The Hunting of the Snark

BATS Theatre, Wellington

31/07/2007 - 04/08/2007

BATS Theatre, Wellington

08/05/2007 - 12/05/2007

NZ International Comedy Festival 2007-09, 2013

Production Details

Based on the poem by Lewis Carroll
Devised by the Playground Collective
Directed by Robin Kerr and Eli Kent

This fast paced, surreal devised show is loosely based on Lewis Carroll’s famous nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark. A crew of absurd characters arrive on a strange island, hunting for an undefined… thing: ‘The Snark’. A series of bizarre encounters and adventures follow throughout their quest.
They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway share.;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.

Drawing influence from companies such as the UK’s Kneehigh Theatre, which uses moments of verse contrasted with vast adaptation of the original text, the poem revolves around the nature of nonsense and the way people need to search for meaning. Whilst many interpreters of the poem have tried to construct their own meaning from the disparate strands of story, this performance argues that the ‘Snark’ is indefinable and represents the search for meaning itself. Lewis Carroll himself has no interpretation, and this production will stimulate debate and pose questions around the interpretation of ‘The Snark’.

The Playground Collective has been set up to provide the next stepping stone for young actors, designers, and musicians who have been through the Young and Hungry festival at BATS theatre – or something like it – but are still just as hungry as ever. The aim is to produce theatre that has viability over concept, and is artistically experimental yet accessible. Directors Robin Kerr and Eli Kent have both just returned from teaching Drama to students at The New International School of Thailand. Robin has just completed studying as a member of The Year Out Drama Company in the United Kingdom, and performed in their production of The Tempest at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Join the Bellman, the Baker, the Butcher, the Beaver, and the rest of their alliterative comrades, as they explore a world void of common sense in their wayward search for the ‘Snark’.

Gertrude Chataway . . Phyllisophia JasonSmith
Butcher . . . . . . . . . . . . Robin Kerr
Bellman . . . . . . . . . . .  Eli Kent / Jake Preval
Banker . . . . . . . . . . . .  Miriam Clark
Barrister . . . . . . . . . . . Hayden Frost
Billiard . . . . . . . . . . . .  Uther Dean
Bonnets . . . . . . . . . . . . Georgina Titheridge
Baker . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Max Hardy
Boots / Beaver . . . . . . . Oliver Cox
Musician . . . . . . . . . . .  Patrick Wahtman

Producer . . . . . . . . . . . Eleanor Bishop
Assistant Producer . . . Fiona McNamara
Stage Manager . . . . . . Andrew Simpson         
Lighting . . . . . . . . . . . Thomas O'Brien
Puppet Maker . . . . . . . Kirsty Baxter & Eli Kent 
Costume & Make up . . Fiona McNamara with Kathleen Kerr
Dramaturg . . . . . . . . . Kerryn Palmer
Photography . . . . . . . . Karin Reinholt

Theatre ,

1 hr

Entertaining trip to nonsense land

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 06th Aug 2007

Devised and performed by The Playground Collective, and first seen at the New Zealand International Comedy Festival earlier this year, The Hunting of the Snark is back for a short season of lunacy. It is loosely connected to Lewis Carroll’s famous nonsense poem and including a funny banana-eating Vietnam vet indicates how loosely.

The Collective, a group of ex-Young and Hungry performers, make no pretence of finding hidden meanings in the poem. They declare in the programme that they have taken the nonsense at the core of the poem and portrayed it in the same vein as Lewis Carroll wrote it: racy, raw, imaginative, mysterious, fun and surreal.

It is all played out with great verve and a theatrical inventiveness that encompasses a lively song and dance number as well as some superbly appropriate blazing-eyed puppets of the Jubjub and the Jabberwocky by Eli Kent and Kirsty Baker.

And at one point we are even surprised and moved by an unexpected scene full of emotional impact when the Baker describes how he will softly and suddenly vanish away ( a "notion I cannot endure!") when the Snark is found.

It is all a minor tour de force from such a young company but there is one thing that every member must take note of: voice projection and clear speech. Far too many words and lines were lost through gabbling, lack of projection, and poor timing.


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Filled with promise and a few surprises

Review by Lynn Freeman 17th May 2007

Bats has three comedy shows on per night, some stand up and some, like The Hunting of the Snark, drama with a comedic bent.  This is by a still young ex-Young and Hungry group of practitioners wanting to do their own thing. 

They take Lewis Carroll’s tale, throw in a rather disturbingly dark Alice in Wonderland and other Carroll characters and situations to make things even crazier, and create something all their own. 

But they don’t lose the emotional richness of Carroll’s work, especially when the poor Baker describes in such shattering detail the story of his imminent death when the Snark is found – it’s the best moment in a production filled with promise and a few surprises. 

That includes most of the puppetry creatures which are astoundingly and eerily good.

[Note: This is taken from a composite Comedy Fest Wrap review.- ed]


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Intelligent and creative interpretation of a gem

Review by Melody Nixon 12th May 2007

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.

Gertrude Chataway performs these gloriously elusive lines from Lewis Carroll’s poem The Hunting of the Snark over and over throughout the show of the same name, now on at BATS. Their nonsensical yet somehow very authentic narration forms the background of this new piece of devised theatre by Playground Collective. The show has a few minor fumbles but generally and convincingly brings us a piece of hilarious, flippantly absurd comedy.

Chataway, played by the intriguingly named Phyllisophia JasonSmith, is an unnerving Alice in Wonderland figure, replete with cute blue dress. She comments on and subtly guides the actions of nine wacky characters who have come to ‘her’ island in search of a mystical thing: the toe tapping, fork hunted Snark.

Playground Collective presents the search for the Snark as a search for life meaning; and as each of the characters delve into the undergrowth of the island that meaning is shown to be both indefinable and highly individual. For the Butcher (Robin Kerr) and the Beaver (Oliver Cox) it unexpectedly equals l’amour. For greedy Banker (Miriam Clark) it is a revelation of a true and ugly nature. Billiard Boy (Uther Dean) gets his ‘cue’ at the right moment and rises above his minor character status, and Parisian drag queen Bonnet (Georgina Titheridge) finds solace in the unreal. Sadly the Baker sees, too late, that his Snark is the “Boojum” of which he was warned. And rational Barrister (Hayden Frost) finds a disturbing absence of meaning in his own surreal court scene, again reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll has asserted there is not one definition of the ‘Snark’; its meaning becomes literally whatever the reader imagines it to be. This in itself is a grand statement on subjectivity, and things existing ‘just because’.

Oliver Cox as Boots, a psychologically damaged Vietnam vet, gives an alternately touching and hilarious performance. The soliloquy in which he consumes a banana at emotional climax point, eyes watering and mouth gnashing, is a moment of delicate hilarity. Max Hardy as the Baker also manages to build emotional tension and maintain the audience’s close attention in his monologue on the dread of the Snark, spiraling up through the audience, his face and manner open and charismatic.

As the captainy Bellman, Eli Kent detracts from an otherwise enthusing performance by shouting a little too much. Though difficult to convey urgency and rage with a steady tone, Kent could assist the audience to feel much more relaxed during his tracts of dialogue. This said, his morose response upon loosing the thing which has brought his life meaning – his own Snark, perhaps – is genuine and affecting.

The play’s most striking design aspect is the wieldy puppets by Kirsty Baxter that function as the Jabberwocky, Bandersnatch, JubJub bird. The striped two person Bandersnatch, played by Titheridge and Kent, invokes a visceral and haunting response. The Jabberwocky also is stimulatingly creative invention, comprised of bone, red lights and pipe. Other props are well used; the papier-mâchéd shopping trolley a central part of scenes of physical comedy; and the use of suitcases draws on a traditional symbolism of journeying, luggage and identity. The set design of what seem to be pages of the poem, plastered to the wall, is a little uninspiring but all up the production does extremely well for what must be a relatively constricting budget.

The play ends abruptly, and while the final revelation of the Snark’s form is a fittingly tragic-comic ending, it could be teased out a bit more to allow the audience to make closer emotional contact with what is unfolding, and to ensure the irony of Baker’s fate is not lost.

All up however, this is a thoroughly enjoyable piece, enhanced by Playground Collective’s intelligent and creative interpretation of a well chosen gem of absurdity.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


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Fresh creative energy

Review by John Smythe 09th May 2007

When asked if The Hunting of the Snark embodied an allegory, a hidden moral or political satire, Lewis Carroll’s answer was always, "I don’t know." He might also have deflected reflectively by paraphrasing his Humpty Dumpty’s riposte from Alice Through The Looking Glass: "It means whatever you choose it to mean – nothing more, nothing less."

"The ‘Snark’ is indefinable and represents the search for meaning itself," the Playground Collective declares, cleverly pulling focus from the uniquely human compulsion that has driven countless attempts to interpret the work since it was published in 1876. Their show, they add, is "loosely based on Lewis Carroll’s famous nonsense poem."

Carroll’s characters and story structure remain intact, his whimsical and beautifully crafted words do feature from time to time, and aspects are added that largely extend the quest. For example, Boots – the one character (apart from the Snark) not illustrated in the original edition – is emphatically fleshed out by Oliver Cox as a US Army Vietnam Vet, grossing out on sentiment in the wake of the carnage he has helped to cause, while eating a banana.

