About a Boy: Silo Theatre's Sophie Roberts on The Book of Everything
Above: Sophie Roberts. Portrait by Vicki Leopold.
The Book of Everything is a children’s play that sounds like an Ingmar Bergman film: domestic violence, loneliness and the death of God, set against a backdrop of post-war Europe. Mary Poppins, this ain’t.
But, as director Sophie Roberts is quick to point out, the play, based on the best-selling book by Dutch author Guus Kuijer, is joyful, hilarious and sweet. And it’s not exactly a “children’s play”, either: it’s pitched at everyone from 9 to 90. “That’s why it excited me so much — I got a huge amount out of the book,” says Roberts. “I think you’ll be able to have a really sophisticated conversation with a young person after seeing it. It’s about some big topics and it deals with them in a beautiful way that’s honest and never patronising.”
Amsterdam, 1951: Thomas is growing up in a violent, ultra-religious household and seeks solace by recording his magical visions in his diary, The Book of Everything. He’s given up on God but gets advice from his imaginary friend Jesus, who — like Thomas — knows something about dealing with knotty daddy issues. Despite Jesus’ best efforts, he’s a “useless friend — in a really funny way”, according to Roberts. “And the great thing is, Thomas learns that if he wants to solve his problems, it’s about his own courage and the people in his community.”
The play is a co-production between Silo Theatre, where Roberts is the new artistic director, and the Auckland Arts Festival. The extra support has allowed Silo to work on an unusually large scale, with glorious sets by designer John Verryt and a cast that includes Rima Te Wiata, Mia Blake, Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Tim Carlsen as Jesus.
Thomas is played by Patrick Carroll, in his first professional role since graduating from Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School last year. Carroll’s a 23-year-old inhabiting the persona of a nine-year-old. Why not just use a child actor? “Having an adult in that role unlocks the theatricality of the play,” says Roberts. “We’re operating in a magical-realist world where the audience is already being asked to make a lot of leaps of imagination, something that children are really good at.”
It’s a big year for Silo Theatre, the first Roberts has programmed since taking over from Shane Bosher last year. Next up is the definitely-not-for-kids Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, then The Events, by the writer of Midsummer, which Silo staged in 2013. Focusing on a parish shattered by a devastating atrocity, the play will feature 22 different choirs from around Auckland, each on stage for one night only.
And then there’s Hudson & Halls Live, an immersive theatre experience in which you’re part of the live studio audience for the New Zealand culinary legends’ first, disastrous television appearance in the 70s. “We’ve talked to a lot of Peter and David’s friends, and they’re all happy that their story is being told in such a celebratory way,” says Roberts. “And it’s a really wonderful love story too.”
The Book of Everything: Q Rangatira, until March 22. aucklandfestival.co.nz