REVIEW: Sea (Red Leap Theatre)

Sea
Tarzan of the Ocean

Blue Leap [by James Wenley]

Sea
Tarzan of the Ocean

Under Red Leap’s outstanding vision the sea is a phenomenon of awe: a place of wondrous beauty, unrelenting power, but also, poignantly, of great fragility. In Sea human kindness, resilience, and cruelty is set against the wild untameable force and fate of nautical nature.

Red Leap’s reputation has been built on the company’s debut The Arrival (2009), and directors Kate Parker and Julie Nolan’s previous collaborations.  Red Leap’s physical storytelling smarts, deep imagination, and stunning design this time creates a world above, and below the ocean, that you can’t keep your eyes off.

The story, when summarised here, is basic, even derivative. As water swallows the land a band of survivors attempt to live on the ocean currents, looking to the stars to guide them back home. They lose a baby to the deep blue, but he is adopted by a family of turtles, and we see him grow to become a Tarzan of the Sea. There’s a moving reunion with his parents years later, but the young man becomes disillusioned with his own kind as he sees the lengths they take to survive – they destroy so that they might live.  It is archetypal and familiar, but there’s a message here worth repeating again and again.

It’s also of course about the way it is told – and it is in the show’s form that Red Leap works their trademark visual flair. Vast sheets of fabric foreground the main visual quality of the show, a system of visible pulleys create different slacks and positions on the stage, a more inventive way to deploy what has become a theatrical cliché (sheets as water). There are some gorgeously designed aquatic puppets: the schools of brightly coloured fish, umbrella jellyfish, the friendly turtles, and a stage-consuming whale broken into just the essential parts – head, flippers, and tail. Vanda Karolczak’s lighting conveys a suitably evocative mood, but the change of states doesn’t build in a way to plunge us deeper into the blue, a green-scape that is returned to changes instantly and distractingly.

More effective and delineating life above and below the currents is Claire Cowan’s exquisite soundscape, an eclectic employment of instruments that gives life to sea creatures of all descriptions, hers is a score that fully satiates.

While the design elements are superlatively eye-catching, the devising company of nine actors do the heavy lifting in making them seem theatrically real. Shifting seamlessly from waves, creatures, survivors, they populate the world with vivid images with both a physical flair and an actor’s emotionality. The turtle raised boy (Dahnu Graham) is fluid and enigmatic, and his parents create two emotional high-points in the show: his mother’s (Antonia Stehlin) lament, and the father’s (Leroy Lakamu) defiant haka, one man against an ocean. The pan-cultural cast on their floating raft island, contributing a range of languages, suggests something of a microcosm and humanist analogy: we all share responsibility for the health of the ocean and planet, and we will all suffer the effects of neglect.

Other characters are less distinct, and if there is dissatisfaction, it is that they remain simplistically one note. Shadon Meredith becomes a greedy antagonist, but the characterisation is switched on rather developed – already when the waves first hit he threatens to throw the baby overboard – a bizarre threat to the child – which goes without repercussion. Neither the character, nor the story, has earned the moment. Others too are lost on the odyssey, and we feel it by their absence from the group of survivors. So while these two specific actors can readily contribute to the realisation of the magnificent sea creatures, it seems like a cheat to later see them re-join the survivors. In the early part of the show there is an issue of sameness, as the cast enact their struggles without great variety. There is a story here about humans under stress in extraordinary circumstances, but does not offer more than basic insight.

More vivid, perhaps because of its visual realisation, is the ecological message. Whatever caused the initial disaster is unidentified, and we can input our own worse-case scenarios. We see the sea’s sickness – waste, and distressingly, the scourge of the plastic bag. Fish become scarce. I’m reminded two of the atoll islands of the South Pacific like Tuvalu and Tokelau, which are in great danger of being swallowed up by rising sea levels.

Sea may be a fantastical ‘what if’ scenario, and though it ends with hope and the promise of rejuvenation, its eco-warning is stark.

While it has had a long development, like their previous Paper Sky, Sea seems unfinished, with more trimming and focussing to follow. With a very short debut season at The Maidment, there is room for this wave to gather in strength as it moves over the country.

Sea was presented by Red Leap Theatre and played at The Maidment from 6 to 10th March. 

SEA ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Johnny Givins, and Rosabel Tan’s review on the Pantograph Punch

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