For the third time in three days I have just had an interesting theatrical experience which was not in a theatre – ‘The Complete History of World Rugby (Abridged)‘ was on a footie field; ‘Having a Ball‘ was in an inflatable dome; and now ‘The Earthquake in Chile’ was in a church. This is what Cantabrians have to do these days, when all the theatres are nothing but rubble.
I heard about the latest offering when I walked into the REAL New Zealand Festival events village and saw an ad for the 2011 Body Festival. Well, at first I thought that was an imaginative description for the World Cup. Then I picked up the brochure and found a feast of offerings – mostly dance. My eyes lit on ‘The Earthquake in Chile’ because I was thinking earthquakes.
I turned up at the scene, St Mary’s Anglican Church in Addington. I could see immediately that it was most glorious church – a tiny building with a separate bell tower. There were 96 seats, and I was number 97 – looked like I would miss out, until someone failed to turn up. So I was in. I was given a bright pink card and told to keep it. I entered the church, the organ was playing, the lighting was dark which made the stained glass windows (lit from outside) glow warmly. Shadows flickered on the beautiful curving wooden roof. On the prayer-book stand in front was an ‘order of service’.
The lights dimmed further and the actors/priests/choir proceshed up the aisle. The choir, singing a beautiful ‘Canto Penitencial’ (or so the order of service said), was dressed in scarlet capes with metre-high coned headdresses which made them look a bit like Ku Klux Klansmen in scarlet. There was a reading and an ‘Alleluia’, and then the sermon. This consisted of a rage about the city as a whore, a city which had lost its morals, a city which had turned over its soul to the money-brokers. A woman carrying a baby was the symbol of this whoring city. Then with a deafening roar, the earthquake hit, lights went out, and we were told to stay calm and move outside. I could see that for many in the audience this was a bit too close to reality.
Outside we entered a village market. There were people comforting us. They offered bottles of water and warm vegetable soup. We were told to gather around a leader who had a big sign marked by the colour of our cards. So I joined the other 11 people in the pink group. We were led into a round tent. In the middle of a circular table was a beautiful woman. We sat around the outside. She chanted about the glories of chocolate and then offered us an exquisite chocolate ball. We were asked to coat the chocolate in the icing on the plate; and then she picked up each plate and predicted our future.
Each tent, so I learnt, had a different experience. In my friend Huia’s tent there were two lovers who began to reminisce about places where they had eaten in Christchurch. They invited others to suggest names and before long it was a roll-call of cafes and eating places which had once been and were no more.
We were summoned to the bell tower. There were 96 seats around the four sides of the tower. In front of each was a red ribbon lying on the table, and at the end of the ribbon was a cardboard container. We were invited to pull the container towards us, write an order for a comforting food, and the actors retrieved the container. Then from the top of the tower large trays of food appeared. First a baked potato, then a delicate pastry, were placed in our containers. But we were only allowed to consume them if we all pulled the containers towards us in unison. If the line broke, it was start again. Working together was obviously the route to recovery.
Then it was on to the next ‘course’, this time in a very long tent with a thin table in the middle. 48 seats on either side; a glass of elderberry wine and another tasty morsel. We were invited to write down the first thing we had eaten after one of the big earthquakes. I felt distinctly an outsider.
Finally, we were invited back into the church, picking up a fortified ‘communion wine’ and biscotti on the way. More glorious singing of ‘Agnus dei’ and then mentally and physically handicapped people from the Addington community walked up the aisle to be ‘blessed’ by the presiding ‘bishop’. It was on to the closing song, William Blake’s ‘Jersualem’ – ‘I will not cease from mental fight/Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand/’til we have built Jerusalem/ In England’s green and pleasant land’.
So ended one of the more remarkable theatrical ‘experiences’ which I have had. During this REAL New Zealand Festival tour I have come across a number of expressions of Māori ritual presented to the world, most notably the haka performance in Hamilton. But I had been vaguely uneasy that there was no Pākehā ritual. Well this ‘service/play/feed’ – call it what you will, certainly captured the Anglican rituals and traditions of Christchurch in a way that was intensely meaningful to that community. It was the work of The Free Theatre of Christchurch working with the University of Canterbury, and it was based on a short story by Heinrich von Kleist. The cook was Richard Till.
There was no doubt that by the end the good people of Addington in the audience emerged, thoughtful, but physically and emotionally replete. The sense of food as mana of the gods, and eating as the best remedy for pain, were brilliantly evoked. Nowhere else but Christchurch after the earthquakes could such a performance have happened. I felt a bit like an imposter peeking into another’s world, but it was a privilege to be there. Christchurch people, if you need comfort food spiritual or physical, roll up.
Vox populi: I met a Christchurch man involved in assisting small businesses to relocate. He suggested that a few heritage buildings would be saved, such as the Cathedral (without a spire) and the Arts Centre, but that the centre of Christchurch would become truly a garden city with other activities moving to the suburbs. Already Addington is becoming the arts centre, Riccarton the shopping centre.