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Dr Buller’s Birds – Survival of the Fittest

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Dr Buller’s Birds – Survival of the Fittest

“After sketching the likeness of this defenseless chick, I sacrificed his little life on the altar of science and made a pretty little cabinet specimen of the skin.”- Walter Buller

Wellington based writer/director Nick Blake’s latest play is based on the life of New Zealand’s most infamous ornithologist Dr Walter Buller.

The play deals with the conflict between the clashing forces of Empire and Nature and places the arrogance of colonisation under the microscope. A small scale show with an epic reach, this vivid historical battle unfolds on the shores of Lake Papaitonga, as two old friends meet to close some weighty business. Peter Hambleton plays Walter Buller, ornithologist and intimidating barrister, as he prepares one last specimen as he awaits ailing war hero Te Keepa Rangihiwinui played by Wi Kuki Kaa.

Blake’s stunningly theatrical vision of our history, in a richly detailed setting, with haunting images and cinematic soundscape, paints a landscape in crisis, where only the fittest survive. The play explores scientific and philosophical ideas prevalent in the 19th century in relation to land, flora and fauna, ecology and race. As a strict Darwinist Buller thought the native birds and Maori of New Zealand were doomed to regretted, but deserved extinction, surrendering to stronger Anglo Saxon stock.

Immortalised in Bill Hammond’s ‘Buller Bird Series’ paintings Buller was an ambitious, ruthless and domineering man. As a historical figure his life has provided exceptional material for Blake’s production. Buller learnt taxidermy from his mother and as a teenager (14 years old) created the first stuffed bird displays at the Auckland museum. At 18 he ran a Maori language newspaper and became a government translator. During this time he became the foremost authority on New Zealand’s native birds through his own ongoing study. Buller worked as a magistrate in the Native Land Court where he was never far from controversy. Hated by many tribes he dealt with he profited enormously by working for both sides in major land deals between the crown and iwi all around the country.

His book Buller’s Birds of New Zealand is recognised as one of the world’s great books on ornithology and its images adorned school book covers and postage stamps throughout the colony. However, a pathological social climber, Buller sent thousands of bird specimens and feathers to overseas collections and is known to have personally contributed to the decline of several species, most notably, the sacred huia. Ironically it was his book that helped spark the first appreciation among settlers of the unique beauty of New Zealand and the ultimately the conservation movement.

Blake’s production is illuminated by award winning lighting designer Martyn Roberts and is supported by Creative New Zealand.

Performance dates: Sat 25 Feb, 8pm, Sun 26 Feb, 4pm, Tues 28 Feb – Sat 4 Mar, 8pm, Sun 5 Mar, 4pm, Tues 7, Weds 8 Mar, 6.30pm, Thurs 9 – Sat 11 Mar, 8pm, Sun 12 Mar, 4pm, Tues 14 – Weds 15 Mar, 6.30pm, Thurs 16 – Sat 18 Mar, 8pm, Sun, 19 Mar, 4pm, Circa Theatre.

ENDS

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