The relationship between man and nature has inspired playwrights since the birth of theatre. From Sophocles to Shakespeare, the agonists of the stage have never been able to escape their fate. Try as they might, there will always be a natural order. Natural order, however, is a somewhat contradictory term when one considers what appears to be – from our perspective – the chaos of it all. Death, for example, while inevitable, can be so seemingly random. As random as human behaviour.
In a small room of the Arataki Visitor Centre, playwright Gary Stalker performs his solo work, Ghost Trees. It’s an apt setting for the piece, which weaves the story of Kauri dieback with the loss of the narrator’s wife to cancer, not only because of the fauna surrounding the venue, but of the lecture-like layout of the room in which it’s performed. I say narrator, because it’s never quite clear who Stalker is portraying in his recitation.
There’s always a risk when a writer performs their own work that the performance will never truly be one of discovery through the text, because the actor brain already knows what the writer brain wants to say. And in this instance, the didactic drive feels more like a TED Talk than a theatre piece. That’s not to say that Stalker’s writing is not worthy as a theatrical work. Far from it. The images Stalker seeds, aided by an evocative soundscape from Jude Robertson, is an excellent balance between the simple beauty of both science and nature. However, while there is a certain wild animation in Stalker’s eyes as he performs, it quickly becomes clear that between the beats, which director Paul Gittins masterfully orchestrates, Stalker is searching for his lines. What was a sense of excitement, quickly becomes one of danger, and not the good kind.
While billed as a one-man show, there is a significant amount of dialogue provided by Elizabeth Hawthorne, who imbues every line with life as if it’s being spoken for the first time, which begs the question as to why a decision wasn’t made to either include the actress on stage or cut the role completely. There’s also the fact that being spoken in the past tense means that we can’t invest in the remission storyline, because we know Kate is dead from the near beginning. Which is the central issue with Ghost Trees. We don’t really care. Stalker shows little to no emotion, and speaks tripplingly through the text, so while the Platonic “dialogue” is there, any catharsis is absent. If the script were to be performed by another actor (Gittins perhaps?), the chance for a more full and rich character could lift Ghost Trees to a higher branch.