Theatre Review: The Bone Feeder, Tapac Theatre

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Llanyon Eli Joe is in the play The Bone Feeder. Photo / APN
Llanyon Eli Joe is in the play The Bone Feeder. Photo / APN

Of all the ships wrecked off the Hokianga, few can have been carrying stranger cargo than the SS Ventnor, dispatched from the Otago goldfields in 1902 with the coffins of 499 miners who had hoped to have their bones returned to their families in China.

In the hands of playwright Renee Liang, this intriguing historical incident becomes a springboard for a powerful drama in which longing for a return to the ancestral homeland is set against the immigrants' desire to put down roots in their adopted home.

While focusing on a particular community, the play explores how this continuously evolving dialectic shapes the identity of all who arrive, then find themselves staying in a new country.

The story unfolds through a clever, multi-layered structure that swings back and forward in time and encompasses the voices of both the living and the dead.

A fifth-generation Chinese New Zealander investigating the shipwreck is drawn in to a strange encounter with the ghosts of the miners who have made a home for themselves in the Hokianga after their bones were re-buried by the local iwi.

This fascinating cultural reunion is observed and facilitated by a Maori ferryman played by Rob Mokaraka, who brings a wonderfully engaging, laconic humour to the whole enterprise.

The multiple voices are neatly complemented by a rich variety of story-telling techniques and director Lauren Jackson does a superb job in seamlessly bringing together puppetry, dance, song, martial arts, shadow screens and aerial acrobatics.

On occasions, the magic realist style seems to move too easily between the world of the living and the dead but the mystery of the spiritual dimension is restored as the play abandons dialogue and communicates through finely choreographed dance sequences.

The rich visual tapestry is beautifully supported by a remarkable soundtrack that is performed live with an intricate blend of Chinese and Maori instruments.

The large cast establishes a strong physical presence with plenty of mischievous humour and the two lead roles are both well handled, with Kevin Ng capturing the awkwardness of a modern Kiwi kid who finds himself well outside of his comfort zone, while Gary Young convincingly portrays the emotional journey of a character from another time.

What: The Bone Feeder.
Where: Tapac Theatre, to November 20.

- NZ Herald

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