Not that scholarship is ignored. The book’s dedication to Gertrude Chataway – Charles (‘Lewis Carroll’) Dodgson’s most important child friend after Alice Liddell – and the theory that the sad clown-like Baker character represents the author himself, precipitates a splendid device: it is Gertrude who drives this telling of the tale.

The opening tableau of apparently lifeless and shipwrecked characters, strewn about a stage adorned with strips of ink-splattered newspapers and bits of luggage, suggests a rougher ‘Landing’ than Carroll describes (where the Bellman ‘landed his crew with care / Supporting each man on the top of the tide / By a finger entwined in his hair.") This is the sight that greets Gertrude, played with innocent self-possession by Phyllisophia JasonSmith, and a multi-tweed-jacketed, bowler-hatted, middle-aged, melancholic man: Dodgson himself. Their close, trusting friendship is instantly clear without a word being uttered.

When she prevails on him to play out her favourite story once more – and the castaway characters leap into life: "Just the place for a Snark!" – Dodgson takes the role of the Baker and Gertrude introduces each ‘Fit’ (there are 8), repeating in wondrous anticipation:
They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.

Max Hardy brings great pathos to the Dodgson/Baker role. In ‘Fit the Third: The Baker’s Tale’ he relishes the opportunity to speak Carroll’s text untrammelled and – as directed by Robin Kerr and Eli Kent (credited as such in a media release but not in the programme) – marks the crucial moment when, as a "beamish nephew", he heeded his uncle’s warning to beware of the day,

"If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
  You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
  And never be met with again!"

Later, in ‘Fit the sixth: The Barrister’s Dream’ – a surreal court room scene in which everyone wears stockings over their faces – Hardy flips to an impressive aggressive energy as the defender of a pig charged with deserting his sty, bewildering Hayden Frost’s pin-striped Barrister who, in his waking persona, has been an impeccably-played insufferable snob.

The look of Eli Kent’s Bellman, the gruff expedition leader, may owe something to Tintin’s friend Captain Haddock. Kent barks his commands, dismisses storytelling puffery and propels the meaningless progress with great energy and style, marred only by a tendency to talk too fast, given his articulation is hampered by placing his voice too far back in his throat. (He’s not the only one, which leads me to wonder if this talented, spirited and clearly dedicated troupe includes vocal exercises and warm-ups in its process. Would any of them play any other rigorous sport without ensuring they were match fit and well warmed up for each game?)

Robin Kerr is clear and concise as the straw boatered Butcher, posing a moral dilemma when he reveals he is only able to kill beavers, given there is only one Beaver (Oliver Cox again) on board. I defy anyone to argue that Carroll meant nothing by sending them off down separate but converging tacks then uniting them forever in a teacher-pupil bond. The mathematical equation that leads them to LOVE is ingeniously distilled and touchingly performed in this adaptation.

Miriam Clark’s slick, big-spending Banker also pulls off a cautionary tale – not present in the original poem – by dismissing the lower class Billiard Marker (perfectly pitched by Uther Dean) in the quest for riches, only to find the treasure chest empty and her very survival, threatened by the savagely snapping Bandersnatch, to be entirely dependent on the BM’s goodwill.

Kirsty Baxter’s amazing articulated and bright eye-wired puppets – the Jubjub, Jabberwocky and child, and Bandersnatch – are creations worthy of any International Festival of the Arts. Given the constraints required at BATS when sharing the space with another production, the production values – including Thomas O’Brien’s dynamic lighting design, which adds much throughout to the texture, mood and dramatic light and shade – are well placed and managed.

Georgina Thitheridge completes this excellent ensemble cast as a vampish Bonnet Maker and Patrick Watman provides music throughout, stepping forward to evoke Bob Dylan, presumably as the man who brought deeper levels of meaning, if sometimes obscure, to 1960s pop.

Although I would have liked to hear the Baker’s "laughter and glee" at thinking he’d found the Snark, before he calls back to his friends, "It’s a Boo-", the bright white light that he vanishes into is has a powerful dramatic effect. My only suggestion here would be to delay the final blackout until just before the final two words – "you see" – for fear that the earlier timing could inspire the audience to applaud before the punchline is delivered.

The Playground Collective was formed to "to provide the next stepping stone for young actors, designers, and musicians who have been through the Young and Hungry festival at BATS theatre – or something like it [e.g. summer Shakespeare] – but are still just as hungry as ever."

Despite the extra stresses of ‘devising’ this adaptation and its production by idealistic egalitarian principles, The Hunting of the Snark is a splendid debut production that bites at the heels of more established ensembles with its fresh creative energy. It certainly deserves a return season.


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