REVIEW: Ghost Trees (Auckland Fringe)

Review by Maulik Thakkar

[A Sombre Analysis of A Declining World]

Gary Stalker’s original play Ghost Trees traces the story of the protagonist’s loss of a partner to cancer and the pursuit of meaning in a rapidly-deteriorating world.  It speaks to the bewildering silence of humanity in response to species extinction exacerbated by climate change, and the augmented feeling of isolation that hounds us as our mentors fail to offer us solutions. Performed as a solo by Stalker, we observe the narrator navigate the malaise of losing one’s identity, trying to connect with memory while enveloped by the soundscapes of nature in the outdoors. What emerges is a thought-provoking deep-dive into the myriad interwoven interpretations of what despair and belonging mean in an increasingly anxious social environment.

Walking into Q Theatre’s Loft, I see five black blocks set up horizontally in pyramid-formation with green chalk drawings to mark branches. A glass of water is set on a tall table to one side, and Jude Robertson’s soundscape of birdsong and rustling leaves introduces a sense of place. The opening scene is marked by the unseen partner outlining the reasons she wanted to live among kauri trees. Spelling out the need to make this a home, we see Stalker avoid the kauri trees as he walks onstage, holding a single kauri twig in his left hand. He gazes into the audience as the partner’s voice concludes a thoroughly relatable prologue, bringing us up to speed with what we are led to believe is the present.

Stalker guides us through the story of his partner’s battle with ovarian cancer through the lens of his scientific research into kauri dieback disease, or Phytophthora Agathidicida, weaving together the two realities of decline. The kauri twig is placed on the side table beside the full glass, and I turn to examine it throughout the performance. We quickly lose track of the present as it merges together with the vague faintness of the past and the uncertain idiosyncrasies of the future, spirited away to an ethereal place by Stalker’s mesmerising voice. Wherever we expect connectedness to mentors, we find dismissal of scientific discovery and attempts to shirk curiosity for the unknown. Ghost Trees’ plot succeeds at presenting neither optimism nor pessimism – instead offering a highly personal journey to a balance between being caught up in the doldrums of loss in the one direction and the disorientation of not knowing how to find ourselves again in the other.

We are invited to explore what belonging means through the vulnerabilities Stalker presents us with by gazing into each of our faces in turn, calling connections with each other into question. Although Ghost Trees does not directly ask through the text why humanity finds itself on the edge of the precipice of cataclysmic destruction, it does explore the theme of complacency in the context of attaining and gatekeeping privilege. Stalker is most effective where he describes the stillness of being unable to move forward in a variety of poetic words – we are compelled to trust in his voice to guide us through emotions of grief, yearning and the slightest glimmerings of hope.

The play delves into the helplessness of our species in the face of the unpredictability of nature’s turns and transformations, while also questioning the audience about the extent to which affirmation starts to become unbalanced when modernity becomes overwhelming. Modernity is represented here by the sound of a distant single-engine airplane taking off from Auckland Airport. It appears to be an omnipresent reminder of the manmade nature of the cause of our impending destruction, both on the personal and community levels. It is also descended from the settler-colonial enterprise of the nineteenth century, although this is absent from this production.

There is a gentle, unhurried pace to Stalker’s script that invites the audience to consider how connections to place form. It is an effective method for the protagonist to focus on the personal story of seeking belonging through the connections offered by property ownership. Later in the performance, the idea of ownership is contrasted against the notion of custodianship. Whether this is a nod to the Māori worldview on kaitiakitanga is unclear to me, but I would enjoy seeing a follow-up to this piece focusing more tightly on the effects of colonisation, and the mass import of flora and fauna from Europe, on Aotearoa’s biosphere. 

Again and again, we are asked to consider how our reaction to a sense of helplessness can be mitigated by connectedness to the natural world around us. Paul Gittins’ direction of the soulful delivery of Stalker’s solo performance is powerfully executed, and made more believable by the subtle shades of Michael Goodwin’s lighting design. Robertson’s soundscape is the lifeblood of this production, and the amalgamation of the haunting voice of the narrator’s late partner with the compassionate realism of Stalker’s paced monologue succeeds at moving the audience out of its collective comfort zone without realising it.

Ghost Trees is a collection of ruminations about how control matters very little in the larger context of ecological balance that humans live amidst. There is a larger-than-life quality to the minimalism of the set, which allows for us to imagine ourselves in the wide expanse of kauri trees in the Waitakere ranges. Effective use of pause works in Gary Stalker’s favour during the lines of his monologue, warmly ushering us into the unfamiliar space of confronting how inaction and dismissal have brought each of us to where humanity teeters on the edge of catastrophe. Although colonisation needs to be further probed in the process of reflecting upon our arrogance in playing omnipotent deities on a mission to control nature, the play nevertheless draws from an elegantly straightforward structure to deliver an engaging meditation on death and destruction at a crucial moment in Aotearoa’s history.

Ghost Trees plays Q Loft as part of Summer at Q and Auckland Fringe 27 to 29 February, 2020. 

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1 Comment on REVIEW: Ghost Trees (Auckland Fringe)

  1. Gary was spellbinding in his sense of loss of a loved partner in her prime & loss of habitat in a mostly uncaring world. A sobering reminder of life’s fragility.

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