The figure of the fox has stalked the popular imagination for centuries.
Smart and cunning, the fox is the trickster in fables dating back to Aesop. The fox appeared in the literature of the Middle Ages in France and spread throughout Europe. Scheming foxes appeared in stories collected by the Brothers Grimm. There are foxy types in the folk tales of Russia and Japan.
In Australia, where the fox is a comparatively recent addition to the landscape, not so much. But that’s about to change …
In Rita Kalnejais’ new play First Love is the Revolution, a young fox named Rdeca (played by Sarah Meacham) and Sebastian, a 14-year-old boy (Bardiya McKinnon) fall in love.
And if love can blossom between a boy and a fox, then what else is possible, says Lee Lewis, who is directing the play’s Australian premiere at Griffin Theatre Company.
“It’s a fable, a love fable, but Rita is putting forward the idea that first love is actually a revolution in thinking. The play is actually about having faith that human beings are able to overcome the hugest of barriers.
“A story about a fox and a boy is Rita talking about the big things, about how some of the biggest conflicts in the world are between people who don’t think they can overcome their differences and be together.”
Sebastian (Basti to his mum) and Rdeca might be different species but they share the travails of being a teenager. Basti is copping it from the bullies at school and his mum is having mental health issues. Rdeca is being pushed into her first kill but doesn’t feel at all ready to sink her teeth into a hapless mole.
“Sebastian decides he has to catch and kill a fox,” Lewis explains. “He’s read on the Internet somewhere how to skin a fox and he thinks that if he can give his mother a fox stole, she’ll be happier and be able to come home.
“He catches the fox, but cannot bring himself to kill it. Instead, he falls in love with it.”
An actor-turned playwright (her play Babyteeth debuted at Belvoir in 2012), Kalnejais wrote the play in the months after moving from Sydney to the United Kingdom.
Suddenly she felt herself foxed by British-English.
“Though we were speaking the same words (more or less), the intention behind them, the rhythm, what filled the pauses, the reason for speaking in the first place, seemed to me to be completely different,” admits Kalnejais in her program note for the show. “English-English felt like a second language. If I’m honest, that’s why I wrote a play with talking animals – it was the only practical thing to do, seeing as I didn’t yet feel qualified to write a whole cast of humans.”
Doing so, says Lewis, freed Kalnejais to write something uniquely enchanting. “It’s almost as if an Australian had tackled The Wind in the Willows,” she says.
Making his Griffin debut, actor Bardiya McKinnon is getting in touch with his inner 14-year-old and loving it.
“It’s been really interesting to try to find that vulnerability, again,” he says. “It’s a strange place we were all in at that age. It’s an age in which you are almost born again, I think. Everything seems really new.
“It’s been great, actually, just going into the rehearsal with your eyes and mind completely open to everything. Switching off that adult part of my brain has been great – I just hope it’s effective.”
For fellow Griffin debutante Sarah Meacham, part of the rehearsal process has been about imagining and embodying the worldview of a young predator.
“I’m playing Rdeca at that point where she’s learning all the survival tools. Looking at it from a human perspective it would be that time when you are trying to work out how to move away from home, how to find a place to rent, how to be autonomous in your decisions and feed yourself.
“Then you have to filter that through the mentality of a fox. There’s an immediacy to the world, a sense of danger. It’s not just being cunning, it’s more about quick thinking, anticipating …”
Working alongside Rebecca Massey, Matthew Whittet, Amy Hack and Guy Simon, McKinnon and Meacham have had their initial impressions of the play turned on their head.
“If you had asked me in week one of rehearsals what the play was, I would have said it was a bizarre little comedy,” McKinnon says. “But it’s developed so many more layers. It’s way more epic than I thought it would be. Like a Grimm fairytale meets rom-com. It’s Red Riding Hood meets Notting Hill!”
Meacham suggests the audience buy the script and dig a little deeper.
“I really hope people buy the script and read it,” she says. “The writing in this play is remarkable and a lot of it are things you don’t see on the stage. The way Rita writes scene changes and stage directions … it’s just beautiful. She paints so much detail for her actors.”
First Love is the Revolution plays at SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, until December 14.
A captioned performance is scheduled for December 3.