Tuesday 22 November 2011

Something ominous beneath the surface

TaniwhaThames, Oval House Theatre, London

There is a sirensong quality to this watery devised piece from Shaky Isles Theatre – a London-based company with strong ties to New Zealand. With soft sea-shanties and breathily whispered texts, it exerts a gentle pull despite the vague sense of something ominous beneath the surface.

Perhaps it is a taniwha, the Maori equivalent of the kelpie; a shapeshifting sea creature or mystical spirit that could, perhaps, be lurking in the River Thames. Here, it becomes an idol for emigrants; a nebulous but nagging symbol of a far-off home.

TaniwhaThames, a blurry series of short scenes and movement sequences, is full of interesting ideas, often uninterestingly expressed. Appreciation requires a certain generosity on the part of its audience. One must plunge under the surface – too often banal and old-fashioned in form – to the conceptual currents swirling beneath, tantalisingly vague and elusive. The taniwha in the Thames is an expression of the emigrant’s dual identity, both New Zealander and native Londoner. All the capital’s attractions cannot eradicate home thoughts from abroad or compensate for the sense of rootlessness, of disconnection from the city’s own history. ‘Just being beside the water,’ they say, ‘makes me want to cry’.

Under Stella Duffy’s direction, TaniwhaThames was created using a process based on Open Space, the all-inclusive, all-permissive format employed at Improbable’s Devoted and Disgruntled events. While I am a passionate advocate of Open Space, I’m not convinced that it best suits the devising process. One of its main frustrations is the excessive sway of the lowest common denominator, since consensus requires everyone onboard.

This accounts, I think, for the obviousness of some of the final forms: chorus walking about saying individual lines, ships physicalised, illustrative movement that includes an air steward safety routine. But the go-where-you-will permissiveness also, I think, leads to TaniwhaThames’s inconclusiveness, with harder questions shied away from rather than cracked. Devised companies must, at some point, get stuck in and grapple with both process and piece until they break through. Breadth is easy. Depth is difficult. I fear the former will always win out in Open Space.

Nonetheless, TaniwhaThames also bears the hallmarks of Open Space’s strengths, particularly in its humility and the vocabulary it has developed – albeit still loose – to discuss fluid, complex ideas that have their basis in intuition rather than encyclopedias. TaniwhaThames reaches no conclusions, nor even definite connections, but its central trope is potent and its churn of associations, appealing. This is a work that holds the attention by speaking in tongues; the result is less concretely cognitive than physically sensed.

Till 3 December 2011


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