James Sheldon’s intense and often upsetting play about the tension between universal human rights and tribal reality poses some troubling questions. Shiverman focuses on a peaceful tribe – the Okoku – who are at risk of being torn apart by a mining development supported by their Pacific island’s civil government. Roy, a world-weary, world-famous anthropologist, believes the tribe’s culture includes the oldest music on earth, and is seeking UNESCO’s protection to save it. When his ex-wife arrives with a young archaeologist to verify Roy’s claim, it soon becomes apparent that his altruism masks some fairly terrible secrets about the tribe’s ancient culture.
Director Tom Littler’s production tells this complex story with genuine power. He’s aided in this by a very strong cast; Paul Mooney and Benjamin Cawley in particular give incredibly well-judged performances as Roy and his tribal assistant, Tatalau’e. Cawley’s slightly mangled diction and nervous physicality reveal his character’s innate vulnerability, which is starkly at odds with the experts who are steadily turning his world upside down. Mooney gives a touching frailty to Roy’s bumbling persona which in turn conceals an occasionally shocking temper, making it all the more compelling and plausible as he starts to lose his sense of perspective and ‘goes tribal’.
Lisa Kay, as Roy’s ex-wife Dominique, captures the character’s rather hard-headed sense of right and wrong. The small cast is completed by Fisayo Akinade, who narrates the Okokus’ creation myth, and Eleanor Wyld’s Terri, the capricious and, at times, disturbingly sexual young archaeologist.
While Sheldon’s play possesses real originality in its writing, it does cover some over-worked thematic ground. Aren’t ‘universal human rights’ just a Western innovation? Does capitalism really set you free? Does primitive mean uncivilised? But debates that might otherwise have felt tired are invigorated by Sheldon’s capacity as a storyteller and Littler’s accomplished direction. This production succeeds because it never allows the material to descend into a tedious moralising tit-for-tat between ancient beliefs and modern ethics – a serious hazard, given some of the issues covered.
The production also does well to avoid overplaying the play’s natural dramatic tension at the expense of the unsettling events happening off-stage. Even as the audience is pulled into the discomfort of frayed tempers and raised voices in a cramped jungle office, it remains painfully aware of the disturbing brutality happening, unseen, elsewhere. This mirrors reality; some people (like Roy) might feel able to turn a blind eye to unseen horrors, believing a ‘small’ sacrifice for the greater good is worthwhile. Others question the very nature and existence of the ‘greater good’, and feel unable to ignore what they can’t always even change. Sheldon’s play examines the futility that exists in both situations – and at its climax, leaves the audience wondering what price is worth paying to guarantee peace and happiness.