Academic journal article About Performance

Playing with Fire: Staging Lines of Fire: A Site-Specific Project

Academic journal article About Performance

Playing with Fire: Staging Lines of Fire: A Site-Specific Project

Article excerpt

In October 2006, WoW! Productions staged a newly-commissioned work, Lines of Fire by New Zealand playwright Gary Henderson, at the Dunedin Railway Station.1 The commission brief required a work that would be presented as a site-specific performance that could only be performed at the Station, and that would provide roles, as far as possible, for members of WoW's first cooperative production, Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa. There was a double sense of occasion - 2006 is both WoW's tenth anniversary, and the centenary of the Dunedin Railway Station. Both celebrations occurred within the context of the biennial Dunedin Festival of the Arts.

The project

Gary Henderson's Lines of Fire, specifically designed for promenade production and to showcase aspects of the Station, is in essence a meditation on the breath of space before a journey commences, on mutability and the passage of time. It was couched as a simple cross-generational story of three women in a state of liminality, awaiting the start of their individual train journeys from the Dunedin Railway Station. Each woman, her fate unknown to her but revealed to us, interacts with the environment (including the audience) and with Josephine, the 'spirit' of the Station, and the guardian of its memories.2 Audrey is a nurse about to embark on an expedition to France during World War One, where she will die in childbirth. Celia - a mathematician who delights in pattern, structure and meaning - is awaiting her summons to England during World War Two, where she will help to crack the Enigma code at Bletchley Park. Stephanie is a contemporary woman with cancer who believes life is chaos, and who is planning a trip north to Cape Reinga, "the leaping-off place of souls." By chance (as she believes), she is due to travel on the last train to depart from the Station, on 10 February 2002. As the play unfolds, we come to realise that these three women are mother, daughter, granddaughter, and all three are in fact due to depart on 10 February in the respective year of their travel. These facts are treated not as major plot revelations, but as part of an intricate pattern formed by waiting for the start of life's significant journeys that the play explores. As a natural corollary, the play's view of waiting and transience encompasses even the Station itself, a colonial landmark which has only the appearance of permanence in the grand scheme of things, as indicated in one of the script's recurrent motifs: "It's sinking into the sea. Little by little. You can see it if you watch long enough. Then the tide'll go out and it'll just be sand stretching away into the distance."

The audience is held in stasis by the demands of the performance, unable to depart until it concludes, much as Josephine and the pervasive and echoing taped voices remain a permanent fixture of the premises. The taped voices provide dramatic tension for the piece, echoing and repeating certain themes, suggesting points of conflict, pushing and cajoling Josephine, and occasionally singing. Indeed, everything about the station is liminal, and designed to remind us of transience, of the imminence of departure and arrival, of flow and ebb. As Josephine says, "The clock stops while you're in here. Nobody notices, because nobody stays here long enough. It's a place of leaving and arriving and passing through. Nobody stays."

The play's title retains some ambiguity. It can of course have the connotation of battle, and indeed, as Audrey, on her way to a front line Casualty Clearing Station pragmatically notes: "Nurses go where men are wounded. And men are wounded in the line of fire." But for Henderson, the prevailing image was one of blazing railway tracks, burning their way down the lines of time and distance.

T HE VENUE

The Dunedin Railway Station, to quote both its official website and the play, is the "jewel in Dunedin's architectural crown." Designed in 1906 by'Gingerbread' George Troup, and built on reclaimed land, it presents an impressive display of colonial architecture. …

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