Te Whaea - Basement Theatre, 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wellington

04/02/2015 - 07/02/2015

Production Details

Provocative new theatrical performance The Island explores questions of bizarreness, dehumanisation, and power

The Island, a new work directed by Jane Yonge, opens at Te Whaea the National Dance and Drama Centre on 4 February 2015 for a short season of eight shows over four days.

The Island is about genetic research carried out by Dr Tom Norman, a fictional modern-day character who shares his name with the famous manager of human freak shows in England at the turn of the twentieth century. It uses this as an entry point to explore contemporary questions of dehumanisation, otherness, bizarreness, the uncanny, and the human desire to understand and control nature through science.

“When we were developing the show we thought about what kinds of things might be in a modern-day House of Horror,” Jane says, “The Island is supposed to be a bit unsettling for the audience. There’s a strand of freak show running through the work. But The Island is also about the place of science in our society – measuring things, finding answers, making things better and more efficient – and whether that comes at a human cost.”

The work was devised by Jane and the cast and crew, over a period of several months.

“I originally wanted to take an existing script and direct it, because I’m most comfortable working within that kind of theatre-making” says Jane, “but the more we thought as a group about what we wanted the show to be like, we couldn’t find an existing script that did what we wanted to do. We looked at other texts that we could adapt, and in a way we have taken elements of H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, but what we’ve ended up with is unique. Where Doctor Moreau is about creating humans from animals, The Island is the opposite – creating animals from humans. They’re both set on islands though – there’s something mysterious about the isolation of islands, and from a genetic viewpoint they’re great places to study evolution. I also think New Zealanders have their own understandings of what it means to be on an island.”

The Island is a promenade piece, meaning the audience doesn’t sit down and watch but instead is physically led through the performance. It takes place in a number of different rooms.

“I’m not very interested in the conventional style of audience participation where one audience member is pulled up on to the stage and interacted with as part of the performance. That doesn’t happen in The Island. Instead, I wanted the audience to experience the performance like they would experience a guided tour – to be immersed in it, but still as an audience and not really a part of the show, more active than just sitting still and watching. With just 15 people in the audience at each performance, hopefully it has a bit of a tour-group or exhibition-showing feel to it.” 

Jane is completing a Master of Theatre Arts in Directing at Victoria University and Toi Whakaari the National Drama School. The Island is her final piece of work for this degree, equivalent to a thesis, following smaller-scale productions over the previous two years.

Wednesday 4th – Saturday 7th of February 2015
6:30pm & 8.30pm (two shows every night)
The Basement Theatre, Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School
Te Whaea: National Dance & Drama Centre, 11 Hutchison Road, Newtown, Wellington
Tickets: $18 waged, $10 unwaged

Tickets available at or phone 381 9251

Running time: approximately 50 minutes


Jonathan Power
Keagan Fransch
Michelle Ny
Michele Fontana
Te Aihe Butler
Ariadne Baltazar
Kalisha Wasasala
Matt Loveranes

Performance Design: Poppy Serano
Lighting Design: Rowan McShane
Sound Design: Te Aihe Butler
Costume Design & Construction: Georgia Pope
Production Manager & Stage Manager: Charlotte Pommier
Production Assistant: Hannah Wilson


Creative skills could deliver more potent satire

Review by John Smythe 05th Feb 2015

On a day when debate rages in the UK on the ethics of genetically modifying babies and Don Brash resurfaces to regurgitate his warped views on race relations and our socio-economic priorities, the themes of The Island prove to be as topical as ever.

Its premise is an inversion of H G Wells’ 1896 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau. The dastardly secret experiments of the self-exiled vivisectionist, Doctor Moreau, in the idyllic but remote South Seas, involve creating humans from animals. This Island, however, is New Zealand and Dr Tom Norman – named for the entrepreneur who exhibited ‘The Elephant Man’ around London in the 1880s – is given to turning humans into efficient working animals.  

The Te Whaea basement has been transformed into a scientific facility . The flyer we get on arrival welcomes us to Island Corporation and invites us “to view the work we do to achieve our vision: superiority through science, liberty through labour.”

Because “immigrants and minority races are preventing New Zealand from achieving its potential,” the question being addressed through science is, “How can we make useless people useful?”

The corporation logo on the reception counter is redolent of a computer game monster with a hammer and sickle embedded: make of that what you will. We have assembled to be taken on a guided tour of the facility. But first a Research Assistant (Keagan Carr Franch, born in Zimbabwe) attempts to escape and is chased down by another (Michele Fontana), who turns out to be in charge of a squad of pig-snouted Swine Workers. His gibberish orders have an Italian flavour. So despite being part of the “plague of migrants”, the Assistants are useful enough to be given a bit of authority.

As our host, Dr Tom Norman, Jonathan Power acts like mad – like, really mad – which rather spoon-feeds us with the message and dilutes its satirical impact. How much more chilling might his commentary, ethics and propaganda be if his manner was more akin to, say, Dr Don Brash? While strongly comedic, the test subjects are more grounded in truth and therefore more effective.

Being lumbered with “fatty fatty boom boom DNA”, Mr Falatai (Sonny Tupu) is in the process of being modified. His happy-go-lucky trust in the system makes his fate all the more poignant.

Stuck in a flowerpot, an exotic Indian woman with multiple skills and vocations (Swati Bhatt) is undergoing treatment to stop her smelling of curry and all the attendant spices. Her innocent trust also compels our empathy. 

In an aquarium, a Thai woman (Michelle Ny) has become a singing Mermaid. Her promise to be the compliant domestic goddess and sex-slave wife any rich white man may wish to marry, despite her he insistence she’s “very shy”, is truly tragic and her flipside is wonderfully dramatic, if finally futile.

The Swine Workers – Te Aihe Butler, Ariadne Baltazar, Kalisha Wasasala and Matt Loveranes – do stirling work as the menials. My guess is that Bulter (also the Sound Designer) is responsible for the astonishingly powerful, if (intentionally) incomprehensible, anthems they sing.

Georgia Pope’s costume designs are excellent and to the point. Performance Designers and Chief Creative Officers Poppy Serano and Ivo Deliyski, abetted by lighting designer Rowan McShane, have created well-appointed areas for each experiment.

As a company-devised production, directed by Jane Yonge (her major production for Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School / Victoria University Master of Theatre Arts (MTA) Directing course), The Island benefits greatly from having a strong purpose to drive it and give it cohesion. It is very performance-led, however, and the concept could benefit from the character complexities, dynamic plot twists and thematic interrogation a playwright might bring to it.

As it stands, the outcomes of the experiments become repetitive and the twist at the end, which I won’t give away, is so speedily achieved it seems glib. Given the attitudes and arguments embedded in the play are in constant circulation, I find myself wanting the arguments to be more compelling and the satirical shafts to be more potent.

The promenade style works well enough; we alternate between being seated and on our feet over the 50 minutes. But it is arguably much less ‘immersive’, in the way it engages our hearts and minds, than presenting the experiments in a more conventional auditorium might be. Paying concentrated attention is in no way passive.

It has to be added that having to limit each audience (two per night) to 15 when there are 10 actors and three crew, let alone five designers and the director, in the total ‘co-op’, renders the exercise highly profligate in professional terms. The question arises as to how this equates with equipping graduates to work in the actual profession, which I assume is a major objective here. 

On the other hand, given you are unlikely to see such extravagance in the ‘real’ world, here’s your chance. There is much creative skill to be witnessed.


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