Festival Fugues: Week 1
Well, ‘fugues’ turned out to be a prescient word choice. My first attempt at finding The Woman Who Forgot, before the show even began, was a little awkward. This show relies on mystery, so we didn't have much information preshow except to download an app, bring headphones and meet at the Wellington Railway Station.
When I spotted a man prominently loitering near the entrance wearing huge headphones and casually displaying a lanyard, I knew I was in the right place.
Me: Hi - are you the Woman Who Forgot?
Him (confused expression): Eh?
He flips over his lanyard and I read: Tranz Metro: Staff. Embarrassed, I slink into the station to see a huge NZ Festival flag with people swarming around it wearing NZ festival T-shirts. OK. So it wasn’t as secret as I thought.
This is the first time that local company Storybox, which specialises in technology-mediated events, has done promenade theatre. I’m fascinated by this form as there are so many ways to do it – Storybox has gone for a smartphone app, with a ‘digital guide’ leading groups of up to eight around the city while feeding us story clues via bluetooth connection. We – there were five in our group – are all Elizabeth Snow, who wakes up one morning on a bus with no idea of who she is. Through a prerecorded track, interactions with actors, and a visual display delivered through our phone, we, as Elizabeth, searches for her identity while walking through the CBD and several indoor locations.
As with all shows which rely on technology, there were teething issues which were quickly troubleshot by the guide. I found it hard to get used to the voice of Elizabeth Snow in my head, and the ‘mental telepathy’ the actors used to communicate with us was an interesting device, as was the need for interacting with five of us as if we were one person. I think all these factors made it difficult for me to get fully lost in the story. However, it was a well developed narrative and the actors were all very good. As one of my co-Elizabeths said, it was ‘a show for those who don’t usually go to shows’.
No Man’s Land by John Psathas took us on a journey of entirely different dimensions. Travelling through space and time, the synchronised visual projection, concert quality sound and live musicians on stage showcased the intricacy of what has clearly been a very long collaboration, spanning continents and involving 150 musicians from over 20 countries. The overarching concept was (I think) to fill the spaces of war with music, and in so doing heal the scars of the past. Most of the major religions, languages, music styles and ‘families’ of instruments were represented.
It was an ambitious project gorgeously realised – a gentle conflation of emotion that at times reached rock-opera intensity, and at others dwindled to an almost-silent contemplation of the past. Not so much a celebration of war as a creative erasure of it. And in filling No Man’s Land with the joint voices of its inheritors, it became everyone’s.
Speaking of rock operas, Dead Dog in a Suitcase was the highlight of my first week at the Festival. A recrafting of John Gay’s 18th-Century masterpiece The Beggar’s Opera, English company Kneehigh have brought the past into the present. Although the characters of Macheath, Polly Peachum, Lockit and others are preserved, the plot receives a major overhaul and there are clever theatrical devices which deepen the action, such as the use of Punch and Judy style puppets to reflect characters’ (and the audiences?) innermost thoughts and feelings.
The chaotic set and constantly changing cast of characters add further to the rollercoaster ride but it is the final anarchic scene which explodes it into the present, linking the struggles of the oppressed underclass in the play directly with the same situation repeating itself, over and over, in the present. The music – arranged by Charles Hazelwood and sampling generously from present day rock, indie and pop genres – is packed with pointed, witty lyrics and leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the message of the play: history repeats itself. Never give up the fight to be heard. An old message but one given fresh power and poignancy.
Chalk About, by contrast, is an endearingly simple piece, featuring two dancer/performers exploring a surface with chalk, their bodies, and some charmingly conceived props. Billed as for children, the work would suit a slightly older age group (8 and over) plus the adults they bring with them. The performers first tell and draw out the stories of their lives and then erase them with their bodies so that new stories can be drawn over the old. There’s direct audience interaction (plus laughter when something goes wrong), and a beautiful moment when we the audience become aware that the pre-recorded children’s voices are not from the UK, where company Curious Seed are from, but the views of real kiwi kids.
As well as comedy, there’s darkness and uncertainty to this piece, which is why I think it would suit older children, but I like that they don’t patronise (a lovely section early in the show is when the performers talk about what children they surveyed like in a theatre piece – “lots of blood! dinosaurs! Zombies! and definitely NO PUPPETS!”)
Losing myself in shows this week, I’ve been reminded of one very important function of festivals that I missed: inspiration. Arts Festivals are a curated display of the ‘state of the art in Arts’. Not every show does it for me, but the good ones burrow their way into my brain. There they lie dormant until the right conditions come along – a creative problem say, or meeting the right collaborator – and then it fuses with other ideas and starts growing into a baby play or novel or poem. In other words: Festivals are good brain sex.
And with that, good night. I’m going out to get me some more.