Theatre review: A Thousand Hills, Aotea Centre

By Janet McAllister

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A scene from A Thousand Hills. Photo / John McDermott
A scene from A Thousand Hills. Photo / John McDermott

The thought of a play about the Rwandan genocide may make you uneasy, but don't let it put you off this excellent, sensitive, unusual production.

It involves machetes at brief moments, but the play maintains a poetic, symbolic theatricality throughout.

In particular, Theo Gibson's great music - African percussion led by Richard Yaw Boateng, strong acapella harmonies and Fela Kuti-style jams - works with Vera Thomas' dreamworld lighting and John Verryt's warm wooden set to make the context of atrocity easier to face.

A production which trusts its audience to recognise a crisis without screeching violin strings makes a change from all those drawing-room dramas.

Wisely, playwright Mike Hudson approaches the deep horror of the 1994 summer slowly and obliquely. Acknowledging the situation's impossible complexity, he still helpfully covers a lot of information in a few explanatory moments.

Based loosely on the experiences of Rwandan Francois Byamana (who plays the lead role, Philippe), the focus is on Philippe's secure younger life with his parents, and on his experiences in a Red Cross refugee camp, where he meets Nick (a suitably blustery Andrew Grainger), a New Zealand sanitation engineer.

The hustle and bustle of all-too-human humanitarians - their turf wars and flirtations, dilemmas and dangers - are wonderfully covered in expert thumbnail sketches.

The aid workers may save lives, but their African helpers save their lives - and then serve them a cup of tea.

It's just a pity the stories of some of the other refugees aren't touched on as well; and the simple, format ending obscures the long years Byamana spent in the camps before he came to New Zealand.

Marvellously directed by Margaret-Mary Hollins, the action is subtle and the pace nicely varied (although the slow-motion was occasionally a little much).

The cast of eight are good; young Karima Mudat is a revelation, and the swivel and tilt of Byamana's head says much about the irony and distance a refugee can affect as survival mechanism.

A theatrical gem.

What: A Thousand Hills
Where: Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre
When: Until October 30

- Herald online

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