It was a cold and wintery night in Wellington. The vampires have all vacated Circa Theatre to make room for children’s theatre in the school holidays and a tröll… In the dungeon? No. In our very walls! Award-winning theatre company Trick of the Light give us TRÖLL, a 90s Icelandic-New Zealand dial-up internet story told by an enthusiastic and easily likable 11 year old Ottó (Ralph McCubbin Howell). Ottó really likes the internet because he’s able to connect to people who also like the Dark Ages, can be 12, and choose his own name. But when the internet takes a turn for the worst, Ottó falls into darker places, places where tröll’s grow…
Buckle into Circa Two for fifty-five short minutes of wicked shadow work (lighting by Marcus McShane), one brilliant puppet operated by Hannah Smith, and mind-blowing green projections, by Charley Draper, in the style of a nineties computer game. The stage, at first, seems bland and messy, with a desk full of odd objects and wires hanging lazily underneath. Then the theatrical lights go down and the space turns into something else entirely – there’s a house and a sleep out, there are underground cables, and even a cliff – and small Lego people to represent certain characters.
Trick of the Light, as their name suggests, always uses lighting cleverly. There is only McCubbin Howell on stage for 99% of the play, and yet there are five characters in the show, all voices, except for Ottó’s, are pre-recorded by the company. Mum and Dad are shadows on an Icelandic newspaper with McCubbin Howell lip syncing; Ottó’s sister, Erika, is represented by a lit up cell phone on the desk; and Amma, a chain-smoking grandmother from Iceland, is shown by a tight spotlight on the on-stage operator’s face while she puffs on a vape. The smoke swirls are captivating.
Each of these devices represent their various states of communication. Ottó’s parents are factual and old-school (although Dad really doesn’t understand cowboys), like a newspaper, while Erika is the chatty-Cathy who’s obsessed with getting the new Nokia that comes in five colours and has “this really awesome game on it called Snake.” And Amma is all together ancient, going by the oral tradition of storytelling.
I must confess, I saw TRÖLL back in 2018 at BATS and it really captured me. When I left Circa on Saturday night, I didn’t quite have the same tingle in my toes and I’ve been trying to place why that is. Could it be that I had seen the show before? This time around, it was really polished and the tone was the same. Erika felt more connected and so when she took over the narration at the end of the show, it felt as though we knew her.
The show is really fun and heart-warming in a lot of places, and terrifying in others, but the overall metaphor seemed to general, the tröll being a metaphor for the things you fear and hate. It was too many things: Erika’s fear of earthquakes, lung cancer, and loneliness. In 2018, the metaphor seemed a little bit more focused on Ottó and his depression as a young boy, feeling quite alone. It was powerful in a way that honoured children’s stories and gave children agency. An idea that showing dark feelings to the light (and in Ottó’s case, telling Erika) will expel them and turn them to stone. Perhaps this time around the show became too self-conscious.
TRÖLL and Trick of the Light have done an exceptional job. They play to their own strengths as well as to the black box beast that is theatre. The show is filled to the brim with nineties nostalgia and McCubbin Howell plays Ottó genuinely, giving us the nervous but excited energy of a pre-teen. A perfect show for a cold and windy Wellington night.