The Arrival – magical mystery tour with bite

Red Leap's adaptation of The Arrival 2009
Red Leap’s production of The Arrival, Auckland March 2009

I’ve just been to see The Arrival a new production that’s had its world premiere at this year’s Auckland Festival.

The Arrival is a piece of physical theatre and interpretive dance created by Kate Parker and Julie Nolan with assistance from leading New Zealand dance muse Michael Parmenter (described as Movement Consultant in the programme) and set to haunting music by Andrew McMillan.

The production is based on a comic novel by Australian writer and illustrator Shaun Tan, but if you’re thinking Watchmen you’re way off.

Tan’s work is allegorical, deep and humorous. He writes about social dislocation, colonialism, memory and depression. The Red Leap Theatre’s adaptation of the story is faithful, innovative and well-crafted.

Illustrations from Shaun Tan's The Arrival

Illustrations from Shaun Tan's The Arrival

The Arrival tells the story of an immigrant’s struggle to come to terms with a new and strange land. He has fled what seems to be a war zone and left behind his wife and child. He is bewildered by all the new sights, sounds, smells and rituals of the land he arrives in and as the narrative unfolds he begins to adapt, learn the language and make friends.

A simple tale, but one rich in symbolism. The costumes, faithful to the book, are reminiscent of post WWII refugees, sort of middle 20th century proletarian shabby-chic. At the same time there’s a vaguely contemporary feel that invokes the Balkan wars and the Middle Eastern conflicts of recent years.

Because The Arrival started life as a graphic novel it has no dialogue. Some briefs snips of speech are included in the production, but not in any recognisable language. I think I recognised a few words of French, but spoken with an accent that would kill the heart of an Alliance Francais professuer. There’s an angular and almost Slavic tone to the made up tongue. Luckily there’s not too much talking. In this case actions speak louder than words.

One aspect of the book that is rendered extremely well on stage is the range of phantastical creatures that our arrivalist encounters. They are rendered as puppets manipulated by the actors without any self-consciousness and they are delightful. They are manipulated with vigour and charm, particularly the large sperm-like creature (see illustration above) that behaves remarkably like a demented dog.

The puppets and the set (all designed by Simon Colement, Jessica Verryt and the 2Construct company) are an integral part of this production and very well done. They transform the simply dressed and well-lit space of the Civic theatre into a horrifying war zone, the rolling deck of a ship, a bewildering modern city, an apartment, a park and many other evocative spaces. It’s all done with the slide of a few well-made flats, boxes and jigsaw-like concertina constructions.

The story and the “play” (hardly seems an adequate description) are full of emotion and I couldn’t help thinking that it stands as a neat metaphor for much of the world’s horror that we see around us. People are displaced, are made into refugees, by circumstances beyond their control. They face uncertainty, their own fears and the deeply-felt loss of loved ones in a desperate bid to find a new, better life.

Ultimately Tan’s story is uplifting, the family is re-united and our arrivalist has found a new life, new friends (including the strange creatures) and he even learns to like to disgusting foreign food.

Well done New Zealand and hearty congratulations to everyone associated with this production.

PS: as we left the theatre, Moac said, “I want that dog,” meaning the puppet. Please let me know if any of the creatures can be bought when the production is finished.

6 Responses to The Arrival – magical mystery tour with bite

  1. Allan Botica says:

    Good review of a stunning and highly original piece of theatre. thanks Marti. For me it seemed more a dance than a play, but it worked on so many levels. In some ways I appreciated not remembering much about the book (which we bought as a gift for a refugee and so lost sight of almost immediately). It saved me from trying to make linear associations and freed up the way I saw the production.

  2. Kate says:

    Hi there Marti.
    Thanks so much for the review. It’s been an epic journey creating this play. And we have had overwhelming response. I just wanted to set you straight also about who did what as it’s quoted wrongly here: the set was designed by John Veryt, ALL the puppets birds/cat/owl/bouncing creatures etc. were designed and made by myself (including dog/mousey/spermy guy).
    Simon Coleman made the props and helped with detailing the puppets along with a very dedicated team of volunteers who if they had not been there we would have been stuffed.
    Jessica Veryt (John’s daughter) made the dragon guard dog the man encounters while trying out the postie job and she painted the miniature city and touched up all my birds and other creatures.
    Michael Parmenter was a mentor (in December for 4 sessions,and then again in Feb for 2 sessions, we devised the physical sequences and movement ourselves as thats what we do. We are physical theatre makers.
    However we gained so much from Michael (what a legend) and such a generous guy.
    Along with Shaun himself who I have to say has been the most generous artist within the whole process. We kept contact with him during the development process and he allowed us to go ahead and create his work and allowed us to make the work our own. He has seen all the reviews and he was very impressed, I know he will be looking forward to our dvd footage. And to the time when he will have the opportunity to see the show.

    So thank all those of you who did for coming and thank you for creating a blog. Keep spreading the word cos this is a show and book that needs to be heard. It is a part of our changing social psyche. An opportunity for NZ to lead the world in the way that that new and displaced people are to be treated.
    With care,respect and heart. Arohanui Kate Parker – Creator ‘The Arrival’ Theatre Show NZ 09

  3. Sigit says:

    Any chance that this is recorded on video or will be brought overseas? I love The Arrival, and I want to watch it live on a theatrical performance!

  4. Kate says:

    Kia Ora Sigit
    We are touring ‘The Arrival’ theatre production to Sydney Festival early Jan 2010 and Hong Kong Festival Feb 2010. We will be back in NZ for the Wellington Festival in March 2010.
    Check our website for details
    Kind Regards

  5. Hi Marty and readers
    Just letting you know that Red Leap Theatre are having an Open Day and Fundraiser to help The Arrival on its way to Sydney, Hong Kong and Wellington in 2010. It is at 107 Nielson n Rd, Onehunga from 10 – 3 THIS Sunday 6 December. There are classes for the public, photo exhibitions and a blessing at 12.30pm where you can meet the cast and crew. Auction items include original and limited edition Shaun Tan prints. For a full programme and auction list see the News section of Hope to see you there. Lauren

  6. Hi
    Just wanted to let you and your readers know that The Arrival is returning to Auckland in July for 3 public shows only. We are offering a free pre show forum on July 13 and show ticket are on sale here:
    The show is currently on tour in Korea and if you wish to follow the company in their travels, and their lead up to Auckland you can do so at
    Thanks so much
    Lauren Hughes, GM, Red Leap Theatre

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