Mike Daisey’s bid to understand the global financial crisis took him not to the heart of Wall St, or the City of London, or the hedge fund mecca of Dublin’s IFSC, but to a tiny volcanic island in the middle of the Pacific.
The story of how, and why, he got there makes up what is likely to be one of the most intriguing shows of the summer, as Daisey, a sort of Michael Moore-on-stage, takes his one-man roadshow to Cork, Clonmel and Donegal in the coming weeks (details below).
It took Daisey a series of flights to reach the South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu, and a further island-hopping plane ride to get to the tiny island of Tanna. There, on the rim of a live volcano, he found the islanders celebrating their annual feast, John Frum Day.
In the islanders’ lore, John Frum (“from”) is a saviour figure who represents a bizarre hybrid of traditional culture and American consumerism. He is the figurehead of the island’s “cargo cult”, a sort-of religion inspired by the island’s contact with the US military during the 1940s.
Prior to World War II, the island had had little contact with Western culture. A thousand miles east of Australia, its remoteness and hostility to outsiders had helped it preserved its traditions to an unusual degree. Missionaries were wary of it, and it acquired a reputation for cannibalism.
Today, there is some tourism, but the cargo cults persist. Another tribe on the island reveres Prince Philip as a divine being, and brother to John Frum. (Google it: I’m not making this up. )
Though the cults fetishise aspects of American and British culture, they also call for a rejection of Western values – including money. Many communities on the island do not use money, and will not accept it.
Daisey spent a month living with the islanders to research his new show. Malaria and dengue fever were endemic on the island. (Fortunately, cannibalism has largely died out.)
When he arrived, Daisey visited the impoverished two-man hospital. “If you do get sick,” they told him, “don’t come to the hospital. Leave.”
The natives spoke a pidgin that sounded “as if French and English had a baby, and it was raised by sailors from the 1940s,” and he hired an interpreter to help things along.
He hunted wild pig, slept on grass mats and drank fermented yam’s milk.
“It tastes as if a rat has died in your mouth… which is a very serious social issue if you’re at dinner in a sacred hut.”
But Daisey’s point wasn’t merely to record some quirky Rough Guide-type adventures.
Daisey is a theatrical storyteller, who has become something of an international, low-fi star with his one-man shows. His stories blend personal experience with journalistic research and wacky tangential anecdotes in a bid to illuminate the great issues of our time.
Daisey found his way to the island in search of the perfect analogy for the cult of derivatives and financial instruments.
“The belief system on island seems absurd to us. But the religion of high finance is equally capricious.”
For someone whose research is so exotically intense, Daisey’s performance style is surprising simple. He has no set, no cast, no costume… and no script. All he has is a table, chair, glass of water, and some notes, from which he improvises his stories each night.
“If you can’t think on your feet, then you can’t think.”
So is he a sort of stand-up comic?
“I think I’d have to stand up, for starters,” he quips. (One US critic called him “the best sit-down comic you’ll ever see.”)
“I try to alternate comedy and tragedy, as quickly as possible. I tell stories that have the depth and complexity of a novel.
“I have much larger concerns than whether the audience is laughing.”
Is he then, a sort of stage version of Michael Moore, using humour and direct address to highlight injustices?
“I’m much more intellectually rigorous than Michael Moore – and I think I’m funnier too.”
Luckily, he’s not the only one who thinks he’s good. His show based on the island experience, The Last Cargo Cult, is “an incredibly ballsy and humble indictment of the banking system, American materialism and the audience,” said the entertainment bible, Variety. It’s at the Half Moon Theatre in Cork from Tuesday to Thursday, as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival. (See box for details.)
But Daisey won’t merely be performing in Cork – he’ll be researching, too. (Clearly, he has a taste for idiosyncratic islands.) He is of Irish-American heritage, but had no exposure to Irish culture in his upbringing, and is using this first visit to Ireland to write and perform a new show about identity and belonging, From Away.
In Daisey’s home place, north Maine, being “from away” means something similar to being a “blow-in”, and he plans on spending his time in Cork interviewing a wide range of people about their lives in, and stories of, Ireland.
“Storytelling is hardwired into the human consciousness,” he says. If you’ve a good story hardwired into your own, contact Daisey via his website, www.mikedaisey.com, to tell it to him.
From Away premières in Cork on June 27. It then tours to the Clonmel Junction Festival on July 3 (www.junctionfestival.com; 052 61 28521) and to the Earagail Arts Festival on July 7 (www.eaf.ie; 074 9120777).
Published in the Irish Independent, June 19