Does the Western world have a right to impose its liberal values on developing nations? What if the nation is a tribe who may have created the first music known to man, and remained unchanged for 12,000 years? Surely they deserve a heritage status – unless, that is, their human rights abuses include the violent rape of young girls.
The tribe in question are the fictional Okoku people on the equally fictional Pacific island of New Cornwall. They’re under threat from Chinese forces who want to raze the land, potentially awakening the world-destroying spirit known as the Shiverman. But Roy (Paul Mooney), an anthropologist who was fired from his teaching position because of an improper realtionship, hopes to make the discovery of a lifetime, saving the Okoku and his own career.
The only thing standing in their way is UNESCO approval, but ritual mutilation and sexual abuse don’t go down well with their peace-keeping conventions. When the practices of the tribe’s holy men are uncovered by Roy’s visiting partner Dominique (Lisa Kay), she threatens to tell UNESCO, and so doom the tribe to destruction by the Chinese.
James Sheldon’s play is an intelligent tract on liberal values, with valid arguments on all sides. What the drama lacks in subtlety and snappy dialogue, it makes up for in being very interesting. There’s no easy answer to this situation and it’s great to see an issue of this calibre played out on our fringe stages. Nicky Bunch’s vibrant jungle set also adds a pleasing visual and dynamic flow as the actors turn a table-top into the sun for a change of location.
The main story is interwoven with a heist-style subplot involving Terri (Eleanor Wyld), an Australian assistant anthropologist, and Roy’s Okoku trainee Tatalau (Benjamin Cawley). While the flirty and violent scenes are a little more difficult to swallow, the real depth comes from Tatalau’s realisation that he has betrayed and lost his heritage by selling too much of himself to the Westerners.
Cawley, as the talented Tatalau, has a lovely charisma and easily draws in the most sympathy. He knows how to balance the proud islander with the vulnerable young boy and invites us unflinchingly into his world. But director Tom Littler should probably have spent a bit more time on the actors playing Westerners, as they struggle to find the truth in their characters, and consistent accents. There was a bit too much shouting for the small space and we longed for some intimacy to match the delicate subject matter. The storytelling interludes, provided by a winsome-looking tribesman in make-up, are also misjudged as they just distract from the play.
But on the whole, the moral mire that is presented to us is in itself worthy of our attention. Post colonialism versus cultural relativism is never an easy sell, but Shiverman is a notable attempt at making it palatable.
Shiverman runs until 26th May 2012 at Theatre 503, London, SW11 3BW. Tickets are £14 (concessions available). To book call 020 7978 7040 or visit theatre503.com.
Featured image: Courtesy of Theatre 503.