Sharon Ellis - Wellington Scoop
The revival of Gary Henderson’s 2005 play Peninsula at Circa for the festival is timely but it is also magic and telling and a tribute to Henderson’s insight.
On the screen at the back of the stage Circa has placed a dedication to the people of Christchurch and the play begins with the slowly rising noise of a huge earthquake. We know this noise. It is terrifying. It emphasises the irony of a play first performed in 2005 having acute poignant relevance to events six years later. The upside down image of toi toi in the sun at the beginning and the gradually recovered image at the end as a family depart from Duvauchelle for a new life create a subtle visual image of a nightmare and a dream.
But Circa’s production has a light, sunny, remembered childhood setting reminiscent of Margaret Mahy’s lovely Banks Peninsula picture book A Summery Saturday Morning.
Each of the actors subtly and seamlessly shifts between two characters, there are no costume changes, nothing heavy or obvious, they are instant satisfying shifts in persona. There are hints in Laura Hill’s restless Sylvia of the perky cute clever little Ngaire with the good kind brother and happy home life. Ngaire is a delight with her energy, her funny walks and jigging feet.
Mr MacIntosh doing his teaching country service turns into Pug with a jerk of his neck. He barks and lolls and runs in such a delightfully doggy performance that Pug is nearly the star of the play. Mr MacIntosh, maybe in some kind of autobiographical reference to Henderson’s own golden days, is written as an excellent teacher, it is a good thing that Jason Whyte has Pug to get his actor’s canines into.
Michael is our centre of interest and the teacher’s too. Michael’s recurring mantra is his address: 1 Main Road, Duvauchelle, Banks Peninsula, Canterbury, South Island, New Zealand, Southern Hemisphere, World, Solar System, Galaxy, Universe. He even does it backwards from the Universe home to bed. When Mr MacIntosh looked through Michael’s book of maps it was difficult not to see a real book and want to get hold of it. It was reminiscent of Swallows and Amazons style maps. Paul McLaughlan as Michael is a lovely big gentle charming warm young chap who without a hitch becomes Jack the good keen bloke.
There are almost no props, just the chairs which make up the classroom, the family dining table, the community meeting venue and the glorious trolley the boys make and Pug paces. We don’t miss the real thing, the actors supply all that is needed against the patched up backdrop and grassy floor. It’s a pity about the unnecessary groceries and the washing to be folded.
There is the underlying threat deep in the ground beneath the stage the play is standing on. References to the long extinct volcanic origins of Banks Peninsula inspire Mr MacIntosh’s science lessons. Perhaps by now Michael the beneficiary of MacIntosh’s teaching is one of those geologists informing our understanding of what has happened in Canterbury.
Michael and Alex dig tunnels to explore what is under the ground and there are imagined rumblings from the volcano but it is all there above ground as well. Eruptions of ignorance, violence and bigotry are part of the small 1960s Duvauchelle that is a microcosm of the world, the galaxy, the universe. The stoning, the harassment of the teacher, the family violence are chilling shocking reminders that we haven’t come far. It is too familiar, it is not extinguished after all.
In a promotional piece in the Listener for the first production of the play in 2005 Faith Oxenbridge said of Gary Henderson “He’s not big on wafting about waiting for signs from the universe, either.” She says that the play was originally commissioned to be emblematic of Canterbury. Peninsula was and is, remarkably, both emblematic of Canterbury and a sign from Michael’s universe.