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Arts Festival Review: Dr Buller's Birds

Dr Buller's Birds

Reviewed by Richard Thomson

Dr Buller's Birds: Survival of the Fittest
Written and directed by Nick Drake
25 Feb - 25 March
Circa Theatre

"How did we turn such a beautiful country into this?" Nick Drake asks. "This" being featureless paddocks and bare eroding hills where there were once - apparently - unique birds and ancient forests.

Drake's new play, premiering at the International Festival of the Arts in Wellington, goes back to the late nineteenth century to try to find out. He pits Sir Walter Buller, Native Land Court magistrate and ornithologist, against Te Keepa Rangihiwinui, who became a hero among Pakeha for fighting with colonial forces against "rebel" Maori. Te Keepa's forested lands, especially around Lake Papaitonga near Levin, were a stronghold for the huia, a beautiful black bird with orange wattles and striking white tail feathers. The huia was also remarkable for the differently shaped beaks of the male and female.

Why did Buller, the bird enthusiast, shoot and stuff the huia for his European patrons, rather than try to save its habitat?

Buller and Te Keepa are emblematic figures in the play. The vivid anger and sadness in Dr Buller's Birds is not really about them, but about a more general sense of loss. How could this have happened? How could our ancestors have exterminated a bird such as the huia?

There is anger and pain in Matthew Lambourn's harsh sound design, and in the graphic preparation of a dead huia for stuffing and mounting. There's also, perhaps, a little too much shouting.

Drake's answer is in the play's subtitle, "Survival of the Fittest". Buller, the amateur scientist, also had an enthusiasm for the ideas of Charles Darwin. Natural selection was the Victorian intellectual's justification for clearing New Zealand's forests, wiping out its native bird life, and taking the land from its original inhabitants. The play is particularly good at highlighting the Pakeha drive to exterminate everything indigenous in New Zealand.

But misused Darwinism has its drawbacks. One problem is that it makes Buller a rather unattractive figure. Peter Hambleton plays him as a rather unsophisticated, even naive chap, a devout believer in science who is genuinely perplexed by the fuss over extinction. It's hard to imagine those qualities in a Native Land Court magistrate.

Just for comparison, think about our present situation.

Perhaps in another hundred years, once we have heated and melted our world beyond recognition, we'll be asking where those verdant pastures went. Once global warming is something that has happened, rather than merely scare-mongering that could harm our economic growth rate if taken too seriously.

Have we bothered to listen to the scientists who have been warning us for nearly 20 years?

For this reason, it seems to me that science is often just a fig leaf that can be used to justify, or to mask, a darker, more selfish and willful ignorance. Those who see The History Boys at the festival will read, in their programmes, these words by Aldous Huxley:

"That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach."

The world's oldest story, the Epic of Gilgamesh describes how Gilgamesh killed the forest god and destroyed the cedar forests of Mesopotamia. As a species we are slow learners.

Go and see Dr Buller's Birds. It is a powerful telling of possibly the greatest tragedy of our country's history. But we should remember that there may be greater tragedies to come.


NZ Arts Festival: Dr Buller's Birds
Dr Buller's Birds website
Scoop Full Coverage: Festival 2006

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