Arthur Meek's Erewhon show is smart, but fussy

Erewhon Revisted is written and performed by Arthur Meek.
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Erewhon Revisted is written and performed by Arthur Meek.

Review: Two technologies separated by more than a century are brought together on stage in this inventive and clever show that is perhaps a little too smart for its own good.

Actor and playwright Arthur Meek's new work is more in the vein of his 2008 one man show On the Conditions and Possibilities of Helen Clark Taking Me as her Young Lover, or its later incarnation focusing on Hilary Clinton, than his more serious plays like On the Upside Down of the World.

Meek tells his story using a magic lantern - a special projector with animated glass slides popularised in the 19th century - and an iPhone beaming live to a large vertical screen 

The two great distractions and entrancements of their day sit side by side on stage. The magic lantern, with its large, circular projected image, and the iPhone with its monolithic rectangular screen, become the main storytelling devices.

Read more: Arthur Meek and the magic lantern

Meek uses them in a variety of clever and intriguing ways to bring to life a very loose adaptation of Samuel Butler's satirical 1872 book Erewhon, which is set in the mythical kingdom of Erewhon, discovered in the Southern Alps above Mesopotamia Station.

The magic lantern and the iPhone feel like the perfect tools to tell this story, with its 19th century roots and science fiction predictions that machines would one day gain consciousness.

And the recently restored Great Hall in the Arts Centre is the perfect venue for this show. Meek points out that the hall was used by Ernest Shackleton for a magic lantern presentation in 1907.

Meek switches between the two devices, revealing hand painted slides in the magic lantern and using the camera on the iPhone to reveal tiny dioramas concealed in the magic lantern itself or use Snapchat filters to distort his face and illustrate the appearance of Erewhon's inhabitants. The story is also bought to life with a live synthwave score provided by Eva Prowse.

It is inventive and imaginative stuff, but can sometimes feel a bit overly fussy and struggles to find a satisfying theme.

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While clever, the use of the iPhone can feel a little too tricksy, unnecessary and fiddly. Just because you have the iPhone doesn't mean you have to use it.

The distracting technology also makes it hard to feel emotionally engaged in the story and steps on some of the gags. Trying to engage with the performer on stage can sometimes feel like trying to talk to a partner who is mesmerised and distracted by their smartphone. I just wanted him to put down the phone and look us in the eye.

There is the potential for a great show here, but it needs the fussiness knocking out of it and, like most of us, needs to use the smart phone more sparingly.

Erewhon Revisited, runs until September 16 as part of the Christchurch Arts Festival. 

 - Stuff

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