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The Earthquake in Chile
based on Heinrich von Kleistís short story
directed by Peter Falkenberg
The Free Theatre in collaboration with Richard Gough, Richard Till and A Different Light

at St Maryís Anglican Church, Addington, Christchurch
From 13 Oct 2011 to 16 Oct 2011
[1hr 50min, incl. meal break]

Reviewed by Lindsay Clark, 14 Oct 2011

A sure way to engage the immediate and serious attention of a Christchurch audience is to fabricate one of those rumbling, shuddering things, even when we know it's a fabrication and temporary and part of a story. This production however – presented in and around St Mary's Anglican Church in Addington – has had us riveted from the start. 

Fleshed out from a famous short story written a couple of centuries ago by Heinrich von Kleist, the richly theatrical collaboration incorporates a wealth of styles and effects, moving from splendid ritual to cheerful bonhomie in market place and café, then back to vicious cruelty, expanding creatively on the bones of the original.

An astonishingly complex piece, it takes in the whole church and its grounds, involving an array of tents as well as a mobile kitchen and an outdoor cafe set up around the four sides of the belfry. Fittingly indeed, since this bell tower memorial to Richard John Seddon cites that great man's humanity and it is a plea for humanity which is at the heart of the evening. 

For a start, all is mellow and pleasantly solemn as we form the congregation in the old church.  A procession of scarlet robes and steepled hoods becomes the choir invoking that tingling feeling on the edge of fear, but soothed by their glorious Kyrie. The reading and sermon confirm our suspicion that we are part of a fiercely moralistic, judgemental society.  

It is no surprise, then, when righteous wrath is heaped on a Madonna-like figure, the nun of Von Kleist's story, who has borne a child to a clandestine lover. Her execution and his are about to fall when the great earthquake of 1647 strikes and we are very glad to be guided out into the quiet evening of the churchyard, where the followers of San Precario, (the company of A Different Light, wearing traffic cones and vests) is ready to guide us to the hot soup, the stalls and the next stop. Not before we have been allocated a tent to explore, though. Mine is a Mayan experience, and culminates in a lusciously sensual chocolate truffle. 

Then it is on to the café, and a shared meal, where we take on board obedience to the imperious bosses controlling the delivery of our food baskets and learn the pain and pleasure of working in unison to retrieve them. Amid the banter and the chuckles a moral is emerging. 

On to the long tent (50 metres at a guess) where, seated at a narrow plank table, we undertake to feed jelly to the person opposite, record our own memories of food after That Shaky Experience and toast absent friends as well as the future. We are glowing with camaraderie and good will as we return to the church for vino santo and biscotti. 

There the candle light now seems mellow. It has only been a play. There are the actors robing up in full sight. There is thanksgiving and thanks to spare. We are in control of our world. The veiled nun with child arrives to offer thanks and wham! Unreasoning violence strikes again. We sit subdued by the warning that hearts and minds can respond so shallowly to life's lessons. 

All credit is due to the creative team and the detail built so generously into a remarkable enterprise. It is theatre embracing the old and the new, namely us and our times. As such it deserves attention as much as applause.   
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