Auckland Festival
March 5-22 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

The Arrival (The Civic, March 12-15) is much more than a theatrical adaptation of Shaun Tan’s award-winning graphic novel. Whilst remaining faithful to the story, its characters and even its images, this magical piece by Kate Parker and Julie Nolan has taken on a spirit of its own.

This is the tale of an Everyman immigrant (Jarod Rawiri) and his confusion at the new world he finds himself in. Fleeing a dark city and leaving his wife and daughter behind, he has his language, culture and even basic understanding pulled from under his feet. Yet his wonder remains intact. Our wonder as an audience is kept alight, too, by the succession of theatrical devices used to portray the fantastical world he explores: curved skyscrapers, strange machines, enormous fields of flowers, all populated by strange creatures.

There is a delightful parade of innovations which never feels intrusive. Parker uses not only her trademark puppetry, but also turns human bodies into machines, parts of buildings and home appliances; the cast of ten work hard and make themselves seem much greater in number. Dramatic devices range from highly complex (fields of flowers flowing slowly along the stage) to very simple (an origami paper crane).

Tan acted as a story consultant to this production and it seems as if the book has been used as a storyboard for the devising of the piece. The set design (by John Verryt) in many cases reproduces Tan’s drawings, and the original earthy palette is faithfully reused. As befits an adaptation of a graphic novel, there is very little dialogue but plenty of sound effects and movement.

There are a few parts, for example the flashbacks when another immigrant is telling a story, that are initially confusing, but resolve with patient watching. There are some moments too where the story slows to a contemplative crawl, but this suits the pace and style of the narrative. The humour – especially those dissecting out the confusion felt by a person trying to work out a new set of customs – is truly delightful and in some cases exceeds the gentle humour of Tan’s book. The story doesn’t shy from the dark places either – the terrifying memories of the migrants retold with real theatrical tension.

Red Leap Theatre have succeeded in making a piece of magic which explores the immigrant experience with humour, pathos, understanding and real depth. It is a work that transcends the NZ world view (there are no NZ references in this work) to become truly universal. And for that they deserve a standing ovation.

Every festival should have spectacle and Nostalgia (ASB Auditorium, March 11-15) certainly fits the bill. With enormous sets utilising the full height and depth of the cavernous ASB auditorium, a cast of twenty and nine stagehands, Nostaglia sets out to be a grand statement on the human experience of migration. Where The Arrival focusses on the experience of one man, Nostalgia illustrates the experience of many (although four main characters are used as a focus).

Ishinha is an avant garde Japanese theatre company that has developed its own style of dance/theatre/music, using rhythms based on the Kansai dialect. The performance also integrates with contemporary music, video and what could be termed giant human sculptures. At its best, this results in an exilarating, mouth-open experience as one grand vision after another is unveiled – the image of a line of refugees caged and being subjected to medical checks was particularly effective, as is the long sequence using huge white ‘laundry’ sheets. But on occasion the act of ‘showing’ seems to overpower the story.

Although much of this work is movement based, there is some dialogue (in Japanese) which would have helped with understanding, and the translation of this proved problematic and inconsistent. A synopsis appears in the printed programme (hard to read during the show). A voiceover in English occurs early in the piece, and this is hard to hear due to the low volume. Later a few (bad) translations are projected onto the large video screen at the back of the stage, but this is both difficult to read and intrusive to the scene. Many things of course didn’t need translating – humour came across loud and clear.

In general, I found the video sequences overly intrusive and unnecessary, whereas sequences using dance and puppetry were much more effective. The movements of the dancers were engaging and deliciously quirky. On the whole the action did seem a little too light and innocent for the dark subject matter (the attempted explusion of the Japanese from Brazil in the 1950s), but visually and conceptually the production is opulent and often innovative. Nostalgia shows what can be achieved with a large cast, plenty of development time and a no-holds-barred set budget, and the spectacle alone makes it well worth seeing.