Laughter and danger share a cell
Described in a Spinoff review as hilarious, upsetting and profoundly on point, the work takes the audience behind the walls of a New Zealand correctional facility and into the minds of its residents. Some of those residents are looking to improve their parole chances. Others want to kill some time. One just wants to kill.
And now they’re coming here.
After sell-out seasons at Auckland Arts Festival and Silo Theatre, Cellfish is among productions in the Tairawhiti Arts Festival programme. Actor Jason Te Kare plays a prison inmate in this production while Carey Green plays Miss Lucy, the drama teacher contracted to work with a group of prison inmates. As a drama teacher with a passion for Shakespeare, the themes of ambition, jealousy, deception and disorder in his work speak to her. She believes in Shakespeare’s stories because they’ve helped her understand her own, and she thinks they’ll help others find their way too. Green also plays other inmates and a philosophical Indian corrections officer.
The actors never leave the stage and one scene involves a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers styled routine.
“There are no props,” says Te Kare.
“The play is very physical but more in the characterisation. The Shakespeare tutor is a fish out of water, dealing with these men who have no background in Shakespeare and some can’t read.
“Inmate hierarchy when it’s disrupted is incredibly Shakespearean, especially if you consider how that disruption happens and what the consequences are.”
The writing team engaged with former inmates and gang members as part of their research and development.
The play looks at the lives of the inmates but at the same time the actors and writers did not want to shy away from why the characters had been incarcerated.
“We tried to focus on telling a good story,” says Te Kare.
“We pushed to make it comedic while at the same time looking at this drama we wanted to create a conversation from, not just with whanau of the people in prison but people who are victims of crime.
“We put this on stage and let the audience decide. It’s a roller coaster. You laugh then you get hit in the face with something out of left field. There’s a moment of beauty when you get hit by the reality.”
Cellfish was developed over two to three years during which time the work changed from a psychological thriller to a dark comedy that swings between menace and humour to explore complex issues around incarceration. Cellfish hit the stage at a time the platitude “Maori are over-represented in the criminal justice system” began to be replaced by action.
“It’s been a problem for a good long time,” says Te Kare.
“At the time we wrote the play New Zealand had become a bit deaf to it.”
Although the nation had largely accepted over-representation of Maori in prisons as a fact of life, if not inevitable, the issue was the focus of the Government’s 2018 criminal justice summit.
New Zealand’s justice and state care system is now more in the spotlight, says Te Kare.
Despite accolades the show attracted when it was toured, Te Kare struggled to deal with praise while working with underlying issues in the play.
“I talked with Rob about it. He’s a staunch advocate for mental health and well-being. He had to go through that every day while performing Shot Bro.”
Shot Bro is a work Mokaraka devised some time after a bid to commit suicide by arming himself with a meat cleaver to provoke a confrontion with armed police. He was shot but survived the ordeal, worked through his ongoing depression and created a theatre project called Shot Bro: Confessions of a Depressed Bullet.
How does Te Kare separate himself from his characters once he steps off the stage?
“I use te whare tapa wha, the four sides of Maori health, which incorporate Maori kaupapa methods to deal with mental health and wellbeing.”
The te whare tapa wha model was developed by professor of Maori Studies and research academic Sir Mason Durie, who is known for his contributions to Maori health. The model is based on the cornerstones of psychological health, spiritual health, physical health and family health.
Te Kare also maintains post-show emotional and physical stability through working out followed by meditation.
A New Zealand Herald review of a production of Cellfish that featured a different male lead but was directed by Te Kare says the production moves “at the galloping pace of an epic tragedy”.
“The archetypes are easily recognisable: strong and silent, boisterous yet charming, shy yet quietly bold — and warmly familiar without the cliches. There’s also the Indian warden who speaks fluent te reo — another nod to the swell of dialogue that is growing between tangata whenua and tauiwi.
“Miss Lucy is neither a victim, nor is she redeemed. Violence against women is a theme that manages, while teetering precariously on the precipice of regurgitated statistics, to narrowly avoid falling into crudely cut stereotypes — and this is Cellfish’s greatest strength.”