Matiu-Somes Island-meet at Queens Wharf, Wellington

03/02/2011 - 19/02/2011

NZ Fringe Festival 2011

Production Details

Bard Productions, the innovative theatre troupe that brought you Frogs Under the Waterfront in 2009, is back in action with a theatrical adventure taking place on Somes Island. 

This February the New Zealand Fringe Festival plays host to an historical horror on Somes Island—bringing to life the eerie stories of the human quarantines of the late 1800’s. 

Suspected to have contracted severely communicable diseases, the audience will be taken from Wellington City to the island on a chartered ferry, at dusk. Subjected to the archaic medical practices of a forgotten past and locked away in a disused convalescence chamber until they are fit to return to civilization, the audience will come face to face with the supernatural stories of this mysterious Island…and will be lucky to escape with their lives. 

Written by Luke Hawker, award-winning screen-writer;
Directed by Paul Stephanus; composed by James Dunlop;
Supported by Sir Richard Taylor with Creature and make up effects by his award winning Weta Workshop team;
Performed by a cast of five outstanding Wellington actors in a disused human quarantine barracks usually off-limits to the public, Quarantine is guaranteed to be the theatrical adventure of a lifetime.

Seven performances on three consecutive weekends in February: 3-5; 11, 12; 18, 19.
Starting at the East by West Ferry terminal on the Wellington Waterfront at 8:35 PM.
Ferry leaves at 8:40 sharp. (
You may expect to return to Queen’s Wharf by 11.25.)

Audience members should remember to wear sturdy shoes for a five-minute walk up a hill to the island venue. 

Tickets are limited, so book as soon as possible through Downstage Theatre (see below). 

Don’t miss out on this unique opportunity to come into contact with the dark history in your own backyard.

Feb. 3-5, 11, 12, 18, 19
Tickets $30 / Fringe Addict $28
Tickets available from Downstage Theatre
ph: 04 801 6946; email: bookings@downstage.co.nz ; 
website: www.downstage.co.nz

Mike Ness: Actor (Douglas)
Scott Ransom: Actor (Horace)
Phoebe Smith: Actress (Glenora)
Wilbur McDougall: Actor (Ned)
Emma Smith: Actress (Luna)

Julia Truscott: Production Manager
Amalia Calder: Assistant Producer
Helle Rosenberg: Costume Design / Construction
Ruth: Costume Design / Construction
James Dunlop: Sound Design
Hayley Marlow: Makeup
Marcus Mcshane: Lighting Design
Giles McNeil
Ferry Set Design
Greg TozerMask Design/Construction
Toby RosenbergPhotographer
Sebastian Sommer: German Coach 

Grim Diagnosis for Island-set Quarantine

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 07th Feb 2011

Matiu/Somes Island has attracted theatrical attention before now. Last year’s Ex-isle of Strangers was performed there and a short and curious period of the island’s history was explored when Eulogy was presented at Downstage in 1998. This was concerned with four aliens held there in 1940: two Samoan Nazis and two Germans, one a Jewish doctor, the other a businessman.

And now Quarantine, a play that links the tormented ghosts of the island’s past with the moral, physical, political, environmental and economic problems of the contemporary world.

On the ferry trip over to the island the Quarantine audience was in an excited, cheerful mood, despite two masked guards inspecting us for diseases, posters all round the cabin with dire warnings about contagion, and depressing music playing in the background.

Surprisingly, the mood didn’t change when we were herded into a hut, fumigated, and addressed in German by a sinister masked doctor out of some horror movie. With this brief image reminiscent of Auschwitz over, we were ordered to walk in single file up a steep bush track to a large, rundown hall. Eventually, the adventurous mood of the audience started to wane as we filed past a table with bloody surgeons’ knives and stained bandages and into our seats.

Then the play started. What we saw might be called The Trials and Tribulations of diseased 19th Century British immigrants as performed by the ghostly Inmates of the Quarantine facility provided by the Ministry of Health on Somes Island under the direction of the epileptic Dr. Buchner.

The audience was gripped for some time as the five ghostly victims of measles, scarlet fever, smallpox, DTs, and typhoid acted out their stories in short scenes which were given titles such as Mouths to Feed and Useless Baggage. They didn’t set sail for New Zealand until Act Two and by this time the audience’s attention had started to wander, or at least mine had.

Occasionally the inmates started to break out of character and refused to perform but they were always persuaded, sometimes by force, back into role by each other or by the doctor. At the end these tormented souls realised that their play will continue when the next ship arrives and that the quarantine has failed and that there is no escape from the sicknesses of the modern world such as consumerism and capitalism.

The cast, with horrific evidence when in close-up of the diseases in their bodies, perform with commendable dedication but they were unable to overcome the earnestness and grimness of the script, the alienating direction, and – surprisingly – the island setting itself. There was always the long journey back to town late at night on the ferry to think about.
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The realities of long-gone lives seen as metaphors for ours

Review by John Smythe 05th Feb 2011

Although no-one is an island entire unto themselves, some are doomed to live in isolation. Despite the dreams of new beginnings that brought them to New Zealand in the late 1800s, some were quarantined, on an island in a harbour within an island in an ocean, as far from ‘home’ as it was possible to be in the known physical world.

