Directed by Julie Nolan and Kate Parker
Devised by Red Leap Theatre
Maidment Theatre, Auckland | March 6-10
I’ve never seen a Red Leap show before, which is a massive gap in my own personal theatre-going diary. After hearing nothing but rave reviews for The Arrival and Paper Sky, I went into Sea not knowing exactly what to expect, but with high expectations nonetheless.
Sea is, visually and aurally, a beautiful piece of work. From the gorgeous fabric that hangs above the stage and is flung by the cast back and forth to represent humans both on and under the sea, to the lighting that gently illuminates it, it is never dull to look at. The actors move beautifully around the stage, bringing to life everything from a person floating helplessly off a ship to the ship itself. When combined with a delicate, but affecting score, the craft of Sea is designed to put us in a state of awe and move us.
Unfortunately, the narrative that all this impressive craft hangs off is less moving. The show starts off with a shipwreck, where people from all different nationalities have to work together to find food, water, and ultimately land. The story it seems to be telling is about the relationship between humanity and sea, and perhaps how it is a metaphor for the relationships between humans. This thematic material is rich with many depths to explore, investigate, and physicalise onstage. However, at around the halfway mark, the story becomes less clear and an environmentalist theme starts to emerge. Noble as this is, it simplifies the show in a way it doesn’t need, and at this point the narrative appears to take a sharp left turn into something less complex and ultimately less interesting. By the time the curtain falls, the craft is no less impressive, but the narrative is a little confused and muddled.
The cast remain excellent throughout, performing a seemingly endless amount of roles, from actual characters to puppeteering some seriously gorgeous puppets; the last and most impressive of which I won’t spoil, but it almost got immediate applause from me. They also move as a cohesive unit and give the play an emotional weight where the story doesn’t. Even if we don’t know these people—and frankly we don’t really get to know them too well throughout the piece—we care about them and we want them to do good in the world. The cast also manages some impressive physical feats, and it’s a genuine pleasure to watch this many bodies onstage working in unison.
Sea isn’t a failure, not even close. I can’t say I came out of the show with all my expectations met, but I definitely came out with an appreciation for the work that Red Leap does, and this style of theatremaking. It’s a show that, with a little more time and development behind it, could be something great. For now, and for whatever happens in the future for this show, it’s a pleasant piece that doesn’t quite scale the lofty heights of other Red Leap shows. And honestly, that’s a high bar for any show to clear.