Location emphasises reality of play
Folks attending this year’s Fringe Festival could find themselves quarantined.
Ticket-holders going to Paul Stephanus’ play Quarantine will be escorted to Matiu/ Somes Island and taken to a disused quarantine station, where they will discover some dark truths about Wellington’s history. Stephanus said participants would learn about the archaic medical practices used on the island and get a sense of the experience of those quarantined more than 100 years ago.
After the success of his 2009 play Frogs Under the Water, performed under the wharves, Stephanus wanted to set a play on Somes Island. He considered staging Shakespeare’s The Tempest there, but changed his mind after visiting the island and talking to the caretakers, who told him about its history.
‘‘ The history was too much to ignore. There were some seriously nasty diseases and the ships arriving were gross, full of disease.
‘‘Medicine in 1800s was not what it is now. A lot of that [history] has been glossed over,’’ said Stephanus.
‘‘Also, the returning soldiers from World War I, who were fighting in a horrific war, came home wanting to see loved ones, girlfriends, family, but got stuck in quarantine on the island. Many died there.’’
Quarantine focuses on five fictional characters who tell tales from the island’s history.
‘‘The five characters have been stuck on the island since the 1870s and have not been able to fulfil any of their desires.
‘‘So, yes, audiences will have to suspend their belief,’’ said Stephanus.
Somes Island was designated for quarantine purposes in 1869. It was first used for that purpose in 1872 when the ship England arrived with passengers suffering from smallpox.
‘‘One of the most interesting things was researching all the diseases – smallpox, typhoid, scarlet fever – that people were quarantined for having,’’ said Stephanus.
‘‘People don’t realise it now, but those diseases were disgusting.
‘‘People were instantly ostracised when they were sick, no matter their background – poor or rich.’’
Not much has been written about the island, but Eastbourne historian Derek Sole helped Stephanus with research.
‘‘He has catalogued all the boats and the patients who arrived there. He’s also helping to write the programme notes.’’
Stephanus said there were logistical matters to consider, including the weather, access to the island and strict Department of Conservation rules governing what can be taken there.
‘‘Everything we take has to be examined, and rightly so. We’ve started sourcing props on the island. It’s easier.
‘‘It’s ended up being awesome, more authentic. Instead of taking stuff that looks like it’s been washed up, we’re actually using stuff that has been washed up.
‘‘And we’re slaves to the East-West ferry and its timetable. It’s the only boat that can go there under any circumstances.’’
However, Stephanus is upbeat. He said that the show would be exciting and ‘‘a wee bit freaky’’.
Quarantine runs until March 5.
Island time: Paul Stephanus looks out towards Matiu/Somes Island, the setting for Quarantine.