In Flora and the Baron, the team at Bowerbird Theatre tell the tale of Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, eccentric outsider, global scientific powerhouse and the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria’s first director. That’s in Melbourne.
Or, rather, the baron tells the tale himself.
Flora and the Baron is one of the shortlisted pieces in the Sound Walk September Awards 2021.
Here, Karen Berger and David Joseph, who are Bowerbird theatre, and were commissioned by the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (RBGV) to create an audio tour, reflect on their work.
If you invest in a story, you want to hear about interesting people, right?
David first heard about Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller whilst studying landscape design. What an intriguing figure he seemed. The first director of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, a 19th century international scientific powerhouse, heartbroken lover, exuberant explorer, spiritually-focussed environmentalist and deposed monarch of his botanical domain.
He was a complex character, situated at the birth of one of the Empire’s greatest achievements, Marvellous Melbourne!
Mueller embodied the colonising project, ‘naming’ over 2000 Australian native plants and representing science as a dominating European ideology. But he was also an ardent advocate for the protection of the great forests of Australia, a vocal environmentalist a century before the word existed.
For Mueller there was a spiritual presence in nature, strongly felt on many of his explorations around the country. There was also his very public fall from grace as director of the gardens, and his subsequent decline into depression.
Whilst still working as the state’s chief botanist, he was housed just metres from his beloved gardens, but never, for the rest of his life, did he set foot into his creation again. His love-life was full of dramas; his hypochondria meant that he never left the house without a thick muffler wrapped around his neck; his heavily German-accented English was peppered with strange, invented words. He was a great character on which to base a site-specific, theatrical storytelling experience.
In interesting places, yeah?
What a site to tell a story. The RBGV, Melbourne Gardens, is a living green treasure in the middle of a modern bustling city and, like many of the great botanic gardens of the world, it provides community with an important connection to nature, sorely needed in the context of the current climate emergency.
The gardens boast some of the oldest native and exotic trees in the city, beautifully clustered beds of global botanic jewels, glimmering lakes, glistening rainforest gullies, contemporary cactus environs and interactive children’s gardens. It’s a place that brings abundant joy to all! It also houses the State Botanical Collection in the herbarium, an internationally significant repository of over 1.5 million specimens, with the largest collection of type materials in the southern hemisphere.
The State Herbarium library holds a vast collection of Mueller’s letters, and it was here that we worked with Mueller historian, Sara Maroske, to research the man and his times, to collect verbatim material for the script and to generally be inspired by it all.
In an interesting way, obviously!
The audio walk/tour form was new to us. We’re theatre makers and musicians, and so it was exciting to explore a new medium for narrative journeying – literally. How do you manage site, sound, character, music, sight, space, time, history, story, sign and meaning all through someone’s ears? As theatre artists we understand how to craft a journey through narrative, and as makers of site-specific works we understand the vital nexus between place and performance, but it was a whole new deal to not be present with the audience – to have only performers in your head, so to speak.
Our theatrical premise was to imagine Mueller returning to the gardens as a spirit, visiting again for the first time since his dismissal 150 years ago. And it was only because the listener was present with him that he could muster the courage to return. It placed the audience centrally and created a companionable relationship with our main character.
We were also delighted to be able to include a poem by Bruce Pascoe, which is permanently displayed in the gardens as part of an earlier commission by Red Room Poetry. Pascoe cites Mueller as a flag bearer for colonisation (he introduced the pernicious weed, the blackberry, into Australia) and so it was apt to include the poem, and then imagine Mueller’s response to it.
And of course, the whole kerfuffle that is involved in guiding a person through a complex, living, activated environment, whilst telling a relatively involved narrative and hopefully not getting them lost was challenging, but ultimately rewarding. We were lucky to work with our dear friend, and one of Melbourne’s great actors, Brian Lipson, who played the part of the Baron, and who, in 2003 directed and co-wrote a contemporary opera about Mueller.
So, here was the synergy that artists love to work with.
We enjoyed this sonic adventure so much that we’re keen to do it again. The growth in technology that has facilitated this form and placed it as a worldwide phenomenon makes it even more enticing. The global pandemic has added to the difficulty that artists face in securing work, and so adding another string to our bow makes sense. Our micro-company, Bowerbird Theatre, is in current parlance, pivoting. We hope you enjoy our narrative audio walk, wherever you’re listening in.
Karen and David’s article is the third in a series of the artists shortlisted for the Sound Walk September 2021 Awards talking about their work.