REVIEW: The Arrival (Red Leap Theatre)

The Arrival

Astounding Journey Continues [by James Wenley]

The Arrival

It is remarkable that in the same week, two New Zealand works of international quality enjoyed return seasons in Auckland. The first, Indian Ink’s Guru of Chai – is still playing at Q, so seek it out. The second – Red Leap’s The Arrival played three public shows over the weekend. I hope you didn’t miss it!

The Arrival is Red Leap Theatre’s (co-directors Kate Parker and Julie Nolan’s) marquee work – together with Laureen Hughes they formed Red Leap expressly to create the show for 2009’sAuckland Festival, and it was definitely a personal highlight for me when I was first saw it that year. The show is devised physical theatre (a process Red Leap describes as “a group of artists working together creating images and devising sequences that have meaning”); The Arrival is dance and drama, movement and image, of the heart and soul.

 The Arrival has now played in Sydney, Wellington, Hong Kong and Seoul.  

I think you can make the case for The Arrival as a New Zealand classic, in as much you can for a work adapted from Australian Shaun Tan’s graphic novel of the same, set in an undefined, fantastical world. It took an intrepid band of New Zealand pioneers (50 artists were involved in the play’s development – including – Parker, Nolan, John Verytt, Elizabeth Whiting, Jeremy Fern, and the brave divising actors) with a great deal of smarts and theatrical ingenuity to realise Tan’s whimsical book for the stage.

It’s a universal tale – Shan’s ‘silent graphic novel’ is described as the “story of every migrant, every refugee, every displaced person, and a tribute to all those who have made the journey”.

Maybe, as a nation of travelers, both coming to, and coming from our country – The Arrival’s story of a Traveller (Jarod Rawiri) seeking out a new land, speaks to something of our collective New Zealand experience; the sensations of discovery and exploration, and why we our audiences and creatives have embraced this story.

Red Leap’s Arrival is full of stunning imagery; and worth seeing to remind yourself of all of them alone. for them alone. It’s a fusion of both highly physical choreographed bodies in space and ensemble work (we open with the Traveller’s wife and daughter tightly wrapped around him, the family unit about to be separated), an ever changing set full of surprises, to puppetry: an adorable rat/dog creature Ref, performed by Ella Becroft befriends the Traveller and provides a number of cute moments in the story. It’s told in large scale – a giant creature exploding onto stage before evaporating into darkness – and also draws our focus in to the miniature – a small paper bird, or actors puppetering their fingers as bodies (an old trick, and still a winner!)

The narrative is simple, but containing many deeper ripples of meaning and experience. Sequences explore the Traveller’s journey, being processed, trying to find work, trying to find food, trying to make new friends. We meet other migrants along the way, who share their own stories from their lands. Throughout, the Traveler is haunted by specters of shadow that plague his hometown, his isolation, and the sadness of leaving his family behind.

The strength of the piece’s visual imagery in driving the storytelling means that the tale succeeds in being largely dialogue free – the people in the new land talking in a gibberish especially created for the work. Being caught up in this metaphorical fantasy world, I felt taken out when Rawiri spoke short English phrases – partly because it hadn’t been established early on that this was his language, but also because it felt redundant. We were seeing all we needed to know.

Andrew McMillan’s composed score is exquisite, and the feature that I enjoyed the most the second time round. It’s eccentric and bombastic, tender and beautiful, with clever themes supporting each section of the story, complementing superbly the movement onstage and of the play.

Reviewing Shaun Tan’s graphic novel after the show, I was even more impressed with Red Leap’s achievement. It’s a very faithful adaption to the spirit of the story, and you can see where your favourite scenes and images came from (including a well realised Ref!).  Shaun’s work has no words, but delicately pencil illustrated panels and full page images. It is filmic and fantastic. While the story, imagery, and foundation for the theatre story are all there in the graphic novel, they are acutely different art forms. Looking at, I began to grasp how just a big of an imaginative leap it would have taken to transform the book to the stage. Red Leap, you astound me.

The Arrival is presented by Red Leap Theatre  and played at the ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre 13-15 July. More information about Red Leap Theatre.

SEE ALSO: review by Kate Ward-Smythe

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