REVIEW: They Saw A Thylacine (Human Animal Exchange)

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They also came and conquered [by Matt Baker]

You should too
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Completing the New Zealand tour of their award-winning fringe show, writers and performers Justine Campbell and Sarah Hamilton have brought a unique play based on fundamental storytelling to Auckland’s Basement Theatre. The disconsolation of extinction and the mystery of its validity is a major part of the interest in the Tasmanian Tiger, and is aptly utilised as the context of this authentically Australian story.

The text is essentially an epic poem and could easily sit on its own as a published work, at home in a museum or art library. Couplets followed by poignant one-liners prevent any sense of boredom through repetition and give the performers plenty of dexterity for their delivery. The pace is set at a breakneck speed and never relents. It takes a moment to make the aural adjustment and can be easy to lose, but this drive is inherent in the gritty realism of the play’s nature. It is not a passive experience for the audience and requires devoted attention, but is by no means an exhaustive one.

Caged in Evan Thomas’ simple yet symbolic set, Campbell and Hamilton sit poised throughout, ready to pounce on each and every word. Supporting characters both inhabit and affect the world in which each of the women live, creating a complete universe in which the play exists, and are instantly recognisable due to both Campbell and Hamilton’s vocal characterisations. The dichotomy of the parallel storylines allow for the juxtaposition between the outback lifestyle and the Great Depression, and the habitats of the last two recorded thylacines, to each have their own individual sense of struggle.

The negative space of the side on staging, often purposefully neglected in the Basement main stage, ethereally encompasses the isolated performance space, echoing the haunting memory-like essence of the play. Nick Merrylees lighting design offers dramatically stylised transitions, breaking the warm footlights that sustain the recollective style of the text. The odd moment of stylised performance elements are nicely accentuated throughout the script, but I wondered how much further they could be taken before becoming gaudy. The smeared mud seems an especially satisfyingly indulgent moment that is not entirely fulfilled.

While the play is given humanity by the characters, the events they circumnavigate surrounding the thylacine are not misused or forgotten, with programmes notes bringing attention to 30 species on the brink of their own extinction. They Saw A Thylacine sheds light on a species that was unjustifiably culled, and it would be another crime for this play not to have a long life in the general public’s eye.

They Saw A Thylacine plays at The Basement until Feb 22. For details see The Basement.

SEE ALSO: Theatreview review by Heidi North-Bailey

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