Ex_isle of Strangers
15/04/2010 - 18/04/2010
Ex_isle of Strangers
A work-in-progress presentation on Mâtiu Somes Island
April 15- 18, 2010
The New Pacific Theatre Collective is an ensemble of theatre practitioners, musicians and designers – under the artistic guidance of Bert van Dijk. We are investigating an approach to performance training & practice that is reflective of the unique geographic, cultural and spiritual qualities of Aotearoa / New Zealand – drawing inspiration from Contemporary European performance principles, Japanese Noh theatre and the Whare Tapere [pre-European Mâori performing arts].
As a nation of islands and islanders, we share the experience of having left a Homeland, venturing on a journey over sea [by boat or plane], and arriving at a new territory – to be delighted, surprised and challenged by the ‘unknown’.
It is fitting to give our first public presentation the theatrical structure of such a journey by situating it on Mâtiu Somes Island – a place of remarkable geographic, cultural and spiritual attributes.
The work we are presenting is a ‘work-in-progress’ and it is important at this stage to invite feedback and initial responses to our investigations and creations from a selected audience.
To cover the cost of chartering a ferry and offering a light refreshment on the island, the ticket price for Ex_isle of Strangers is set at: $30 adults / $25 unwaged / $20 children.
For pragmatic reasons we are limiting the audience to 50 people per performance – therefore, if you wish to attend this unique event, you need to purchase your ticket ASAP.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org with a first and second choice of performance dates, the number of tickets required, and your contact details.
The audience is asked to gather at Queens Wharf – 15 min. prior to ferry departure:
April 15 & 16: Ferry departs at 1PM / returns app. at 4:45PM
April 17 & 18: Ferry departs at 1:15PM / returns app. at 4:45PM
Please note that the performance involves walking to various locations on the island and requires a certain degree of mobility.
Jasmine Toynbee, Charles Royal, Rawiri Hindle, Pam Hughes, Belinda Davis, Robin Owen, Bert van Dijk [Composer]
Madeline McNamara [Spirit of Mâtiu]; Will Moffatt [Ghost of Kim Lee]; Whetu Silver [Ranger]; Moko Smith [Jin Cao Lee]
We acknowledge the Tangata Whenua of Matiu Island - Te Atiawa [as represented by the Wellington Tenth Trust] and the Department of Conservation – particularly the island rangers Jo Greenman and Matt Sidaway – for their invaluable support.
The New Pacific Theatre Collective
Healing the hurts of history
Review by John Smythe 18th Apr 2010
Although Ex_isle of Strangers is billed as a work in progress, the New Pacific Theatre Collective – director Bert van Dijk – specifically requests feedback from all audience members as “a vital part of the overall process.” Envelopes with feedback forms are distributed at each performance and public discussion is also invited via comments to this review.
Described as “the point of departure” for the work, Matiu Somes Island is where we arrive, via East West Ferry, to engage with the outcome of their devised theatre process. Spanning three and a half hours from leaving and returning to Queens Wharf, it treats us to a range of site-specific evocations of the island’s history expressed in forms inspired by the Michael Chekhov Technique, Te Whare Tapere (pre-European Maori performing arts) and Japanese Noh theatre, with Butoh also present in one sequence.
A very young group of Japanese drummers (none of whom are Japanese) greets us at the island wharf with a striking display of their skill. Although it has nothing to do with the history of the island, it does help to establish the theme of strangers and strangeness.
We split into two groups. One watches a French Impressaario (Te Kaahurangi Maioha) put a trio of performing dogs (Madeline McNamara, Will Moffatt, Whetu Silver) through their paces: some very impressive dogginess here.
The other group enters the Whare Kiore (visitor shelter) to be inducted into the rules of the island by the (genuine) Duty Ranger then welcomed by a high camp gaggle of a crown-bedecked Queen (Rawiri Hindle), bustle-frocked Ladies (Belinda Davies, Pam Hughes) and Kit Kat Boys (Moko Smith, Simon Haren, Jacob Ennis, Tristan Stibbards) singing a modified version of ‘’Willkommen’ from Cabaret (“Willkommen, haere mai, welcome”). Then we swap.
I’m not aware that performing dogs or gay cabaret are ex this isle either but if the objective is to abstract a melange of Crown control, quarantined animals and German ‘aliens’ in a context of fear of Japanese invasion (not mentioned in the programme but during WWII much military infrastructure around Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington Harbour was based on that premise), I suppose that too could be intellectually extrapolated.
A pleasant stroll up the hill – the Collective has been blessed with clear sunny weather following a brief southerly squall earlier in the week – brings us to a point overlooking the small Mokopuna Island, famed for the isolation of Kim Lee. Only if you have read the 12-page programme on the ferry, or know your local history well, will you know at this point that he was a Chinese fruiterer from Newtown suspected of having leprosy, who died in miserable exile in 1904.
Indeed this story inspires the ‘Kim Lee Noh Play’ that will end the programme later and it will still be necessary to know the essential background, as the play assumes we have that prior knowledge. In our case audience members exchange bits of information as we stroll on up towards the quarantine station, which may or may not be accurate.
En route, amid the native greenery on the path, we encounter a Maori woman (Stephanie Tibble) and her Son (Paihere Aperahama), in European clothes and tied to a tree. They are the prisoners of a tattooed Warrior (Rania Aperahama), adorned in piupiu skirts and wielding a taiaha. A purerehua (bull roarer) and koauau (bone flute) haunt the air (musician Alistair Fraser). The Woman sings beautifully, the Warrior’s heart is won and he frees his prisoners.
