Arthur Meek and the magic lantern that sold New Zealand

Playwright and actor Arthur Meek.
David White

Playwright and actor Arthur Meek.

Like many great Kiwi projects, Arthur Meek's started with a Trade Me bargain.

The New Zealand playwright and performer picked up a 19th-century magic lantern, potentially worth thousands of dollars, on the 'buy now'  option for $250.

When it was delivered to his house, the brass pieces and hand-ground lenses wrapped in bubblewrap, Meek received a piece of New Zealand history.

Meek in his 'Young Lover' days.

Meek in his 'Young Lover' days.

The magic lantern led Meek to his latest show, Erewhon Revisited, which made its international debut at the Christchurch Arts Festival on Tuesday night.

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Magic lanterns were a kind of of primitive slide projector. A candle or kerosene lamp burning in the back filtered light through the glass slides and lenses, projecting an image onto the wall.

In the 1800s, the lanterns were a popular form of entertainment. Novels were adapted into magic lantern shows, and explorers returned to Europe from far-flung reaches of the world toured their home countries with images from their travels.

Meek says the magic lantern had an under-acknowledged role in the European settlement of New Zealand, and in particular, Canterbury.

"Representatives of the New Zealand Company went around in England with a magic lantern show showing 'New Zealand' - and I've got my verbal air quotes, because they were getting people to draw New Zealand who had never been here.

"Audiences were so rapt and enthralled by what they heard and what they saw about this awesome place called Canterbury, and the vision for this colony, that they sold up everything they had and got on ships and moved to New Zealand. It was insane, and it was all driven by this ability to show people pictures."

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In a way, Meek's magic lantern also connected to his own history as an actor and playwright.

Many of his previous works have involved a form of technology. For example, his plays On the Conditions and Possibilities of Helen Clark Taking Me as Her Young Lover and On the Conditions and Possibilities of Hillary Clinton Taking Me as Her Young Lover both made use of Powerpoint presentations - a much more modern form of slideshow.

"In my own shows I like to interact with technology, so for me to discover the magic lantern it was a big of theatrical whakapapa," Meek says.

"My theatrical ancestors were magic lantern performers, so I'm going to enter into that and do a bit of that. It came really naturally to me and I really enjoyed it."

He spent time in Scotland and the United States, where some of the world's few remaining magic lantern performers taught him how to use the outmoded technology, and how to incorporate it into his performance.

"It's such a beautiful mix between cinema and theatre. You've got a bunch of slides but they have to be brought to life by the performer," Meek says. 

"I've modernised things, but we're keeping that same tradition that it was a magic lantern performer, a musician, and the magic lantern slides."

Meek's musician for Erewhon Revisited is Eva Prowse, while he's teamed with award-winning cartoonist Sharon Murdoch to create images.

The play is based on Samuel Butler's famous 1872 novel Erewhon, which was inspired by the author's time as a high-country sheep station owner in the 1860s.

The novel describes the discovery of a kind of satirical utopia in the high country of Canterbury. It was one of the first books to predict that machines could one day surpass humans and pose a danger to them.

In Meek's version, the Erewhonians are people from a not-too-distant future who travelled back in time to escape "social media, Trump, Brexit etcetera, and settle in a basically perfect society which would then go a bit haywire".

For the play, Meek takes on a role similar to the New Zealand Company salespeople whose magic lantern shows inspired so many European settlers to make the voyage to New Zealand.

He uses his magic lantern to try and convince the people of modern Canterbury to buy apartments in Erewhon. He'll use their money, he says, to invent time travel to allow them to get back there.

"Tell people to come along with open minds and fat wallets, and they'll have a great time," he says.


 - Stuff

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