There's a certain amount of irony in having Trygve (pronounced Trig-vee) Wakenshaw as the titular character in the play Mr Red Light.

It's set in a plain suburban pie shop which Mr Red Light bursts into after a bank robbery gone wrong. He holds hostage the store's equally insipid clientele and discovers that, much like him, they're people who are parked in life, constantly confronted by road blocks, stop signs and, well, red lights.

Wakenshaw is almost the exact opposite; he's never let obstacles stop him.

"I feel like if I get a red light or see one coming up, I'll turn down a different street so the journey will take me a lot longer but I would have whipped around and gone some different places and had a nice little drive on the way," he says.


It's what he's been doing since leaving New Zealand in 2008 to study in France under world-renowned master clown Philippe Gaulier. Rather than return home with his newly-honed skills, Wakenshaw decided to remain in Europe, with access to its thriving street and clown festivals, where he could write and perform his own shows: Squidboy, Kraken and Nautilus

In the last decade, the decision has more than paid off with travel to and performances at festivals from Berlin to Beijing as well as the first few months of the year in Australia and New Zealand. Wakenshaw says he can take his shows anywhere because they involve mime, not dialogue, and therefore translate easily.

Trygve (pronounced Trig-vee) Wakenshaw stars in the new play Mr Red Light.
Trygve (pronounced Trig-vee) Wakenshaw stars in the new play Mr Red Light.

His flexible face, exceptionally long legs and bendy body even saw the producers of the Pokémon movie Detective Pikachu hire him as the inspiration for the character Mr Mime. It means he is now one of our most successful theatrical exports.

Based in Prague, he's returned to New Zealand only because Nightsong productions' Ben Crowder and Carl Bland had a role for him in Mr Red Light.

"I have no interest in coming back and doing a Shakespeare [play] because you can do that anywhere; I don't have any interest in doing a revival play. If it's going to look like a play then I am not super interested in it but Ben and Carl bring something which, I think, is unlike a show you'll see in Auckland."

Formed more than a decade ago, Nightsong has gained a reputation for unique New Zealand theatre where numerous art forms – music, visual arts, puppetry, illusion, and choreography – find a home in productions replete with a sprinkling of magic and enchantment.

In previous Nightsong shows, actors have appeared in realistic seal costumes and performed on circular stages (360); shared the stage with life-sized giraffes and giant fish (Te Pou) and time-travelled through mysterious pools (Spirit House). As Crowder and Bland say, they're risk-takers which gets the thumbs up from Wakenshaw.

"I think I have learned that you may as well take a big risk and do something big and exciting that hasn't been done before because the worst thing that can happen is that it fails and the best thing that can happen is that it's sublime and incredible," he says. "Why would you do something that's just, that you know is going to work and that's fine. You may as well take a chance of creating something that's wonderful in the world."
Mr Red Light features one of their most ordinary-looking sets but audiences should expect some surprises.


"One of the things with all our works is that we are very interested in shapes and sizes and contrasts so even though Trygve is very tall, we are getting him to stand on very tall things at various points when someone else is on the ground," says Crowder. "The set is over 4m high and that's kind of a choice; we want to play with that space."

And, he points out, Mr Red Light is described as a trickster, a fool and a prophet so who – or what – he really is may be revealed.

The story, about a group of disparate characters seemingly stuck in their lives, continues Bland's whimsical and, he admits, ever so slightly autobiographical explorations into the human condition and what saves us when we need help. He says their intense experience in the pie shop is life-changing and leads them to find a common humanity.

"It's that thing that when you are desperate, it's always other people who are going to help save you," says Bland. "Being on your own, it doesn't really save you; it's people who save you either through someone loving you or understanding you.

"I suppose the theme is that because the world seems to be coming much more divisive, much more separate. I thought it was quite interesting to explore that, the commonality between people because we are all basically, no matter what the culture, human and we all feel the same things."

Mr Red Light is at the Aotea Centre's Herald Theatre, Friday August 30 – Sunday September 22 before a six city NZ tour. Alongside Wakenshaw, it stars Jennifer Ludlam, Simon Ferry, Jess Sayer and Richard Te Ara. Wakenshaw appears in the Auckland season only.