Shiverman is a play that creates many moral and political dilemmas but, as is sometimes the case, plays that deal with big and important issues don't always get it right.
It is commendable and ambitious to choose to focus on the culture of an indigenous tribe and the work of UNESCO in protecting these untouched primordial groups against economic exploitation - not necessarily a topic that is currently on the media radar! It is even more adventurous if you present the audience with a difficult dilemma: can you condone sexual abuse and violence as part of a culture ritual and belief? Or shall our "civilized" world, with all of our flaws and environmental disasters, try to stop it, even at risk of destroying such an ancient and prosperous culture?
This is what the characters of this play try to answer in this two-hour long production. The writer, New-York based James Sheldon, has given much thought to these issues and had definitely attempted to challenge the audience with this crude predicament. All of the characters are typical in academia: Dominique (Lisa Kay) is a researcher, works for various important organizations and travels around the world. Terri (Eleanor Wyld) is young, bright Australian graduate, slightly tomboyish, but with a brilliant future ahead. The fallen professor Roy (Paul Mooney), an infamous anthropologist, who having slept with a 19 year old student has lost his reputation and career, makes the study of the Okoku tribe his personal obsession. Passing a UNESCO resolution to keep the Okoku’s habitat intact on the basis of their musical heritage is the only way to save his career. Even the only indigenous character involved in the action, Tatalau’e (Benjamine Cawley) has high academic ambitions, to study at a famous Californian university after marrying his sweetheart.
There is a conflict of egos, all seemingly working towards one main goal, that of saving the Okoku, but each have their own hidden agendas, their own little secrets and flaws. The writing, in this instance, works out very well. However, in the first fifteen minutes the production feels rather contrived and artificial, especially as the characters explain themselves and the background to the story. It is a question of heavy-handed writing and sluggish directing. On occasion, the long dialogues and lengthy discussions feel quite unnatural and uncomfortable. As it progresses, the tensions build up and some good acting starts to emerge, especially from Roy (Paul Mooney), whose presence on stage and charisma carries the weight of the whole production.
There are still some odd directorial choices that make the production seem amateurish in places. The narrator - maybe the titular Shiverman himself, maybe just one of the Okoku, played with good skill by Fisayo Akina - is forced to wait, kneel, and hide from audience at the edge of the stage throughout the play. At the end of each lengthy scene he jumps on stage and delivers his heartfelt monologues narrating the myth of the Shiverman.
The set works against the space itself: the Amazonian tropical setting is at odds with the limited space of the 503, which is transformed with green papery foliage hanging from the ceiling. Rather unimaginatively, a fireplace in the middle and bright colours are all that is needed to represent the Okoku’s habitat and the world these characters occupy.
The script, unfortunately, loses steam and momentum, and the characters’ confrontations during the climax are rather lengthy; the end ineffectively answers any of the moral dilemmas and concludes by suggesting that the Shiverman brings everybody to justice; it is, in the end, the primordial that wins over the civilized. What makes this average theatrical experience worthwhile is the good acting and the context of the play.
"Before the first morning, in the time of the Shiverman, when the ground trembled and fire tumbled down the mountainside, the music began."
On a tiny Pacific island, Roy Turner is on the brink of announcing the discovery of a lifetime. But as American researchers and aid workers land on the island, Roy's football-mad assistant Tatalau'e faces a choice. Should he play by the ancient rules of his people or should he move with the times, and risk the wrath of the Shiverman?
"Human rights? Who are you to say what is right for humans?"
A magical and provocative new play.
Theatre503503 Battersea Park Road
London Greater London United Kingdom SW11 3BW
Nearest Train Station: Clapham Junction
Nearest Tubes: Vauxhall, South Kensington
Bus Stop: The Latchmere (44, 49, 319, 344, 345)
Local residential parking free from 17:00.
19:45 (17:00 on Sundays)