A THEATRICAL MEDITATION ON THE METAMORPHOSING OF HUMANITY
Devisors: Susie Berry, Daniel Emms, Simon Haren, Isobel MacKinnon, Isobel Mebus, Theo Taylor and Nick Zwart
Director: Stella Reid
Musical Composition: Sean Kelly and Thomas Lambert (Seth Frightening and i.ryoko) Sonorous Circle
at Studio 77, VUW, Wellington
From 17 Dec 2012 to 21 Dec 2012
Reviewed by John Smythe, 21 Dec 2012
I write this on the last day of the Mayan calendar – “the date on which many civilisations and cultures have predicted the end of the world,” as this play's publicity reminds us – although with Mesoamerica being on the other side of the international date line and behind us, time-wise, I guess they'll get through their final show tonight. And hey, is anyone not preparing for Christmas?
Director Stella Reid – who has presided over this devised work as her Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School / Victoria University of Wellington Theatre Studies Master of Theatre Arts Directing major production – was inspired by a series of radio talks by Terence McKenna, an American ethno botanist, philosopher, psychonaut, researcher, teacher, lecturer and writer. ‘The Importance of Human Beings' (available on podcast) was the talk that introduced her to the word eschaton.
eschaton (pron. es-KAH-ton), from the ancient Greek eskatos, meaning last, is variously defined as the final thing, the very last thing, the climax of history, the end of time and the divinely ordained climax of history.
Given one reads about this having arrived and procured the programme, I assume prior study is not a prerequisite. Nor should it be. But those with smart phones or tablets could try a quick cram while partaking of The Last Supper, scheduled an hour before the 8pm start. As Wellington's hottest day this year approaches dusk, it is served outdoors in the amphitheatre: chip butties and green salad. What a way to go.
Here is one quote, however; expanding on the what Reid mentions her note:
“History, then, is ending. History is a kind of gestation process; it's a kind of metamorphosis; it's an episode in the life of a species. If you think of the simple example of metamorphosis – that of caterpillar to butterfly – we all know that there is this intermediate resting stage where the caterpillar is, for all practical purposes, enzymatically dissolved, and then reconstituted as an entirely different kind of organism, with different physical structures, different eyes, different legs, a different way of breathing; with wings, where no wings were before; with a different kind of feeding apparatus – this is what's happening to us!
“History is a process of metamorphosis. It's a pupation stage. It begins with naked monkeys, and it ends with a human machine planet-girdling interface capable of releasing the energies that light the stars! And it lasts about fifteen or twenty thousand years, and during that period the entire process hangs in the balance. It's a period of high risk. It's like what a butterfly is doing in a cocoon, or what is happening to a child in the womb: it's a gestation process, where one form of life is being changed into another.”
The Last Supper metamorphoses into the production proper by way of a series of eulogies to selected sectors of those gathered: our lives as we know them have already passed. There is something hallowed about the white-canopied space we move into: an excellent spatial design by Reid and Nick Zwart, who also designs the often astonishing lighting.
Throughout the two hours, the air is dynamically painted with sound and music, the composition of which is credited as follows: Sean Kelly & Thomas Lambert (Seth Frightening and i.ryoko) Sonorous Circle. Decode that as you see fit.
Theo Taylor's Angel trumpeter is a recurring image. With winter's leafless branches as his wings, the resonance of his electronically enhanced blast of sound apparently heralds the end. Might buds appear later? Might he metamorphose into the piper at the gates of dawn?
A bunch of friends –Susie Berry, Daniel Emms, Simon Haren, Isobel MacKinnon, Isobel Mebus and Theo Taylor – play at funerals (echoing the opening sequence of Jo Randerson's Assisted Living earlier this year), sincerity vying with send-up as their faux eulogies play out. Seemingly on holiday as a group, they seem to be at the cusp of adolescence and adulthood, loath to put childish things behind them. Haren attracts particular interest throughout as the would-be-leader who is really an outsider with psychopathic tendencies. What might he become?
A mimed-to-tape dag rendition of Gloria Gaynor's ‘I Will Survive', surprisingly clichéd and banal, becomes something else when Emms' Drag Queen – a Kiwi who adopts a faux American accent because “it's more fun” – turns out to have psychic powers, sought after by Max (Zwart) who has just been to his own funeral, whose ‘real' name is Emanuel. He wants to get a message to his ex-lover George, also played by Emms. The club, I take it, is in London, because the story is revealed and progressed through George's journey to London to find Max. And from this completion, something new may grow.
Projections from above, beamed directly down to the theatre floor, are effectively used throughout (projection artist: Calvin Peterson), not least as the Drag Queen deconstructs the fate of Picasso's Guernica, when seen by a German officer during the occupation; when inconveniently placed for a pro-war speech by US Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Isobels Mebus and MacKinnon play a mother and daughter on the eve, initially, of the foretold end. Their story also progresses throughout and provokes memories (for me) of doomsday cultists, and mothers and children in Hitler's bunker. (No mention here of the father; it's always the mothers …)
More than once Susie Berry strips off and steps into the sensuous steam of a hot bath while listening to – or recalling? – phone messages. Berry also manifests as a philanthropic bus passenger who helps George fulfil his quest, and as a prostitute willing to help a confused young man (Haren).
All the action presupposes the unspoken imminence of eschaton.
The Friends discovery of an unconscious redhead (Amy Griffin-Brown), brings us to intermission. I have been absorbed, am intrigued and look forward to whatever may be to come (some of which has been hinted at in the story-arcs sketched in above).
What follows degenerates, in most respects, into relatively chaotic confusion which may well be the point but it is less engaging from an audience perspective.
After challenging each other philosophically with the hypothetical question of whether you'd kill a horse to save a human, and if so how – producing some seriously bizarre stoned raves – and puzzling about what to do with the supine redhead, the Friends opt for rave party dancing, in isolation, as the way to meet – or avoid facing up to? – eschaton. (That is, I assume the manic dancers are the Friends, which may not be the case.)
Apart from George's seeming to find something beyond grief, although suicide is intrinsically degrading, man's relentless inhumanity to man is exemplified through the madness of post-Christmas sales in NYC and a monologue on the death of maternity. The reaching hands of Guernica appear in the flesh; the trumpet of doom may no longer sound – is there hope in that? – and whatever is coming upon them from above is blinding the Friends.
As with many devised works, the highly creative team have found many dynamic ways of dramatising their core material but to what purpose? I expect the answer is that that's for us – the audience – to decide, which I'd normally call a cop-out. But given pupae probably don't know they are about to become butterflies until they do, it may be it's valid in this case. Nevertheless it feels as if a last beat is missing; a sense, at least, that the gestation phase is about to produce … something.
As a theatrical meditation on the metamorphosing of humanity it would be equally valid to end with a sense that this inevitable and imminent change will be for the better – although I agree, looking for its approach from above, or from anywhere other than within, would be futile.
Stella Reid and her team have used the versatile space of Studio 77 superbly. Many of the transitions between characters and scenarios are deftly achieved. The ensemble teamwork both visible and hidden is powerful proof of what a positive experience theatre in action can be.
I am certainly glad I have seen Eschaton and, being an optimist, I look forward to seeing more of Reid's work, whether or not this proves to be The Final Thing I ever review on Theatreview.
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