Shō And The Demons Of The Deep looks at how dreams can become nightmares

The National Theatre of Scotland’s latest family play chimes with modern concerns but this Japanese tale is one for the ages

Wouldn’t it be good if we could get rid of nightmares? That’s the idea behind Shō And The Demons Of The Deep, a children’s picture book by the Montreal author and illustrator Annouchka Gravel Galouchko.

Published in 1995 as Shō Et Les Dragons D'Eau, it’s about the inhabitants of a Japanese village who choose to throw their bad dreams into the sea. Seems like a good idea until the ocean becomes alive with scary demons. It takes a girl called Shō to redirect the creatures into the sky – inventing the kite as she does so.

Hide Ad

Zoë Bullock was given the book by her Japanese grandmother when she was six and the memory stayed with her. Now a playwright, she saw its potential to work as a theatrical metaphor for all our anxieties.

Itxaso Moreno, Christina Strachan and Rebecca Wilkie in Shō And The Demons Of The DeepItxaso Moreno, Christina Strachan and Rebecca Wilkie in Shō And The Demons Of The Deep
Itxaso Moreno, Christina Strachan and Rebecca Wilkie in Shō And The Demons Of The Deep

“Recurring nightmares are what happens when the brain is trying to work through a problem and can’t,” she says. “It keeps getting stuck. It is trying to heal you but it manifests in horrible ways.”

Working with director Shilpa T-Hyland, Bullock has been developing her adaptation for five years, beginning with nothing but the initial idea and slowly building a piece of family friendly visual theatre for the over eights. Produced by Independent Arts Projects in association with the National Theatre of Scotland, it finally sees the light of day this month.

Today, as well as our fears for the future, we have a collective nightmare to look back on: we are haunted by the pandemic. “It is an interesting moment to talk about difficult things,” says T-Hyland. “There are so many things to be anxious about and to be scared of, as adults or young people. Where do you put all of that? What happens when you keep it too close and what happens when you throw it away and ignore it?”

Much as she loves the original, Bullock has diverged from the source material. She has switched the sea for a river, for example, and jumped forward 60 years to add a parallel story about Shō’s granddaughter, Hana, who must deal with the consequences of actions taken by previous generations.

“We’ve made the story our own,” says Bullock. “The picture book is beautiful in its simplicity, but if you staged exactly what is on the page, you would have a 15-minute play. We’ve kept true to the essential soul of the story, which is about a community learning how to deal with their fears. It’s also about two little girls who have to find courage and wisdom where all those around them haven’t. All of that is in the picture book.”

Hide Ad

They have also been inspired by the book’s bold imagery and breadth of storytelling. “It’s not a traditional folk tale, but it has that storytelling feel to it,” says T-Hyland. “The epic nature of the story made us think about scale: we go miniature for epic moments and big scale for smaller moments. Zoe and I both like theatre that does something impossible and that celebrates the craft of the people making it: you can really see what the actors are doing in the moment.”

Starring a multitasking Itxaso Moreno, Christina Strachan and Rebecca Wilkie, the production seeks to find the equivalent of the book’s illustrations in its use of puppetry and movement. Designer Claire Halleran has been central to the creative process and was involved even before Bullock had written a first draft. “The staging has grown in conversation with the design,” says T-Hyland. “The way we’ve staged the show wouldn’t be possible if we hadn’t had Claire in development.”

Hide Ad

Halleran’s set is populated by familiar objects that take on a life of their own. The spirit demons, for example, are created from strips of plastic bags and are, says Bullock, at once beautiful and scary. “We have three or four puppets that become 100 different nightmares in the way they move, stretch out or are condensed,” she says. “It felt more imaginative than trying to recreate what’s in the picture book.”

Likewise, when Hana is not being played by one of the actors she appears as a soy sauce bottle. “We said we wanted to be fun and surprising,” says T-Hyland. “We created the set from ordinary objects in the hope that people will go home, raid their kitchen cupboards and make a city in their own house.”

Recycling everyday objects also chimes with our concern for the planet. In a year when polluted rivers have been repeatedly grabbing the headlines, there are obvious parallels to a story about poisoning the water. But although the environment is high on Bullock’s agenda, she has no wish to hector audiences who can make the connections for themselves.

“There’s a clear environmental theme to the show,” she says. “They throw their nightmares into the river and that comes back to bite them. The metaphor for pollution and the consequence of what we’re doing is there. But once we’d got that in our heads, it was important not to make a show that was about climate change, but just to let it exist within the story. It’s a show about dealing with our fears and anxieties as individuals and a community. Climate change is part of that but we can let people see that without needing to hammer it down their throats.”

Shō And The Demons Of The Deep, Platform, Easterhouse, 12–13 April and touring until 5 June.



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.