1,000 Reasons to see 1,000 Hills
[by Sharu Delilkan]
It is always a privilege and an honour to witness the premier of an original piece of theatre. But to be among the first to experience the personal sharing of a true story is even more significant. Naturally the foyer of the Herald Theatre was buzzing with eager anticipation when I arrived.
However given the subject matter I must admit I had the sinking feeling, in the back of my mind, that the work may be morbid, depressing and shocking in the spirit of the film Hotel Rwanda.
But those apprehensions were very soon cast aside as we were greeted by the pulsating sound of African drums when we entered the theatre. The music literally reverberated through our bodies and set the ambience for the evening. As others made their way to their seats I looked around me and noticed a number of regular theatregoers, who would ordinarily appear rather formal in their seats, moving to hypnotic beat of the drums. There was no denying the infectious music, both lively and joyous, had a definite impact on the audience – and was a sign of what was ahead.
The opening percussion-led number, coupled with the ensemble singing in unison, not only made my hair stand on end but also rejuvenated my eternal yearning to visit the mystical African continent.
Very early in the show we are told that A Thousand Hills is Francois Byamana’s true story of his experiences during the time of the Rwandan massacres in the 1990s.
The play is set in a Red Cross refugee camp in Zaire on the border with Rwanda and depicts the events following the tragic genocide through the eyes of a Rwandan refugee (Philippe) and a Kiwi water engineer (Nick Halliday). We also learn that Halliday provides Philippe’s ultimate salvation through their chance encounter, forming an unlikely partnership. This sparks a friendship where both teach and help each other in times of danger, as well as co-operate to set up the camp to provide for the ever-increasing refugee headcount.
It’s difficult and almost churlish to find fault with such a touching, tragic and personal story such as Byamana’s. But I would be remiss if I didn’t say I felt that the initial camp scenes, where the audience is introduced to the main characters, could be condensed and sped up slightly to keep up with the rest of the show’s momentum.
At this stage I think it prudent to mention that it appeared slightly unclear to me why Byamana and Bob Askew’s names are not retained by the characters in the play. They are instead substituted by the names Halliday (Andrew Grainger) and Philippe (Byamana). But it was just a fleeting thought that was very quickly allayed by the show’s riveting subject matter.
Although the message was pointedly poignant it was subtly done and successfully peppered with sadness and humour.
Credit must be given to director Margaret-Mary Hollins for perfectly casting the entire ensemble. These also include Bruce Philips (Rufus), Michele Hine (Ana), Wanjiku Kiarie Sanderson (Philippe’s mother/aid worker), Karima Mudat (Philippe’s girlfriend Latetia), Jo Falou (Philippe’s father/soldier/aid worker) and Yaw Boateng (soldier/musician).
Besides the entire ensemble’s fabulous acting, two of the other shining stars that cannot be denied the limelight include the phenomenal music and sound design as well as lighting design (Vera Thomas).
Credit for the sound design goes to Theo Gibson assisted by a brilliant team including singing coach Rochelle Bright, composer Mudat and percussion director Boateng. And the package was further complemented by the great African movement choreographed by Chloe Davidson.
The versatility of the set was the hallmark of John Verryt’s genius of being understated and incredibly well executed. And the set’s neutral colour palette provided the perfect backdrop for the vibrant African costumes designed by NZ theatre’s consummate costumier Elizabeth Whiting.
But most of all the beautiful authentic language of writer Mike Hudson’s script, in collaboration with Askew and Byamana, made it possible for the audience to be transported to the African continent. I particularly enjoyed the way both French and African languages were riddled in between the English dialogue, adding to its authenticity.
Some of the lighter moments come from the cultural difference between the two lead characters. This includes the hilarious confusion caused when explaining life in New Zealand to an incredulous Philippe.
The comparison of the ‘land of a thousand hills’ and ‘the land of the long white cloud’ is very cleverly juxtaposed against each other, highlighting some of the absurdities of tribes, race, culture, history as well as place names. An example of which is: “JAFAs are a bit like refugees but they dress a bit better and drink coffee”. Something the audience lapped up with great guffaw – a total contrast to the tone I had originally anticipated.
After more than a month being engulfed in the Rugby World Cup bubble, I highly recommend A Thousand Hills as a great way to re-enter reality, and to appreciate our lovely Land of the Long White Cloud which is our beloved Aotearoa.
Telling these stories is important so that we learn from mankind’s mistakes, and to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself.
A Thousand Hills is presented in association with STAMP at THE EDGE and plays at the Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre until 30 October. More information at The Edge