Dr Buller's Birds

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

25/02/2006 - 18/03/2006

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Production Details

Written & directed by Nick Blake


After sketching the likeness of this defenseless chick, I sacrificed his little life on the altar of science and made a pretty little cabinet specimen of the skin.”Dr Walter Buller

A vivid account of the clashes between Emoire and Nature in the 19th century. Dr Buller’s Birds unfolds on terh shores of Lake Papaitonga as two old friends meet to close some weighty business.

Peter Hambleton
Rawiri Paratene

Set design by Nick Blake and Martyn Roberts, also the lighting designer
Soundscape by Matthew Lambourne
Projections designed by Andrew Brettell

Rocks and greens by Weta Workshop
Huia created by Izzat Design

Theatre ,

1 hr 30 mins, no interval

Passion of lecture in full flight

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 30th Mar 2006

THE foundation of this work – played out in front of and in Nick Blake and Martyn Roberts’ amazing setting of a Victorian museum diorama depicting Lake Papaitonga – is a meeting between two old friends and antagonists, Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, a Maori chieftain who fought with the British Army in the Land Wars, and Walter Buller, lawyer, magistrate, taxidermist and world-renowned ornithologist.

However much passion, sensitivity and integrity the two first-rate actors, Peter Hambleton and Rawiri Paratene, give to the protagonists, there is little drama, which is compounded when part of a key scene is played in silhouette behind the diorama when it should have been eyeball to eyeball.

Chief Te Rangihiwinui can only lament the rape of the land and fear the end of the Maori race, and Dr Buller can only have his beliefs in scientific progress, the British Empire and the survival of the fittest confirmed. Though the old Maori sees the slaughter of yet another huia as an act of desecration, Dr Buller sees it as an act of devotion. The only tension in the play is whether the chief will give him the title to the land.

What takes one’s breath away is the use of technology to illustrate the lecture, which begins with a beautiful dawn chorus that rises to a climax in which we hear fearful, foreboding cries. Throughout, the sound effects by Matthew Lambourn are astonishing. I was convinced birds were loose in the ceiling above the stage. The sounds that accompany the dissection of a huia, also shown in close-up, are enough to make everyone subscribe to the SPCA.

Equally astonishing is the use of film and video. Andrew Brettell’s work combines beauty and terror: the beauty of the birds in flight and in close-up, and the terror of man’s devastation. Dr Buller’s nightmare of being trapped in a bell jar with birds is as frightening as anything conjured by Alfred Hitchcock, and the merging of the doctor with a hawk is the most succinct and frightening image of the survival of the fittest.

Dr Buller wants the title to the land surrounding the lake and he uses his friendship with the chief, who is in debt to him for unpaid legal work, to acquire it. What follows is a brilliantly illustrated lecture on how, in Chief Te Rangihiwinui’s words in the play, the living cloak has been ripped off the body of the earth.


Make a comment

He killed what he loved

Review by Lynn Freeman 30th Mar 2006

Dr Buller’s Birds is a home-grown play that’s been years in the development for writer/director Nick Blake and actors Peter Hambleton and the late Wi Kuki Kaa. Walter Buller was a paradox, loving the very native birds he killed, stuffed and sold in their hundreds, for money and for glory. Every inch the Victorian gentleman, his life long friend was the Maori Warrior Te Keepa Rangihiwinui, himself also a paradoxical figure as a selling rather than preserver of his people’s lands. Blake imagines one night when these two old men reminisce and argue, threaten and care for each other. Buller’s utter belief in Darwin’s "survival of the fittest" has him accept the death of native bird species and of Maori as regrettable but natural, inevitable.

Peter Hambleton captures both the pomposity of Buller the Victorian and the scientist, and the affectionate old friend, and Rawiri Paratene invests Te Keepa with both majesty and frailty. The script, while poetically written and clearly well researched, is surprisingly lacking in actual drama and drags in places until the engrossing last half hour. The excellent set is designed as a museum diorama and the production looks and sounds utterly amazing, notably Andrew Brettell’s jaw-dropping projections (raging seas, scores of doves, rows of Bullers trapped in bell jars) all enriched by Matthew Lambourn’s luscious and enveloping soundscape.


Make a comment

Museum theatre

Review by John Smythe 29th Mar 2006

On entering the Circa auditorium we are led through an environment suggesting the storeroom of a museum’s natural history archive, New Zealand section. In the theatre-proper, a large canvas tarpaulin is slung to cover the set. The substantial programme tells us, among many other things, that Dr Buller’s Birds depicts an imaginary meeting between two old friends on the night of 14 April 1898.

Darkness. Birdsong that builds to a deafening cacophony and ends with a clap of thunder. An old Maori man is discerned in the gloom with something that glints across his lap. He secretes it away in a blanket and goes. Lights-up reveals a diorama-like museum display replicating, in this case, Lake Papaitonga with a small Maori storehouse (pataka) in the distant mid-ground. To the side, in the foreground, the corner of a very Victorian conservatory is visible (set design by Nick Blake, also the writer director, and Martyn Roberts, also the lighting designer, with rocks and greens by Weta Workshop).

It is in front of this museum display that Walter Buller (Peter Hambleton) arrives to name and classify his environment then methodically lay out his instruments. Of taxidermy. A captive specimen of a dying species – the huia (created by Izzat Design) – will become a focal point for the play’s dissertation on the scientific practice of killing things to ensure they live on in history.

The play proceeds to lay out information about Buller’s work, his Darwinian – ‘survival of the fittest’ – rationale and the wider ramifications of European colonisation, using Roberts’ lights, Matthew Lambourne’s soundscape and projections designed by Andrew Brettell to extraordinary theatrical effect. A nightmare sequence in which Buller is encased first by birds then in multiple bell-jars is fabulous.

The Maori perspective emerges through Te Keepa Rangihiwinui (Rawiri Paratene), also known as Major Kemp, who straddles both worlds. A high-born rangatira, he gave heroic service to the colonial forces during the land wars – not for land but for utu. The glinting object glimpsed in the prelude turns out to be a ceremonial sword given to him by Queen Victoria. He has also attempted to use his position as a Native Land Court assessor to rectify losses suffered by his tribe, when he was a child, at the hands of Te Raparaha, and the resulting court, parliamentary and Royal Commission hearings have taken their toll. (The programme notes are invaluable in filling out this story.)

Now at death’s door, racked by consumptive coughs, Te Keepa is still able to respond intuitively to the insults and challenges Dr Buller continues to inflict on his mana, on tikanga Maori, on Maoritanga, in his sublime ignorance-rooted arrogance. Some moments of confrontation are electrifying. But because Dr Buller was his lawyer and fees remain unpaid, there is no way out when it comes to signing over lake-side land. And what will Walter do with it? His dream is to replicate an English-style estate, complete with mansion.

Paratene and Hambleton give rich, wit-enhanced renditions of their characters and create a powerfully ambivalent relationship that captures the very complexities we wrestle with today. They ensure the play’s key points are made clearly. The clearing of land for farming, and the felling of timber for building and trade, were done with no understanding that native birds would therefore starve to death. The stoat – introduced – symbolises the predatory destructiveness of the colonisers: ‘It kills all the natives, takes all the land.’

A different cacophony ends the play, accompanied by flashing images of urban and suburban progress. In the welcome silence, from the past just evoked and imagined, a huia calls … So far so marvellous. And yet …

Despite all this wondrously committed theatricality, something is missing, some essence of life force, of mauri. In production, Dr Buller’s Birds remains objectified, like a museum display. An invisible wall stops the story touching us. There is no point of access for empathy, no way we can share the experience rather than just observe it.

In interviews Nick Blake has acknowledged the challenge of making Dr Buller less than repugnant. But anti-heroes have an honoured place in theatre. His blinkered passion makes him compelling. So does our awareness that our lives today remain steeped in his values. But while his utter inability to change his entrenched standpoint is salutary, it robs his story of theatrical structure. It’s Te Keepa Rangihiwinui’s journey to this point that offers more twists, turns and attendant dilemmas for the audience to share. If this is a work in progress, it may be worth considering that.

[Footnote: Earlier this year Robert (The Dragon’s Trilogy) Le Page was in town. At a press conference he revealed that although he and his team use theatrical technology as part of their intuitively-driven development process, they always pause to take stock at strategic moments, asking the key writer questions: Is there enough at stake to make the story worth telling? What will make the audience care? Have we ensured the audience will be able to share our journey? These are values too often ignored by those who seek to emulate his work.]


John Smythe March 2nd, 2006

Fair enough, Martyn. It was not just the technology but also - and more especially - the long and meticulous setting-up for taxidermy sequence (redolent of clearing the space and setting the table in The Telescope) that made me think Le Page may well be an influence here. Love your work too - and nothing I've said is intended to detract from its inestimable value to the live theatre environment and beyond (as in your waterfront brewery installation).

martyn roberts March 1st, 2006

John as you know I have a great respect for your work as a critical reviewer for an industry bereft of debate (so it seems that way), and I wouldn't dare to infringe on your comments on Bullers Birds other than to say your opinion is yours and worthy of sparking debate for us who have put it on. However I must pull you up on something that bugs the hell out of me. In your footnote you hail the experience of Robert Le Page as a cautionary note for 'those who seek to emulate his work'. By that I assume not only the cast and crew of Buller's Birds but any blasted joe blow who dares to make use of the projectors and soundscapes in their works, as if Robert Le Page has some unattainable and exclusive genius hold on this technology. Please don't raise the Le Page flag every time you see this technology here as if we in the theatre industry are all in awe of the man and are wannabes in our endless attempts 'emulate' his company. Lets move on from thinking this, and lets have reviewers move on too from comparisons that are condescending. I Love your work John Martyn Roberts

John February 28th, 2006

Thank you George. Points noted. It's always good to know my reviews have value to those beyond the immediate consumer belt.

George Webby February 27th, 2006

Your reviews are fabulous, and for a country type, as I am now, they are quite thirst quenching. I am appalled that NBR has ditched you, although i ditched them some years ago after subscribing for far too many years. I do hope that you are taken up buy some magazine or other, we so desperately need considered reviews that are something more than a canned notion of what it is all about, or s is Laurie's case, a huge synopsis of what it is all about then a gratuitous comment about the production - and if it is a Circa one, unstinting praise. May I suggest something? Running time would be a useful postscript. George Webby

Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council