Human rights and specifically the right of the West to impose its liberal values on a fragile developing nation are the stifling, tortuously difficult themes addressed in James Sheldon’s intelligent new drama.
Set on the fictional south-west Pacific island of New Cornwall, Shiverman centres around the attempts of disgraced anthropologist Roy (Paul Mooney) to save the untouched valley of the Okoku tribe from the plundering forces of the developed world and revive his career in the process.
The valley’s fate rests on UNESCO protection but the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage is only interested in the kind of culture that doesn’t involve systematic sexual coercion and ritual mutilation. When his visiting partner Dominique (Lisa Kay) insists on informing them of the Okoku’s subservience to the brutal ‘Breathers’, holy men who insist on sexual domination of the valley’s women, gridlock ensues.
There is some blistering dialogue as Roy and Dominique come to terms with the ethical gulf that opens between them and Sheldon’s even hand keeps the stakes high but the moral high-ground inaccessible in a series of brilliant exchanges that form the play’s centre-point.
Tensions are increased by the presence of Roy’s Okoku protégé Tatalau’e (Benjamin Cawley) and seductive assistant Terri (Eleanor Wyld), the victim and agent of further, covert forms of cultural contamination.
If it all sounds a little neat, that’s because it is, and Sheldon’s decision to create a culture to embody an ethical dilemma is not always entirely comfortable or successful. The drama suffers from an excess of unfortunate coincidences and hackneyed stage devices (the mysterious letter, the interrupted illicit clinch). The women are less successfully drawn than the men and one character in particular is entirely fantastical: in a piece which elsewhere so accurately reflects real-world tensions and difficulties the presence of a super-villain just seems silly.
Nevertheless, Tom Littler directs a generally excellent cast with considerable skill. Mooney is superb in the central role as a sort of mud-hut Michael Moore - brilliant but hopelessly self-regarding, all greasy vest and vested interest. Cawley also rings true in a difficult role as we watch his pride falter and rise again.
The mythological interludes between scenes in which a nephew of Tatalau’e narrates the story of tribe's origin are distracting but elsewhere Littler keeps the action tight and even finds surprising pockets of humour to lighten the tone.
David Allen’s music is evocative and understated while Nicky Bunch’s set is Lion King garish, but in general Sheldon’s script is provided with an excellent setting.
Shiverman may occasionally fray around the edges but it’s an engaging drama which stages a potent and timely debate with great moral and intellectual honesty.