Fiery Tongues – Bats Theatre February 24, 2017

It’s been a long time since I was at Bats Theatre, at least in the audience.  Like Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement I grew up on the concrete floor of that small but perfectly cramped stage sweating blood for my art.  The big difference, of course is they went on to make it big as Hollywood types and I went on to sign up to a mortgage and a loan on a SUV.  But that doesn’t take away my absolute admiration for anyone who can cram a major idea into a small space and really get impact. 

Shows at Bats are always challenging, creative and inspiring.  The place has been considerably cleaned up over the last little while, following major reno work and a short stint squatting around town, and is looking very spiffy.  It still has that great ‘theatre’ vibe that I remember from my ‘Young and Hungry’ Festival days and it was a real pleasure to return again.

Tonight’s one-hour transplant from Brighton’s fringe festival to Wellington’s Fringe Festival was no exception.  I should add that this show has also done Glastonbury, and the Edenborough Fringe, plus many others besides.  The premise for the show is that poetry is ‘boring’, ‘useless’, ‘dull’, ‘tedious’.  So say the detractors.  There are always detractors.  But try detracting Shelly, Firdousi, Ginsberg, Country Joe and The Fish, Angelou, Gil Scott Heron or Pussy Riot.  Try telling Helen Reddy or Tracy Chapman they are not poets with ‘teeth’.  Or any of the 80 poets and writers quoted and requoted referenced in this anthology of poetic uprisings.  This show is a celebration and a lesson of radical verse and lyrics that have changed the world for good, supported by music, especially created for the show and performed live.  It’s also proof that poetry can defy generations, armies and even kings.

Poetry was the language of rebellion nearly 3000 years ago.  The first ‘story’ of the power of poetry comes from Epic of Gilgamesh, which is mentioned as part of tonight’s proceedings, comes from ancient Mesopotamia, and is often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature.  The first half of the story discusses Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods to stop Gilgamesh from oppressing the people of Uruk.  After an initial fight, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become close friends. Together, they journey to the Cedar Mountain and defeat Humbaba, its monstrous guardian. Later they kill the Bull of Heaven, which the goddess Ishtar sends to punish Gilgamesh for spurning her advances.  As a punishment for these actions, the gods sentence Enkidu to death.  In there is a moral about the perils of tyranny, a theme that in Fiery Tongues is carried right through to the appropriated poetic quotes written by pacifist protestors on the walls of Wall Street banks during the Occupy movement.

Tonight’s show was the opening night for the Wellington performance.  Done simply, the players stand in a row with microphones and deliver their lines like a band and it’s backing singers.  There is music from guitars and an Irish drum (to punctuate the Orange Uprising) and voice.  It’s a well-practiced routine now, so even the occasional glitch like a dead microphone battery was going to sway them from their path.  Hutchins has brought over Sameena Zehra and Mike McKeon from the UK shows and they are joined by locals – actor and Fred Dagg Comedy Award and Billy T Comedy Award Nominee James Nokise and Basement Theatre stalwart Anya Tate-Manning.  Both are at ease in their roles, thoroughly enjoying it as they recite lines, songs and chants in chorus-fashion while Roy Hutchins delivers his easy, soft but impacting dialogue, completely from memory.  His style is very close to adlib but you can tell it’s well-rehearsed.  He educates but never dictates.

Sameena Zehra has a wonderful most unique voice, deep enough to resonate through the audience’s bones.  Tonight there’s a couple of flutters, perhaps due to jet lag but overall she trills to the rhythm of song and poetry like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

I found the whole show to be quite captivating.  It’s a show that is not really for bookworms only – more for anyone who wants to learn more about the world.  Tonight’s audience were a really mix of Bats’ people, friends and walk-ins.  I hope the numbers will keep up because this is a show worth seeing.

I’m not one to recite poetry but the lines from Shelley, quoted tonight, remain in my head.  Ghandi recited them, too, in defiance of British troops and – and triumphed, without firing a single shot.  Shelley was also translated to Chinese and carried by protestors in Tiananmen Square.  It’s surprising where it ends up but the message is always clear.  Perhaps as the theme of the night: “Ye are many-they are few”  We, the right, will prevail.  So I hope you’re listening, Donald Trump!

“Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number –

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you

Ye are many-they are few.”

Tim Gruar