistic director Andy Packer heard Martin McKenna on the ABC Radio’s Conversations, his story of personal struggle and transformation immediately struck a chord.

“It was a really wonderful interview,” he says of the 2016 conversation with host Sarah Kanowski.

“It’s just a remarkable story and he [Martin] is a remarkable human who’s had an incredible life. What I was really attracted to was very much his openness about what happened to him, but also the fact that he doesn’t seem to blame anyone; he kind of apportions blame to himself as much as anybody else.”

It is well worth listening to the Conversations interview, as McKenna – in his lovely lilting Irish accent, with no hint of bitterness – recounts a traumatic childhood in County Limerick during which he was a target of his alcoholic father’s anger and school teachers’ brutality.

“You couldn’t control me,” he tells Kanowski. “I have what they call now attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In the old days they used to say you were hyperactive and what they used to prescribe for you was a good flogging, starve you for a couple of days and throw you in the coal shed.”

Martin McKenna. Photo: ABC Books

McKenna was one of a set of triplets, the last born of eight children. He was a sickly and agitated child who was calmest in the company of the family’s two German Shepherds, Major and Rex, where his early connection with dogs was forged.

But young Martin continued to struggle – and suffer – at home and school, until he ran away at 13 and ended up spending three years living rough with six stray dogs who helped teach him the skills he needed to return to human society. He later moved to Australia, carving out a successful life for himself and publishing several books, including his memoir The Boy Who Talked to Dogs.

To Packer, McKenna’s tale is one of transformation and “triumphing over shadows”.

After listening to the interview and then reading the memoir, he secured the rights to adapt it and began working towards bringing it to the stage.

Five years later, The Boy Who Talked to Dogs will premiere during the Adelaide Festival this month as a co-production by Slingsby and the State Theatre Company of SA that is described as “dark and gritty yet glimmering with magic, wonder and humour”.

In typical Slingsby fashion, the adaptation will seek to transport audiences to another world through a mixture of storytelling, shadow puppetry, live music and performance – all delivered in a cabaret-style setting at the Thomas Edmonds Opera Studio at Adelaide Showgrounds.

“The form of the play really is a band wanting to tell the story of the boy who talked to dogs – this kind of happy story of redemption and a young Irish boy and his dogs overcoming troubles – and then [you have] the character of Martin saying, ‘It’s not that simple; that’s not the way it is, it was much harder than that’,” Packer explains.

“And through that, we find this tension between wanting to romanticise that sort of trauma and being truthful about it…

“People do want to focus on the dogs, but there’s more to the story than that. The dogs are certainly part of it, but it’s Martin’s story; it’s Martin’s experience of the world.”

Because most of the story unfolds in Ireland, Packer felt it was important it be presented from an Irish perspective, so Slingsby worked with Dublin-based Draíocht Arts Centre to create a cross-cultural creative team. Playwright Amy Conroy, artistic director of Dublin’s HotForTheatre, was brought on board to adapt McKenna’s memoir, with Irish songwriter Lisa O’Neill writing original songs for the production and Irish actor Bryan Burroughs taking on the role of Martin.

 

Andy Packer talks to Bryan Burroughs during his hotel quarantine in Perth.

Burroughs, who was in Adelaide in 2016 with his one-man Fringe show Beowulf: The Blockbuster, initially took part in “iso-rehearsals” online during 14 days of quarantine in Perth before joining the rest of The Boy Who Talked to Dogs creative team at Slingsby’s Hall of Possibility in Parkside.

He will share the stage with musician-performers Victoria Falconer (Hot Brown Honey), Emma Luker (The Fiddle Chicks) and Quincy Grant (who also composed the Irish music score), all of whom play a range of instruments – from the bass clarinet and piano accordion, to a tin whistle and musical saw.

“Similar to a lot of our work, we use music and song almost like an aria in an opera,” Packer says. “It’s an opportunity to swim around in a concept, an emotional kind of extrapolation of what’s happening to the character before we move on with the story.”

Musician Victoria Falconer is part of the cast of The Boy Who Talked to Dogs.

Presenting – and touring – a show with a four-legged cast would have been impractical, so the dogs on McKenna’s story are represented through a combination of shadow puppetry, sound and projection.

“We’re not puppeteers, we’re image-makers,” Packer says of the shadow puppetry. “So it’s very dinky but we’ve found that the simpler the image and the more the performer invests in that image, the more the audience apply themselves to that, so it’s very simple theatre magic.”

The Thomas Edmonds Opera Studio is an ideal venue, with audience members sitting at tables and chairs and immersed in the performance.

Playing with shadows: Bryan Burroughs during rehearsals for the show.

When they first arrive, they will step into an Irish pub setting, complete with a musicians’ corner and a pub quiz at the tables. As the show unfolds, different corners of the space will open with sets representing different parts of young Martin’s life – including his childhood home and the hay barns where he sought shelter while sleeping rough.

The result, Packer says, is that those watching become almost part of his world

“It should be a really lovely festival experience for the audience, and actually that seating configuration is quite good for COVID times as well, in terms of there being a little bit more space in the room.

“Wendy Todd’s design is stunning, and because of the partnership with the State Theatre Company we’re able to be a bit bolder with the scale of it.”

Although the story of The Boy Who Talks to Dogs takes place entirely in Ireland, the play also illuminates young Martin’s inner world and sees him dreaming of being somewhere warm, like Australia, while spending nights with his dogs during the harsh Irish winters.

Today, McKenna does indeed live in much sunnier climes in Nimbin, New South Wales. He hasn’t returned to Ireland in around 30 years, but still has dogs and shares his knowledge and skills as a dog whisperer with others.

Packer says that during a visit to Slingsby’s Hall of Possibilities in 2019, McKenna spent time with the creative team – including Conroy and O’Neill, who were visiting from Ireland – and also worked his magic with one of the team member’s dogs.

“He really is remarkable with dogs.

“One of the statements that we hold onto from those two days with Martin is that Amy said, ‘Sometimes, you have to learn to be the hero of your own story’, and in many ways that’s what the piece explores.”

Slingsby and State Theatre Company of SA are presenting The Boy Who Talked to Dogs at the Thomas Edmonds Opera Studio, Adelaide Showground, from February 25 until March 14 as part of the 2021 Adelaide Festival, which opens on February 26.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.