Resident Tourists: A Review of Ancient Shrines and Half-Truths
Now performing in their home town after a season in Edinburgh Fringe, Binge Culture's Ancient Shrines and Half Truths turns residents into tourists. Matt Loveranes reviews.
I don’t know if I’ve ever stopped to smell the roses. It’s tempting, the idea that a single whiff can momentarily transport me from the bustle of Wellington to some magical place. But when I actually think about myself doing it, I just look a bit silly.
But silliness is an underrated value and Binge Culture knows that one of the best ways to bring it out in people, is to take silliness seriously. In Ancient Shrines and Half Truths, they offer up a unique audio experience that aims to uncover the secrets beneath the surface of Waitangi Park, a carefree oasis in the middle of lively central Wellington.
We’re provided headsets and smartphones by our affable hi-vis-clad guide (Oliver Devlin) at BATS before traversing busy roads to our destination. Once there, we turn on our devices and are greeted by the stirring sound of bongos, the calm, assuring voice of our local narrator (Rachel Baker) and the promise of adventure. In this self-directed sojourn, she guarantees a “bespoke” experience that you can’t get from any guidebook. She tosses out comforting well-worn travel phrases like “in order to get to know a place, you have to get to know its people” or “the best way to really know a place, you need to get lost”. But she says it so delicately, so specially, that you believe her wholeheartedly. It’s her voice that compels me to see the city I know so well, or at least this park, in a wonderful new light.
We follow a map on the Ancient Shrines app in our device, visiting marked landmarks at our will. In each new spot, our narrator provides a historical anecdote or helps guide us in a local ritual or custom to immerse us in this city’s storied cultural fibre. We learn about the origins of mysterious stone cubes or haggle with trees to get the best price for a fancy Wellington flat white. Rachel is the perfect companion: comprehensive, cheeky and contagious in her sense of awe that fills me with childlike wonder at each new discovery. With her half-truths in my ear, mundane things like parking meters turn into mythic relics and silly things like singing a hymn to that same parking meter, don’t feel silly at all.
Ancient Shrines seems tailor-made for Wellington, which compared to cities like New York or Barcelona or even Edinburgh (where this first premiered), is relatively young. And the history and the cultural experiences on offer can often seem meagre in comparison. (I still have a bit of cringe when I think of tourists riding our cable cars, only to be disappointed when it only goes to a third stop and not around the city). Ancient Shrines makes you stop and reconsider, imagining and ascribing a whole new world to the city. Gone is our mismatched architecture. In its place, a purposefully constructed world full of lore and fantasy. It might be lampooning self-help tours of the Eat, Pray, Love ilk but by highlighting this hidden splendour, it also effectively delivers an entirely fulfilling and heart-warming experience, which instils the belief that beauty can be discovered anywhere you choose to look for it.
I may be experiencing my home town with fresh eyes but I never feel alien doing so. I may be doing something out of the ordinary, but I am invincible because I am never alone.
But the real beauty in Ancient Shrines is the overwhelming sense of belonging it inspires in everyone who dares take the tour. I may be experiencing my home town with fresh eyes but I never feel alien doing so. I may be doing something out of the ordinary, but I am invincible because I am never alone. I am spurred on Baker’s voice. I am at one with the others having their own bespoke experiences. I find kinship in the people outside the show, similarly armed with smartphones and earphones, trying to get through their day. I’m immersed in this carefully curated fantasia, and I feel like I belong. “Belonging is in your head”, our narrator asserts. The show doubles down on that when we meet Raewon.
About halfway through the show, our narrator directs our path to the enigmatic witch-like pixie Raewon (Stella Reid). She’s the stuff of this fictional Wellington’s local lore. Recognisable yet otherworldly, she’s an integral and recognisable part of the city’s DNA, reminiscent of the now departed Blanketman. Raewon dons a poncho speckled in crocodile green and camo paint. Her alluring trancelike moves begging for a closer look. But do we engage or observe? It’s a choice we have to make, and one that defines the rest of our journey.
How we respond to Raewon links us with the people who are most likely to respond to new experiences in the same way. Our newfound collective is then treated to a personally curated adventure full of secrets and grandeur no other group is privy to. We’re all in this together.
Ancient Shrines is a deceptively simple and enticing concept. Who wouldn’t want to unearth hidden secrets? Especially when there are such treasures to discover: well-detailed world building, a cheeky sense of irony that’ll make you laugh on your journey, and an easy and exciting way to use technology. But perhaps most precious, are the treasures we unearth from within: the ability to have fun, to let loose, to just stop and smell the roses.
On my way home, I did just that. The roses don’t smell half bad. And I don’t even look that silly. If I can haggle with a tree with a straight face, I can afford to do this more often, to get lost in the city I love.
Ancient Shrines and Half Truths runs from 14-25 November, meeting at BATS. Tickets available here.