Quarantine is the third (at least) piece of Wellington theatre to be inspired by Matiu / Somes Island in the past 13 years.

Ten months ago Ex-isle of Strangers, directed by Bert van Dijk, treated us to a range of site-specific evocations of the island’s history, from pre-colonisation to wartime incarceration. In Fringe 1998, at Downstage, a group called Prague Lost Tribe staged Eulogy (devised by Oscar Kightley, Dave Fane, Peter Daube and Matt Chamberlain with director Andrew Foster), billed as a “black comedy telling the bizarre, stranger-than-fiction tale of the diverse group imprisoned on Somes Island during World War II.”

Now playwright Luke Hawker and director /producer Paul Stephanus (who brought us Frogs Under the Waterfront in Fringe 2009) immerse us in “the eerie stories of the human quarantines of the late 1800s.”

As we board the East by West ferry at Queens Wharf, an anti-contamination suited official hands us papers: a modern-looking memo advising us we are carriers of highly infectious diseases and therefore must be quarantined; a facsimile page about Long Journeys and Lasting Wakes, a play we are to witness, and the players therein … En-route he and a colleague check our hands. Modern signage reinforces the parlous state we are in.

In the arrival hut we are further ‘enroled’ through decontamination-by-hazer and a welcome from a German doctor, heavily masked by bandages in the style of The Invisible Man. Thence, amid thrilling birdsong, the uphill trudge through native bush to the dimly-lit Quarantine Station, wherein five inmates cower. It is here we ‘fresh’ internees witness what may well be subtitled Long Journeys and Lasting Wakes as performed by the inmates of the Quarantine Station at Somes Island under the direction of Dr Max Buchner, in the traverse.

Unlike The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (a.k.a. Marat-Sade), these inmates tell their own stories, unmasked when it is theirs, donning modern surgical masks when playing bit-parts in each other’s stories. Other modern touches bridge the 120+ year gap, like the McDonalds packaging ground into the dirt in one character’s ‘possie’.

Despite a grotesquely suppurating eye (blinded by measles), Glenora Hastings makes grand efforts to exhume key moments of her wealthy past and its diminution thanks to her dodgy husband’s propensity for dubious investments. Phoebe Smith inhabits the role with alacrity and clarity.  

Although debilitated by scarlet fever, it is psychological trauma that turns out to afflict Luna Gold more. Emma Smith’s immersion in the role can get frustratingly private at times (be they whispered or gabbled, the less audible spoken words are, the more we want to hear them) but the final revelation is powerful.

Paid by the NZ government to come out and hasten our economic progress and civilisation, smallpox-smitten Horace Braithwaite is aghast at what he has come to. Scott Ransom brings a resonant air of thwarted privilege to the role.

According to the notes, delirium tremens (which I do not think is contagious) has relegated Irish farm worker Ned Mcnolty to the island. William McDougall oscillates well between submissive and aggressive, insular and overt.

A victim in the industrial revolution, Douglas Cooper – a cooper – lost his wife and child on the voyage out and contracted typhoid. Mike Ness epitomises the good solid working man whose class inevitably keeps him back.

Between them these characters generate glimpses of archetypical states of being all generations can recognise: Why me? Why them? That all I am / dreamed of / worked for should come to this! Does ‘the real world’ even know we exist, let alone care? The Doctor knows – and will solve – everything …

For anyone wanting a historical documentary, the ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ means of delivery (Stephanus references Antonin Artaud in his programme note) will probably fall short of the topic’s apparent potential. This production aims to connect us with something more primal, honest and true within ourselves (to quote a Wikipedia take on Artaud).

On the factual level, the total absence of any reference whatever to Maori is a serious shortcoming. Certainly these immigrants never made it to the mainland so never encountered Maori face-to-face, but Horace Braithwaite would surely have been cognisant of ‘the native problem’ in his quest for ‘civilising progress’ and others could well have had relatives serving in the British regiments or otherwise affected by the land wars, etc. Just a couple of glimpses of colonial ignorance and/or arrogance would make all the difference.

As it stands, however, Quarantine does an excellent job of deconstructing what drives us and prodding the nerve-ends destined to be reawakened in election year, not least as we seek the ideal pivot points between self and community, individual and state, personal responsibility and blind faith – from which, we are reminded in conclusion, there is no escape.

In what often feels like being caught in surging eddies of turgid emotion, the realities of these long-gone inmates’ lives become metaphors for ours. That has to be a good thing.

And on this second night, returning to Queens Wharf at 11.30pm to be absorbed into the post-Sevens partying of outrageously dressed-up citizens added a whole new perspective on what we prioritise and what we choose to forget.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.  


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