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It’s early morning at the North Pole. A beat-up van trundles across the horizon, blaring a Paul Simon song to drown out the howling winds. The van slides to a stop and three reporters tentatively step onto the ice only to find themselves facing a giant polar bear.

Remarkably, the evocative Arctic long shots, van, reporters, bears – even the ice – are all the product of ingeniously devised theatre and puppetry, co-ordinated by just three performers.

It’s a scene from Dimanche, the celebrated tragicomic climate change theatre piece from Belgium, and a co-creation of the Focus puppet company and Chaliwaté physical theatre company.

Dimanche uses humour to tackle the existential threat of climate change.Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

Behind the magic, it’s an intense piece to perform, says co-creator Sandrine Heyraud.

“We don’t stop at any moment, we’re always changing scenes,” she says. “We pass from manipulating props to manipulating puppets to acting.”

Heyraud maintains a disciplined regime of Pilates, yoga, and muscle training to prepare. She has also learned puppetry – specifically animal puppetry.

“We spent all this time looking at videos of the animals in question,” she says. “How they were moving – to be able to reproduce that on stage.”

Animal puppetry is a feature of the performance.Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

Dimanche is named for the French word for Sunday, the day on which the play is set, and to evoke the day set aside for rest and family.

Created in 2016, it emerged from frustration about the lack of government and industry response to climate change.

“The scientists were alarmed and had been talking about it for such a long time. But we felt we didn’t have any response,” says Heyraud.

So Heyraud and her co-creators, puppeteer Julie Tenret and physical theatre artist Sicaire Durieux, fell back on their own artistic tools to respond: theatre and stagecraft.

Inspired by silent film actors such as Buster Keaton, she and Durieux had graduated from the famous Parisian mime academies founded by Marcel Marceau and Jacques Lecoq.

“We didn’t try to take a statistician’s approach or a scientific approach. Our tools … are puppetry, object theatre, physical theatre. And that allows for a very cinematographic [experience] in Dimanche – we can play on different levels and scales with close-ups and long shots that say a lot about a little nest of humans facing nature and facing our own contradictions.”

In 2016, producers were initially hesitant. Heyraud remembers they were “quite scared of how we were going to talk about [climate change].”

Dimanche’s first iteration quickly dispelled doubts. It won an award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and global touring invitations swiftly followed. Dimanche has been on tour almost continuously since, and after its Sydney season will go on to Europe, Korea, Taiwan, and Canada.

Heyraud thinks the piece is popular because audiences relate to the topic. She believes it has even more relevance now than in 2016.

“We came to Australia in 2020 for the Adelaide Festival, just after the big fires there. So the response was very strong. People were so concerned, it really struck a chord … And also in Belgium, there were big floods two years ago. When we performed in the region where the floods happened, people were even more sensitive to the subject.”

She pauses reflectively. “We hope it inspires humour and tenderness by the fact it celebrates community, because everywhere we see these people trying, together.”

Any criticism has focused on whether the show’s humour is appropriate for such a serious topic. Because Dimanche is – quite simply – funny. The three Arctic reporters, for instance, hilariously try to share a drink in their jolting van. In another scene, a family on a hot day turns up the fans as their furniture literally melts around them.

Heyraud says humour, in the physical theatre tradition, “brings another perspective”.

“Charlie Chaplin said that life can be a tragedy when it’s seen in close up, and a comedy in a long shot. And that’s something, of course, we worked on with object theatre. We loved Chaplin’s work and how he used humour to speak about the human condition. Humour brings another perspective – a distance that is necessary to see how tragic the situation is, and show how small we are facing nature.”

Dimanche is at the Sydney Opera House Playhouse, October 12 to 21.

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