The boringly obvious trope for a Shakespeare-in-prison narrative is salvation through supposed enlightenment and Cellfish could so easily have been To Miss, With Love, with Miriama McDowell as Sidney Poitier.

But refreshingly, this complex, knowing two-hander avoids this trap, and instead plays with audience expectation on many levels. For instance, an idealised Corrections Officer identifies with Shakespeare's Benvolio (he wants the best for everyone) and also speaks fluent te reo with an Indian accent. It's great to see an onstage exchange between Maori and non-Pakeha tauiwi unmediated by Pakeha.

Many more characters identify with archetypes: Shakespearean, Maori and comic book heroic. Do such chosen icons shape or simply reflect their interaction with the world? Cellfish leaves this as an open question.

The inmates are sympathetically portrayed; their offences are not ignored but they are backgrounded. The focus instead is inter-generational violence. We hear that nobody starts off as a menacing "taniwha" and, as one character says, when discussing the media frenzy over dead babies,"nobody cares about the babies who survive".

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The script by McDowell, Rob Mokaraka and director Jason Te Kare is beautifully polished and superbly supported by Thomas Press' soundscapes which bring amusing fantasies to life.

Rich references to Hine-nui-te-po, the Goddess of Death disappear too quickly but the treatment of gender is fascinating and an extended "Parisian Apache" dance is fantastically chilling (its melodramatic coda is superfluous).

The two excellent actors - McDowell and Mark Ruka - share the characters with impressive ease. Given the plot, the multiple characters, the Shakespeare and the time-hopping between scenes (denoted by Jane Hakaraia's quick-flash lighting changes), it pays to pay attention and to have a nodding acquaintance with Macbeth.

While the play isn't tense enough to warrant its "psychological thriller" tag, the end cleverly brings new angles to the Maori theatre tropes of family melodrama and finale haka. An auspicious and wonderful start to the Auckland Arts Festival.

What: Auckland Arts Festival and Silo Theatre: Cellfish
Where & when: Q Theatre to March 14 March; Te Oro, Glen Innes, March16-17