A Monster Calls


A Monster Calls is a play based on the novel by Patrick Ness. It talks about how a 13 years old boy Conor went through from avoiding the truth his mum is dying from cancer to finally have the courage to let her go. Through out the story, there is an ancient walking yew tree come visit Conor in the midnight to tell three tales, and ask him to tell the truth in return. The yew tree may act like a nightmare in the beginning, but the stories he told Conor was actually a process of healing Conor, to release his innermost emotions and finally able to face the his real nightmare, the truth of his mother dying and have to let go.

The Ancient Yew Tree

The play began with Conor’s mum 13 years ago introducing a yew tree in their garden: “…It’s a yew tree. And it’s very, very old. Look how big it is…And how small you are! You and I will never grow as old as the tree, Conor. It’s ancient.”

During the first appearance of the yew tree in Scene 7, A Monster Calls, he introduced himself  “I’m the ancient yew tree! And I have as many names as there are years to time itself! I am the Herne the Hunter! I am the eternal Green Man!…I am everything untamed and untameable! I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O’ Malley.”

In the book ‘Landscape and Memory’, Simon Schama said,

“The truly heroic historians of the drama are trees. Their great antiquity gives them an authority that spans the generations of Polish history, and they shelter within their woodland recesses the values that keep Lithuania- an idea as much as a place – alive.”

The Living and The Dead, George Shaw

Trees are the witnesses of what happened in the forest. There were many historical wars happened in the forest. In George Shaw’s exhibition ‘My Back to Nature’, the works are absence with human, but with the leftover of human within the landscape. He is depicting the activities of human through painting landscape.

Simon Schama also wrote in his book,

Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock. …once a certain idea of landscape, a myth, a vision, establishes itself in an actual place, it has a peculiar way of muddling categories, of making metaphors more real than their referents; of becoming, in fact, part of the scenery.”

It seems unavoidable that everything we see in this world, always project on our retina as the echo of our past, our culture, our thoughts, ourselves.

Yew Tree, Healer and Death

Yew tree is also a healing tree. In the play, Conor’s mum was using a drug made from yew tree. In another aspect, Conor’s pain of his mum’s death was also healed by the yew tree. It is interesting that all parts of yew tree is actually poisonous to human, but its highly poisonous taxane alkaloids that have been developed as anti-cancer drugs. Yew is always associated with death and otherworld. It is used as symbols of immortality, but also seen as omens of doom. It was suggested that yew trees were planted on the graves of plague victims to protect and purify the dead.

Inspiration from the Set Design

The yew tree plays a very important role in this play. The play use the ropes as the main props to create most scene of yew tree’s movement, but also some daily scene like the seatbelt and steering wheel. With the video projection, it creates a powerful effect to depict the yew tree’s anger, power or clamminess.

a-monster-calls (1).jpg

According to the Designer Michael Vale’s note, the design aimed to ‘allow the tree to “grow” naturally on-stage and change shape and position with the help of guiding, visible, human hands. In this way the tree becomes as physical and real as Conor himself, neither a metaphysical entity nor part of some “fairy tale”, while the proposed open space and limited props invite the audience to add their own imagination to the scenes…’

This makes me think about my paintings, the reason why I want to pursue the drawing quality from the sketch to the painting. It was all about the open space to allow audience bring in their imagination and as a bridge between them and the works.

Further Reading:

A Monster Calls at the Old Vic

Independent theatre reviews

Yew (Taxus baccata), Woodland Trust

Excerpt from books:

Simon Schama- Landscape and Memory

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