Quarantined on Somes Island

SOMETHING SINISTER: Quarantine includes makeup effects by the Oscar-winning Weta Workshop. "It's kind of like a surreal, psychological thriller, I guess," says director Paul Stephanus.
SOMETHING SINISTER: Quarantine includes makeup effects by the Oscar-winning Weta Workshop. "It's kind of like a surreal, psychological thriller, I guess," says director Paul Stephanus.

Wellington is in the grip of a disease outbreak, a killer illness. Frightened people batten the doors of their houses, fearing to get to close to others.

You are identified as a carrier, a risk, and have been ordered to quarantine on Matiu/Somes Island, in Wellington harbour.

Crammed onto the boat with others, you watch civilisation recede and wonder what the dark has in store for you.

It's frighteningly easy to imagine  and the worst-case scenario will be made even more real when Quarantine, the story of what the horrific experience might be like, is bought to life this week.

The play will involve theatregoers being shepherded onto the ferry to Matiu/Somes Island at 8.40pm, ready for their passage. They are told they have contracted a contagious disease, and have been ordered to be held in quarantine by the Health Ministry.

When they arrive on the shores in the dead of night, it is to find the ghosts of times past haven't quite decided to call it quits.

"It's got to be dark, because they've got to be sufficiently spooked," director Paul Stephanus says. "We are going to confront them with some weird stuff on the island ... I want them to feel like walking out, but that is just as scary as staying inside. I want them to feel like there is nowhere to go.

"It's kind of like a surreal, psychological thriller, I guess."

For Stephanus, an island is not a safe haven, a utopia that makes him want to pack his togs.

Low and dark in the water, marooned in the choppy sea, an island is something much more sinister.

"The way I see it, you've got a city, like civilisation, and then the island which is right next to the city, but it's dark, there are no lights on ... to me, it represents the subconscious. It represents the sort of dark side of things."

It will be the first show theatre troupe Bard Productions has bought to Wellington since Frogs Under the Waterfront, the 2009 comedy that took audiences to a performance on boats under the waterfront's walkways.

Looking for inspiration for a new play, Stephanus travelled across to Matiu/Somes Island, the predator-free wildlife retreat in the Wellington Harbour.

Listening to Department of Conservation rangers lay out the island's history, he was intrigued. Only, his point of interest wasn't the native birds, or the bush-clad environment  it was in a history that seemed to be only lightly touched upon.

From the 1870s until World War I, Somes Island was used as a quarantine station for immigrants arriving on ships from England. Fatigued after their arduous journey, they would be loaded onto the foreign shore and made to sit in a smoke house  in a cloud of chlorine, potassium nitrate and sulphur fumes  for 10 minutes to get rid of possible disease. More than 40 people were thought to have lost their lives on the island, from illnesses such as typhoid, smallpox and scarlet fever.

"You think about these people who go on a three-month-long journey in horrible conditions  and after all their hopes and dreams and decision to take all the risk and come over, they were put on the island and died there," Stephanus says.

"There was so little said about this, and it suddenly occurred to me that this had been kind of glossed over or forgotten  not necessarily because people chose to do that, but maybe the concept of disease wasn't something people liked dealing with."

Initially, Stephanus considered bringing to life the characters of Shakespeare's Tempest, or the asylum-bound prisoners in Marat/Sade.

But the more he considered it, the more he realised our eerie slice of history needed a story of it's own.

Enter scriptwriter Luke Hawker, whose experience included conjuring up blood and gore for horror films. The pair were interested in the concept of island as asylum, and how this could be conveyed to an audience, Stephanus says.

"It's a place that's separated from the rest of civilisation, just like diseases are. As soon as a person has a disease they stop being human really, and they start being a danger.

"The idea of humans with diseases being sub-human, and segregated and maybe crazy ... since the audience is stuck there with them, they are forced to confront it."

After working closely together for an intense two months, they had a script  and since December, rehearsals have been frantic. Even the actors can't help but be spooked sometimes, he says.

"It's been difficult for everyone, because the subject matter is so sort-of disturbing as well  all the actors find it quite hard.

"On the island, you can definitely feel it. Especially when you are rehearsing there in the day, and stay there all night ... [we were] especially freaked out."

Though there is nothing wrong with a stage, taking an audience on a journey is easier if it's literal, he says.

"It's better for the play. They get taken to a dark island with medical people on a boat and get fumigated  it's easy for them to imagine, it makes it more real. If you take someone into a theatre and say 'you're quarantined' it's harder to imagine."

The seven performances from February 3 to 19 have sold out already, but Stephanus plans to run the play over three extra nights on February 26, and March 4 and 5. He's hoping to return some kind of a profit, with chartering a boat each night and associated costs leaving the troupe slightly out of pocket.

For his next project, he is trying to get the Corrections Department to let him stage Waiting for Godot with the inmates at Wellington Prison; "They've said yes, but I'm just waiting for the bureaucracy."

And his dream site-specific work would be staging Hamlet under a solar eclipse  or he would settle for anything, really, that's outside of convention.

The Dominion Post