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Shaun Tan at the Melbourne Writers Festival

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by Andrea Ashlar (subscribe)
Freelance writer/reviewer.
Event: -
My pick of The Melbourne Writers Festival 2011 is Shaun Tan's "The Arrival," underscored by Ben Walsh and his Orkestra of the Underground at The Melbourne Recital Centre. It was a unique decision by The Melbourne Writers Festival to include them on this year's bill, as this is a story that contains no words. Yet, from the moment the first note resonates and images from "The Arrival" unfold on the giant screen, it becomes clear that this is visual storytelling at its best. The writer, as Tan himself testifies, is the audience.

Tan's magical book of wordless sketches is projected, image by image, onto a canvas-like screen. The sepia-toned images, etched in browns and whites, fit perfectly into the carved wooden features of the striking Elizabeth Murdoch Hall. With each page turn, this slide show story takes shape, whilst the live soundscape emanating from The Orkestra on stage draws us deeper into the intrigue.

Courtesy of Melbourne Writers Festival Website. (Photographer: Carla Gottgens)


The Arrival" is a story about the universal experience of immigration. Tan has dedicated the book to his own migrant parents. The story is from the point-of-view of the migrant and this works brilliantly. Just as our humble hero grapples with the confusion of a new language, culture and place, we too seek to understand his story, thus becoming authors of our own narrative interpretation.

As Tan so eloquently explains to us in his introduction, immigration is a microcosm of the human experience as we all share in the unpredictability of life. This unpredictability is certainly enhanced by the ridiculously talented Ben Walsh, whose composition has us ducking and dodging at the dark images on screen, and soaring and celebrating when moments of relief light up the stage. Where Tan's images embrace the surrealism of everyday objects, so too do our ears tingle at the unusual sounds of The Orkestra, whose 10-piece ensemble make full use of their eclectic instruments, including a vacuum cleaner. Indeed, the composition is pitch perfect, striking just the right balance between guiding the story and allowing Tan's images to speak for themselves.

Courtsey of Melbourne Writers Festival website. (Photographer: Carla Gottgens)


Five years in the making, Tan's "The Arrival" is a beautifully delicate and moving story which, when so perfectly accompanied by Walsh's weird and wonderful sounds, is surely the experience of The Writers Festival. I urge you to check out Tan's work, and, if you're lucky enough, go nab a ticket to the Festival's screening of "In Conversation: Shaun Tan", along with his Oscar award-winning short film, "The Lost Thing" on at ACMI, 2.30pm on 3rd September.
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When: 25th August - 4th Sept 2011
Where: Federation Square and selected venues
Cost: varies
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