Dame Anne Salmond's "Trial of the Cannibal Dog"

Kristine Walsh

In Dame Anne Salmond's book Trial of the Cannibal Dog - about the voyages of Captain James Cook - a central narrative device is the event of the book's title, whereby members of Cook's crew stage a mock trial and execution of a native dog.

It was, according to scholar Dame Anne, an illustration of how the 18th-century collision between Polynesians and Europeans changed their world views.

Now imagine that all of the players in that particular drama were themselves dogs. They snap. They bark. They raise their faces to the sky and howl great tracts of opera.

That is how it will happen when the musical adaptation of Cannibal Dogs debuts in Wellington at the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts.

And the idea of converting all the singers into canines is not really that fanciful, says director Christian Penny.

"What we are trying to capture is some of the strangeness they must have felt during those meetings of Europeans, Maori and Polynesians," Penny says from his Wellington base.

"Plus it is a good metaphor for the hierarchy of the day. Whether we are humans or whether we are dogs, some of us are always going to be lower down in the pack."

As in the times of Cook, the audience could get a sense of "strangeness" from the canine cast, of meeting a completely different species, he added.

"In a piece of theatre like this the audience has to be slightly destabilised or they will look at it simply as an historic curiosity. That is key in theatre ... always looking for a way to make things real through the unreal."

Published in 2003, the award-winning Cannibal Dog was an enormous work that, through the sheer amount of research and information, gave an indication of the colossus of the sea, and the task before Cook and his crew as they tackled three voyages around the Pacific, Penny said.

"We were never going to be able to portray that on stage so, for us, the question was 'how do we make this story personal? ... how do we bring these people together?' What we decided we could do was to deal with the microdrama of Cook and the crises that were his downfall."

Harking back to that idea of of meeting peoples you never knew existed would also be central, Penny said.

"In this day and age we forget how difficult it is to meet someone who is very, very different from you. The real challenge was to capture the incomprehensibility of what happened for Maori and those in the Pacific."

Commissioned especially for the 2008 festival, it was the brainchild of US-based New Zealand composer Matthew Suttor, a lecturer at Yale University.

"We went through university together and are long-time collaborators," says Penny, who leads the directing degree at Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School. "But we haven't worked together for 15 years so it will be exciting to work on his first full opera."

Like Suttor, Penny (Tainui) was undaunted by the scholarly nature of the book that inspired the piece.

"Matthew thought it was wonderful material and I, certainly, have a genuine curiosity about how that early meeting of peoples was a defining moment for us all. We live every day trying to work out the consequences of that time."

Penny says he and Suttor met Dame Anne "very early in the piece" to ask permission to use her work, "which she gave openly and generously".

Though it is described as a chamber opera with four principals and a chorus of six, Penny says the stage version of Cannibal Dog is more like a musical with John Downie's libretto being sung in Maori, English, Tahitian and Hawaiian.

The music, he says, resembles a cross between that of contemporary composer Philip Glass and quirky jazz ensemble Six Volts - which is useful given Volts frontwoman Janet Roddick has been confirmed in the cast.

"It will be visually rich and quite magic in its staging," he says. "And we have taken a few liberties with the story. For example, in examining how Cook lost his European heart, we look back to the story of his wife, the psychodrama that stems from his loss of heart being the loss of his relationship with her."

Despite the subject matter, however, he says the overall feel will be more wild and shocking than maudlin.

"We think it is important to get access to these stories in a new way so with this work we can explore the imaginative side - how these people felt, the hopes and fears they may have harboured."

The Trial of The Cannibal Dog will be staged at Wellington's Opera House on March 2, 4 & 5. Bookings open on November 16.

The book

Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, by Dame Anne Salmond, won the History Category and the Montana Medal for Non-Fiction at the 2004 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. It is described as "a fresh and startling account of Cook's three voyages around the Pacific, in which Dame Anne explores the impact of contact on both Polynesian and European cultures"

Sphere: Related Content

No comments: