Review: Call of the Sparrows, Herald Theatre

By Janet McAllister

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Proudly Asian Theatre can be justifiably proud of its new play, Call of the Sparrows.
Proudly Asian Theatre can be justifiably proud of its new play, Call of the Sparrows.

This beautiful, thought-provoking new show from Chinese-Pakeha writer/actor Chye-Ling Huang and Proudly Asian Theatre is exquisitely staged and marvellously theatrical; it's enjoyable even though it feels like two plays, perhaps two-thirds of a trilogy on power relations.

Call of the Sparrow's first half is about a lowly outsider grappling with village hierarchy, headed by her hostile new mother-in-law. But after interval, we're introduced to several new characters within a more overt political fable of the risks and potential excesses of revolution.

It's a very tidy Orwellian presentation charting "progress" from freedom to obligation (nodding towards 20th century Chinese history), and - happily - it's too sophisticated to revert to goodies and baddies (although it sort-of champions isolationism in the face of a refugee crisis).

We're shown dilemmas for the new order: for example, should they repurpose or destroy existing symbols? A totemic circle no longer means eternal repetition, says the revolutionary leader (Sarah Nessia, embodying the deadly certainty of a zealot), but a "wheel moving forward".

This parable is perceptive, unusual work before it turns to melodrama - but it's tacked-on to the magic-realist setting of the first half, making the show over-long.

Christine Urquhart's attractive set of white and metallic-blue silk cleverly evokes mountains and director James Roque uses it to excellent effect, keeping the "low lives" off the high platform. The theatrical tricks - unusual cheek-only masks, old-school overhead projections - feel integrated rather than gimmicky, while the continuous soundscape from onstage musician Nikita Tu-Bryant is also skilfully interwoven with the action to become a real and delightful highlight.

The five actors are extremely hard-working and navigate through the intricacies of several characters apiece with aplomb, helped by Michael McCabe's wonderful, suggestive costume elements - a half robe here, a ragged jumper there. Huang provides welcome light relief as a mischievous sprite who moves with dancer-like control.

Masks mean that comparisons with theatre company Indian Ink will be drawn - but Call of the Sparrows has its own depth and own aesthetic and deserves to be lauded on its own terms.

What: Call of the Sparrows
Where and when: Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre; to Saturday, October 16

- NZ Herald

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