By Insider – Jock Phillips
With the notable exception of the punning James Belich, us historians are serious types. We sit back, fold our hands and take time to pronounce laconically on the great sweeps of history, or search with furrowed brows in archives and libraries to nail an elusive fact. So, to spend an evening laughing with Te Radar at his most enjoyable history show, Eating the Dog, represents a breakthrough and a significant reflection on where New Zealand culture has got to.
In a laugh-a-minute solo show, which is playing at Downstage in Wellington until Saturday, Te Radar (aka Andrew Lumsden) tells some weird and wonderful stories from New Zealand’s past. He does not need to embroider the facts, for the subjects’ eccentricities speak for themselves. Te Radar has combed the evidence to uncover the strange and bizarre; and what he has found is a tribute both to his dedication and to what can be found on the web. Taking many of his leads from Te Ara, he has then drawn on Papers Past to uncover the telling details. It is all presented with the help of a clever PowerPoint display, some deft ad-libbing, and a bottle of Emerson’s beer and giant snifter of red wine.
There are some great stories:
- The title of the show refers to Thomas Brunner‘s mammoth 550-day journey in 1846–8 along with two Māori guides and their wives through the Buller Gorge down the West Coast and back again. At one point they were so famished that Brunner killed his dog Rover and ate it.
- There is the wonderful tale of the two septuagenarian prospectors who were combing the West Coast for uranium in 1955. They stopped at Hawk’s Crag in the Buller Gorge to relieve the call of nature, and suddenly their Geiger counter went berserk. For a time they were the stars of the coast, which proceeded to issue uranium ice cream.
- Robert Wallath was the masked Taranaki highwayman of 1892–2, although as Te Radar notes there were just mud tracks, no highways, in Taranaki at that stage. Nor was he a very successful robber – with appropriate Robin Hood principles he would let people go if they were just ordinary ‘working men.’
- There’s a very funny film of Robert Semple‘s corrugated iron tank, which probably did not have Hitler quaking in his boots.
- And there is the sad story of New Zealand’s first balloonist, Captain Charles Lorraine, who climbed aboard his balloon and drifted far out to sea never to be seen again.
To get serious, there are a couple of interesting points about Eating the Dog and its popularity. The first is that the work is driven by Te Radar’s insistence that New Zealand history is a rich and exciting field to till. We used to think that history was something that only happened in the so-called ‘old world’, where they had castles and ruins and ‘tradition’. We are beginning to realise that a land mass that has been separate from the world for over 80 million years, and has had human settlement since the time of the Crusades actually has quite a long history and certainly an extraordinarily interesting one. Te Radar wants his show to spark greater interest especially in the schools. Getting people to laugh at our past is an important step in taking it seriously.
The other matter of note is that the almost full house at the show last night were, with the exception of the Irishman in the front row, New Zealanders. This suggests that the Real New Zealand Festival, originally conceived as a way of show-casing the creativity of this culture to our World Cup visitors, is also serving a different role. It has become an opportunity for New Zealanders themselves to explore their own culture. Te Radar had originally performed the show last year, and it was brought back for the festival. I am certain that rugby fans from overseas would love Te Radar’s show, and I hope more of them go in the next couple of nights. But even if they do not, getting New Zealanders to laugh at their own foibles and get them interested in their history is a major contribution.