Owen McCarthy in A Fragrant Tone of Light

A Fragrant Tone of Light

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16-18 September 2019 /
Various locations across Heretaunga including Parlour Projects, Kai Tangata and Mangaroa Hawke’s Bay Regional Prison /
By Jess Soutar Barron

Mā te mahitahi, ka tipu ngā toi mō te katoa.

Accessibility to the arts starts at the front door. We hariru. Kids on cushions on the floor. Kaumatua with tokotoko, tāmoko. Tauiwi crowding in accepting embrace. Chirrupings, smatterings of reo. Every one of us welcomed on our level in our language, our name used, our eyes receiving their contact. It’s “free” but that goes beyond hard cash into other currency: free of barriers, free of judgements, free of dress code, free of status, quo or other. We park ourselves on forms, freeform.

Owen McCarthy and Puti Lancaster, in amber and ochre, welcome us, whaikōrero.

This is the perfect place for what comes next. One wall wide open with windows. Anyone outside could see us laid bare but they’d never really know what’s happening inside. The structure exposed, bones visible, pou tokomanawa high above. This is our wharekōrero; we are constructing it together.

McCarthy is creating the coastline. Not any coast but ours. He’s driftwood. All angles: knotted, brittle, skeletal. Lancaster is soft-edged sea-glass. They make the beach before us. Eyes flick to each other, call/response, echo and repeat. There’s an invisible line between the two but they keep their distance to maintain a taut net around us, to include us, to make us essential to the telling.

McCarthy and Lancaster are working in a genre that would sit somewhere near verbatim theatre, place-based making, but there’s no box big enough or loose enough to hold this work. This is theatre you feel. Words won’t do it. Smatterings of conversation coming at you across a distance: distorted, coming in waves, disjointed.

McCarthy makes massive shadows on the wall behind. He measures the entire height of the wharenui. His shadow self so much more imposing, the myth of the man, made monstrous.

Measurement is a strong theme throughout. Of time, space, place, distance, weight, sound, light. But bracing that, as immovable baselines, are trust, kids, mahi: the constants that remain, the things that strengthen, the construct that frames.

McCarthy is particularly present when he engages directly with the audience, when he’s front and centre. He channels the base material in tone and manner. He’s too familiar then. It’s confronting. But that acknowledgement of the issues makes them 3D-real. It breaks the binary of bad and good, right and wrong, crim and victim and instead shows the half-tones and overlapping edges, the penumbra around our imperfect selves.

Stunning lighting design delivers hearth-warmth, then surreal phosphorescence, then golden light at dawn: Te Ata Rangi, the new beginning. It brings rich atmosphere to the starkness of the room, delivering layers of emotion. So too does the soundscape, even alone it’d make beautiful sense. It would be enough.

At one point we are handed the message in the form of a well-worn Walkman. We each hold it in cupped hands, the voice reverberating through our skin. We are responsible for our next action: hold it close, sit with the story for a beat, pass it on. In this moment we are all culpable. We are told of the men whose stories we’re holding: “Their wish was just to reach you”. We receive each story as taonga. E iti noa ana nā te aroha.

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