Review: Samantha Chester, HIRO: The Man Who Sailed His House ·
The Blue Room Theatre, 23 June ·
Review by Steven Cohen ·
“Strange things happen in this world,” Haruki Murakami says. “You don’t know why, but they happen.” This could be the maxim that guides Hiro: The Man Who Sailed His House, directed by Samantha Chester and created by Chester with Humphrey Bower, who is also one of the work’s two performers.
Lurching between reality and fantasy, where good and evil are both disconnected and inconsequential, our hero, Hiro, is left to travel through a labyrinth world, in which he learns what it means to be human.
Hiro: The Man Who Sailed His House tells the true story of Hiromitsu Shinkawa, who was swept ten miles out to sea by the 2011 Japanese tsunami, clinging to the roof of his house. Based on the essay by Michael Paterniti, the play adapts both surrealist elements of traditional Japanese theatre and contemporary dance, to create a fantastical interpretation of this remarkable tale.
Chester’s composition sees a dancer (the impressive Kylie Maree) weave paper puppetry, and light and dreamy movement around Hiro’s penetrating monologue, poignantly delivered by Bower. The effect is akin to being thrown into a Murakami novel, replete with dreamlike sensations, but tempered by the realism of a routine sit-down meal.
Hiro’s entire soliloquy is conducted in second person, employed to bring the audience into the drama. While this technique can be a risky proposition, the use of Maree’s precise puppetry to portray Hiro’s alter-ego helps to control the device and deepen the story. It works, perhaps, because the story is an existential one, concerning the dichotomy of the human condition: good and bad, joy and sadness. The play becomes a meditation upon this dualism through Hiro’s intractable conversation with himself.
Colour and light, created by set designer Rhys Morris and lighting designer Phoebe Pilcher, heightens the transition between dream and reality. Morris’s magnificently crafted three-dimensional model of a ship (or are they pigeons?), that changes colour as the tempo shifts, acts as a wonderful counterpart to the reality that is Hiro’s drifting life.
In many ways Hiro resembles Lewis Carroll’s Alice, navigating Wonderland. He is caught between sanity and insanity, in a place where his paper shadow often resembles wild kabuki poses and where he finds himself ghost waltzing to eerie sounds. Unlike Alice, though, we are drawn to Hiro not because of his adventure, but because of his unimaginable survival. There is something in the story that taps into our deepest fears.
Hiro’s story is a difficult one to tell without falling into Hollywood vice. Chester, with co-creator Bower, has blended two different art forms into an engaging and highly imaginative work about one man’s quest, not only to survive, but to live.
HIRO tells the true story of a man who did just that, swept out to sea, clinging to the roof of his house. Named after its protagonist, Hiromitsu Shinkawa, this devised theatrical work is by Samantha Chester in collaboration with Humphrey Bower and is adapted from the long form article “The man who sailed his house”, by American writer Michael Paterniti.
Seesaw’s Nina Levy was fascinated by the article and the decision to turn it into a work of theatre… so she caught up with Chester to find out more.
Nina Levy: You have a career of multiple strands, connected by performance… how do you describe what you do? Samantha Chester: I feel that I travel on a spectrum, from being able to work in dance and dance theatre into performance making and devising, and then into the more traditional theatre spaces. I think it has happened this way to enable me to survive in the arts as well as follow my interest in the stories I want to tell.
This work has also sat along my work as someone who has activated spaces for artists over the past 12 years. I still co-direct a space in Sydney called ReadyMade Works for independent dancers and I continue in my role as an educator at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA). I have tried to hone my craft and my abilities to be adaptable and able to work across many forms. Being connected by performance and story is the priority – how to tell the story of our time.
I think performing and making live performance is unique because no two performances are the same and that’s the beauty of it. In live performance, only the ability to bring yourself fully to the NOW as a performer is what exists. It is very exciting, that charge between performer and audience.
So, in answer to your question… what I do is try and create conditions for creativity, to be able to support artists in this journey, as an educator, and to be able to make work well, with an interest in exploring a variety of different forms that start and end with the body… it’s a privilege.
NL: Your first tertiary qualification was a BA in dance but the work you make and do is multi-disciplinary. How did you come to move from conventional dance into the world of interdisciplinary performing arts? SC: I think it was a survival mechanism and the variety of opportunities that came my way, that meant that I worked across a variety of mediums. Sometimes you just have to say yes and work outside your comfort zone – some of the best experiences I have had have been in forms I am unfamiliar with, like doing the movement with director Shannon Murphy on a site-specific opera at the Art Gallery of NSW.
I think going to NIDA and doing the Movement Studies course also allowed me to integrate my love of movement and theatre – it was here that I first starting making work. Also, honestly, I don’t think I was a very good dancer – LOL – I think I had guts and courage but was not technically virtuosic. I had a great dancing spirit, one of ballet lecturers told me… so maybe that’s why… I loved the form, the way it could change you and that the body as a tool for expression has limitless potential to tell a story. I have been interested in this medium my whole life – so, although the work I do can be multi-disciplinary, it is the body that I return to.
HIRO, I guess, is one of the first pieces I have directed that has so much text and it is well and truly a collaboration with Humphrey Bower who is a co-creator, performer and adapted the text, Kylie Maree (performer and collaborator), Tim Green (collaborator and stage manager), Ekrem Eli Phoenix (composer), Phoebe Pilcher (lightning designer) and Rhys Morris (set designer).
NL: You are from Sydney and established yourself as a maker, director, performer and educator there. What brought you to Perth? SC: I came to take a job at WAAPA. I had been working at the Actors Centre in Sydney for seven years as the Head of Movement and later as the Associate Director. Andrew Lewis, Associate Professor at WAAPA, approached me to come on a one-year contract.
I work in the Acting department as a movement lecturer, and direct work and co-ordinate and curate their program. I also work for the Performance Making course, in Devising for Physical Performance and Solo Making. I was also lucky enough to make a work on the LINK dancers last year, which was a treat. It is a big job, very exhausting at times but very rewarding.
NL: “The man who sailed his house” is an incredible piece of writing, at once poetic but also so exact in its descriptions… how did the decision to adapt the piece into a devised theatrical work come about? SC: I have had this story for about five years. A student at the Actors Centre brought it in when we were making a work around 2012. I was struck by the intimacy of the story, set against the enormity of the disaster and felt it could be a wonderful piece of theatre. Then, moving to Perth, I met Humphrey Bower, who I had worked with on Overexposed with Danielle Micich. We starting talking about making something and I said what about this… I then went to the writer Michael Paterniti who gave us his blessing and off we went. Although Humphrey and I both adapted it, Humphrey’s work with the words has been amazing.
NL: HIRO is the second part of a three-part trilogy, that starts with your 2016 work The Astronaut. How does HIRO fit into this trilogy? SC: I am interested in loss and recovery of the human spirit. I think loss is what changes us the most and how and, if we recover as people, well that is the thing. The trilogy looks at three different experiences of loss and recovery, The Astronaut: domestic, HIRO: natural disaster… and, well, you will have to wait for the third.
This work, in particular, looks at hubris and the decisions we make it life – that at the flip of a coin our whole lives can be altered forever and perhaps points to the hubris of the human race and what we are blindly ignoring because of ego or our refusal to change – it will and is catching up to us.
NL: How do you find life in Perth? SC: I love Perth. I love the arts community and the support you feel. I think Perth is very supportive of makers and inventor in the arts. I also love, love, love the nature here, it is just so unique and beautiful.
My favourite thing is walking by the river listening to the frogs.