Again, only if you have read the story in the programme will you understand this evokes an 1820s incident in which Tâmairangi and her children, prisoners of the invading Ngâti Mutunga, were freed into the protection of Te Rangihaeata when he – while visiting the Ngâti Mutunga – heard her sing her waiata of farewell to her lands and people. Except in this re-enactment the would-be-assassin and the liberator are one and the same.
At the summit the beautiful, natural and peaceful environment gives way to ugly, functional government buildings. We are split into three groups to be led, by white-coated clipboard-clutching guides, through the Quarantine Centre.
Peggy the Administrator (McNamara) – blonde wigged, flouncy-bloused, mini-skirted and high-heeled – is stressed out by our ‘open day’ visitation as she neurotically fossicks in her drawers for the animal husbandry manual, shares a passage on arousal and develops an intimate relationship with her institutional-green wall while finding herself unable to look through the window at the view. Despite having access to a phone, even the staff, it seems, feel isolated and go stir-crazy.
A melancholy cello (Rosie Moxey) expresses unspeakable sadness … Down a passageway one wall is lined with pale green lockers from which hands and naked arms reach, grasping at air. A motif is emerging – we’ve seen it with the dogs at the fence, Peggy at her desk and now these faceless prisoners: hands opening, closing, scratching at surfaces … Shoes and clothes are tossed out, naked legs emerge, the men appear clad only in ties and underpants.
Interestingly they don’t present as downtrodden victims but open-faced, wide-eyes, eager to please, even as a red-nosed and rubber-gloved health inspector probes ears, noses and throats, and they are led to foot-troughs and hosed down. The faint strains of ‘Willkommen’ are reprised on a harmonium. These, then, are the wartime alien internees.
In a shed of livestock pens, red-nosed ‘animals’ epitomise isolation. The concrete and pipes are redolent of Auschwitz imagery. The person in charge also has a red nose. I’m not sure about the arbitrary use of red clown noses here (nor before with the health inspector) as the characterisations are not clownishly distilled, nor do they work as ‘windows to the soul’. They just seem stuck on to me.
Hindle delivers a robust recitation of a poem about a dog that loses its bark then gets it back (unattributed in the programme but my companion thinks it’s by James K Baxter – one of his Bow Wow poems, to which Sam Hunt responded, or was it ine of Sam’s?). Beautifully haunting choral harmonies, sung a cappella, carry us to a furnace in which a lifeless body lies. Its hand, placed on a harmonium keyboard, remains inert.
In another room, trapped in a pen, a white body-painted woman in a white frock on which we glimpse fragments of text (I think this is Butoh exponent Miki Seifert). Slowly she finds the capacity to fly free only to find herself in a room that traps her just as much. The bits of text I happen to discern – “it is as good as gymnastics I assure you” and “We in the corner over where it has not been touched” – add no further meaning to this sequence for me.
Fresh fruit and juice refreshments are offered in a run-down recreation hall. Many of us escape out to the sun and light, albeit on concreted ground enclosed by rusting wire fences.
And so to the final act, in the cleaned-up Barracks hut: the Kim Lee Noh Play (playwright Bert van Dijk). A Dutch writer /director uses a traditional Japanese performance mode to tell the story of a Hong Kong Chinese man’s quest to discover the fate of his mother’s mainland Chinese father who emigrated to Wellington. Is this using a sculptor’s chisel to paint in oils; wearing ballet pumps to tap-dance; playing a piano concerto on a clarinet? Whatever, it is mesmerising.
The musicians play traditional instruments, a Chorus intones the narration and actors play out the drama. A man – Jin Cao Lee (Moko Smith) – washes at the water’s edge and is swept in a swirling tide to Mokopuna Island. In apparent affirmation of the old Chinese proverb, “There are certain things in life we cannot predict”, fate has taken him – inevitably? – to the very place his grandfather met his doom.
According to the extremely codified language and the symbolic gestures and movements of Noh theatre, masked and gowned characters play out their roles. Madeline McNamara is the majestic Spirit of Matiu. On Matiu, a Ranger (Whetu Silver) hears Jin Cao’s cries for help, comes to his aid and tells him the story of the shipwrecked fisherman who sheltered in the small island’s cave and encountered the ghost of a Chinaman: Kim Lee.
The Ghost of Kim Lee (Will Moffatt) arises in vengeful mode (the masks by Luke Devery are superb). On this isle of exile, its long history punctuated by paranoia and cruelty before it became a Department of Conservation sanctuary, the urge towards bitterness and revenge vies with the quest for peace and reconciliation.
“During the devising process,” van Dijk writes in his programme note, “we were struck by the enormous amount of suffering that took place on Matiu Soames Island and we felt a strong urge to bring love and spiritual nourishment to the island – perhaps in an effort to restore some of the imbalances that had occurred … ‘Reaching out’, in order to overcome separateness, loneliness and isolation began to emerge as one of the leading motives in our work.”
Hence there is a therapeutic tone to the resolution, with the play allowing the island to speak its stories to itself – through the agency of the New Pacific Theatre Collective – in order to free itself of the hurt. An interesting notion of how efficacious theatre can be.
The overall feeling, as we walk back down to the ferry after further refreshments and chat with the company and each other, is of time well spent to absorb, through various means, the story of this ex-isle of strangers and to share in the sense of healing.
In retrospect I feel bound to note that this mode of working seems to deny the inclusion of hard facts and historical material that may, for example, characterise the policy-makers and their rationalisations for using the island this way. If we haven’t read and retained the programme notes, the rationale for some of what is being performed remains secret from the audience, leaving us either bemused by its obscurity or connected only to superficial performative elements rather than engaged more deeply by its content, and therefore more fully appreciative of the means of expression.
That said, Ex_isle of Strangers offers a memorable experience that somehow slips in through pores we don’t normally open to these sorts of inputs.
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer