As a New Zealander who has been living outside of NZ for ten
years and hasn't been back in eight, I expected Taniwha Thames to
strike a few chords of recognition with me. The play, created by
Shaky Isles, a UK company with a NZ connection, is billed as "a
story for anyone who calls London home. Sometimes", about the push
and pull of London and of "home", and of what home means and
becomes to an ex-patriot.
The Taniwha (tah'ni'fa) of the title is a legendary Maori water
spirit, in this case a Taniwha far from home, living in the Thames
and its tributaries having following Cook's Endeavour back to
Britain. Its personification is one of the highlights of the
performance, as two of the eight actors on stage come together to
form a creeping, clicking monster, like a giant weta, somehow both
sinister and friendly at once.
With a simple set featuring little more than three large sails and
a few beer kegs, the play combines physical theatre and music (the
singing is magnificent) with snippets of dialogue between seemingly
interchangeable pairs of actors, generally discussing what keeps
them in London or what, conversely, is drawing them away.
While I enjoyed each snippet, it seemed to me that they could
easily have been shuffled and played in any order without
disrupting the meaning of the whole. That's not a bad thing,
necessarily, but a stronger narrative would have anchored it a
little more in the human, rather than watery, world and provided
some emotional resonance. For example: brief parallel conversations
between a contemporary couple on a blind date and a very similar
conversation between a couple set in the distant past had promise,
both comic and dramatic, but were moved past swiftly and were not
revisited (symbolic of something carried by a river,
Overall I found it a very likable, energetic performance with lots
of great little moments full of potential, but I was left a bit
unsatisfied, as if I had attempted a conversation about human
feelings and motivations (if you'll pardon the easy metaphor) with
an elusive water spirit. I understand it is a work in progress; I
very much look forward to seeing its later manifestations.
Taniwha Thames, directed by Stella Duffy, is on at Ovalhouse
until 3 December.
More info here
PHOTO: Tom Jewett