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So close yet so far: Auckland Arts Festival week two

Erth’s Prehistoric Aquarium
À Ố Làng Phố - Photo by Nguyen The Duong
Renee Liang responds to week two of the Auckland Arts Festival, including shows Erth’s Prehistoric Aquarium and À Ố Làng Phố, then goes in search of the party.


This week, due to being out of town for work, I’ve seen only a couple of shows. Both were in the ‘Family’ category, though vastly different in terms of their intended audience.

My kids, 4 and 5 years old, declared Erth’s Prehistoric Aquarium ‘the best show in the Festival’. This needs to be taken with a grain of salt given it’s the only show they’ve seen so far.  Still, this show has much to delight littlies. From the start, the show played on our wish to believe in magic, mixed with the hardened scepticism even young children display. “There are no puppets in this show, everything you see is real,” insists Catherine, the marine biologist character, at the start. “Mummy – I can see people under the plesiosaurus,” Miss 5 confided in a stage whisper ten minutes later.  Still, she was happy to give in to the illusion and made no mention of the clearly human-made construction of the bioluminescent jellyfish she was allowed to cuddle.

Erth, a company based in Sydney, make unmistakably beautiful creatures. The movement of the giant puppets is lifelike, and they go to great lengths to make sure the audience interact, from putting children on the stage as ‘interns’ to play with the giant creatures, to inviting the audience to put up their hands so that prehistoric reptiles could ‘sniff our scent’. The science behind the show is displayed through projected animations and live action puppetry, with a few local Kiwi prehistoria thrown in with the roll call of Australian names. Full scientific names are used too, and there is just enough detail to push us into googling rare and wonderful creatures afterwards.

The major thing that marred this show was the presence of a loud, loudly attired Australian.  It baffled me why Erth felt the need to have an annoying character called Drew on stage. Like that guy at the party who thinks he’s funny and won’t shut up, Drew, who purported to be the ‘funder’ of the aquarium, completely dominated the start with his mansplaining. And he wasn’t funny. He wasn’t interesting even for the kids, and he was definitely not required for narrative reasons. It took all my powers to stop from yelling out ‘start the bloody show!’ as he ratted on and on and on (about BBQs, mother-in-laws etc) and no prehistoric creatures appeared.  Maybe audiences are different in Australia, but please, if you’re doing a show in New Zealand, just leave out the loud Aussies unless they’re actual dinosaurs. And even then only if they’re capable of being interesting.

My husband suggested our young kids would be too wriggly to sit through À Ố Làng Phố, so off I went by myself.  The Civic was filled to capacity for what was billed as a French-Vietnamese circus show, and I noticed many different languages being spoken around me.  À Ố Làng Phố, the second international touring show produced by Noveau Cirque Du Vietnam, is indeed a delight for the senses. If you don’t melt at the vision of 15 ripped acrobats rolling, bouncing, balancing on and tossing bamboo baskets to each other, you must surely be made of rock.

Everything about this production from the costumes (black linen wraps with simple plaited shoes for the village scenes, bold block colours for city scenes) to set design with its combination of curved and straight bamboo objects, was aesthetically pleasing. The lighting was largely precise though acrobats were left in shadow some of the time, perhaps a casualty of the fast pack-in time.  And the agility and skill of the acrobats was clear. Their feats were displayed with a certain cheeky humour, their split-second timing and tableau formation was precise and the moments were accentuated with percussion and music played by five on-stage musicians.

The programme notes explain that the show (Làng Phố translates roughly as village-city) depicts the rapid urbanisation of rural villages, and this is where for me the piece was left wanting.  The show starts in darkness with the sound of helicopter blades and gunfire – I think I was the only one who laughed out loud at the clear Miss Saigon reference.  But far from examining the questions raised by urbanisation, and indeed colonisation, the creators seem content with a mere depiction. Cute, skilful and entertaining – but not challenging. A missed opportunity in my view.

The Civic disgorged its 2,300-strong crowd at 8.20pm on a Saturday. I didn’t want to go home so I decided to go in search of the party. One of the brilliant things about a festival is that everyone in the arts world is out, drinking, dissecting shows, talking shop or just gossiping.  Festivals bring artists together and frequently collaborations are born and new shows conceived in the post-show (strictly professional) orgy.

One of the brilliant things about a festival is that everyone in the arts world is out, drinking, dissecting shows, talking shop or just gossiping.  Festivals bring artists together and frequently collaborations are born and new shows conceived in the post-show (strictly professional) orgy.

I headed towards the iHeart Radio Festival Club, ‘a hangout space and music stage for audiences, artists and the creative community to meet, mix and celebrate’.  Perfect! Only, the place was empty, save for bored waitstaff and a couple of dejected DJs trying to spin some tunes. The wind whistled through the nearby empty ASB theatre foyer – a show was in session.  Fine. I turned and headed towards Q Theatre’s bar, which is usually jam-packed with cool creative types. More empty chairs and foyer staff with nothing to do. The shows there were in session too. Ditto with the nearby Town Hall.

Feeling deflated but still hopeful, Nigella No-Mates decided to walk to her car and drive for the Festival Playground, a ‘resplendent new entertainment space… a brand new precinct for sensational music, art, food and family fun.’  After a 35-minute drive through town featuring a number of queues and road works (way to go Auckland Transport) and an unintended detour over the Harbour Bridge, I found my way to Silo Park with its big LED Festival sign. It was disturbingly quiet as I walked towards party central.  As I got closer I discerned a collection of pink-lit tents and very few people. It was just after 9 pm on the central Saturday of the Festival. The food trucks had closed for the night, there was nothing playing on the main music stage, and the only thing still open was a tent, barn-like in its size and emptiness, serving drinks and food in takeaway containers.  

I decided to make the most of a bad situation and catch a few local Pokemon. But just as I was turning away I heard my name being called – a producer friend was sitting at a nearby table. It turned out she, too had headed to Silo Park post-show in search of conviviality.  We commiserated. I ate an expensive lukewarm lamb sausage ordered from the ‘curated menu by Auckland’s leading tastemakers, Fresh Concept’. We finished wine served in small plastic cups. We pointed out to each other that shows for that night and most other nights started within the 7 pm to 8.30 pm timeslots, instead of the staggered times from 5 pm through to 11 pm seen in Festivals past.  That programming, while more wearing on staffing, allowed hardcore Festival attendees to see up to three shows in one night – often on impulse - and resulted in the ‘discovery’ of wonderful acts we wouldn’t ordinarily have picked to see. It also meant there were audience members circulating through hospitality areas all the time, instead of just one wave (or not at all, if you picked the wrong place at the wrong time.)

It was 10 o’clock. Time to head home. Just as we were picking up our things a purple party bus rolled past filled with St Patrick’s revellers heading for the Viaduct bars.  “There’s your party!” someone said.

Written by

Renee Liang

21 Mar 2018

Renee is a writer who is exploring many ways of telling stories, including plays, short stories, poetry (which she also performs), and cross-genre collaborations with composers, musicians, sculptors and filmmakers.