Erewhon @ Summerhall

Arthur Meek's collaboration with Magnetic North reimagines a classic Victorian novel about a fictitious land where women rule, but doesn't quite deliver

Review by Katie Hawthorne | 09 Aug 2018
  • Erewhon

Self-awareness and caution are admirable, but a ten minute-long disclaimer feels like a red flag. New Zealand playwright and performer Arthur Meek details how, as a white man, he’s the worst person possible to tell – or even gaze upon – a story like this one, filled as it is with colonial-era racism and sexism. Still, he promises that the very worst bits are redacted, and then dons a deerstalker hat and a suitably nobby English accent: to heck with the warnings! We’re off!

In collaboration with Scotland’s Magnetic North, the play reimagines Samuel Butler’s satirical Victorian novel about a fictitious nation named Erewhon: a matriarchy that sits somewhere between utopia and dystopia. The society contradicts stuffy Victorian mores, but opaque rules regarding crime and punishment offer a sharp critique of liberal attitudes, too.

An antique magic lantern, an iPhone (set to Facebook Live) and a truly magical live score from Eva Prowse illustrate the misadventures of Meek’s rakish would-be coloniser, who fails to assert himself over the Erewhonians. Instead he is taken hostage and ultimately diagnosed with “genocidal impulses”. When the social critiques hit home there is humour in the character’s blind ignorance, but the plot (and the politics) are tied in increasingly complicated knots.

The lantern’s projected illustrations – sometimes pastoral, sometimes pleasingly filthy – offer assistance, but Summerhall’s lecture theatre setting adds to the sense of sitting in a baffling seminar. Meek is a fascinating, engaging performer, but after Erewhon’s proselytising start and fantastical neo-historical potential, it’s surprising that very little is concretely said.

Erewhon, Summerhall (Cairns Lecture Theatre), until 26 Aug (not 13, 20), 1:25pm, £10 (£8)

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