Bugs get to play

• An illustration from Shaun Tan’s 2018 picture book Cicada.

I WONDER if Goldman Sachs employees felt like the insect protagonist in Cicada when they were recently ordered to return to the office full-time after working from home during the pandemic.

Cicada, a picture book by Perth oscar-winner Shaun Tan, follows a depressed insect who works in a grey cubicle in a grey soulless corporate office, where he is unappreciated and disliked.

A searing satire on the mundanity of the nine-to-five, it draws on Kafka’s Metamorphosis and has exquisite illustrations with  drab claustrophobic colours. 

Now the award-winning Cicada has been adapted into a play by Barking Gecko, premiering at the WA State Theatre next Saturday (July 9).

Tan says he didn’t hover over artistic director Luke Kerridge like a worried mum on the first day of school, instead letting him develop his own vision for the play.

“I’m far more interested in how different an adaptation is from the original work, rather than how similar,” Tan says.

“What matters are the emotional truths of a work, not so much how they look or play out, and these can be expressed in many ways.

“… I would also dread to think that other creators are hamstrung by that notion, are worried at all about what the author would think.  When creating a book, I myself try out countless different versions, different styles, characters, storylines, and any of them could work pretty well. It’s often a shame to have to pick just one. 

“And then exciting to see somebody else pick another. I then get to see a new story, a new vision from the privileged position of the audience.”


Kerridge says Tan showed him early draft sketches for the Cicada book, which have been expanded into new scenes for the play.

“These sketches provided us with some brilliant and inspiring new scenes, and it is exciting to think some of Shaun’s ideas will now live on in another form,” Kerridge says.

As part of the creative process, the play has been workshopped with children in community workshops across WA, and will go on a regional tour after its run at the state theatre in Perth.

Tan was originally inspired to write Cicada in 2005 after he spotted a sole bright red flower in the window of a towering grey office block with hundreds of grey windows in Berlin.

He also drew on his friends’ and his father’s experiences of corporate life, which were mixed with many feeling unappreciated.

The last piece of the creative jigsaw was Tan staying in Melbourne and finding on his garden fence the empty casings of the cicada insect, which “spend up to 17 years underground before emerging all at once, overwhelming their predators, then mating and dying in a brief glorious period.”

This is reflected in the story, where the protagonist dreams of escape and keeps his secrets hidden for years, until one day something extraordinary happens…

With more and more people now working from home, the Voice asked Tan if the audience would now sympathise with the main character rather than empathise with him?

“To be honest, I rarely think about how other readers might interpret a story when creating it, only because I’m too busy trying to do that myself, just trying to make it work coherently on the page,” Tan says.

“But I did sometimes picture a parent possibly reading Cicada to a child at bedtime, and saying ‘You know, mummy/daddy actually works in a place a bit like this.’ and the child then saying ‘Why?’ And the parent then asking themselves the very same question.

“Picture books can actually be a very effective way of reaching an unsuspecting reader, to slip a profound critique of adult life under the ‘bedtime story’ radar. 

And I’ve always enjoyed moral questions that kids find easy to answer, but their parents (myself included) tend to struggle with.”

Cicada is suitable for all the family and is showing at Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre, from July 9-16 with an encore showing on July 30. 

Tix at tickets.ptt.wa.gov.au/overview/cicada-ptt-stc


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