Mr Red Light

Jennifer Ludlam, Trygve Wakenshaw, Jess Sayer, and Richard Te Are. Photo by    Andi Crown   .

Jennifer Ludlam, Trygve Wakenshaw, Jess Sayer, and Richard Te Are. Photo by Andi Crown.

Connections. They can be lost as easily as they’re made. They can be serendipitous, forced upon us, and taken away against our will. But they’re all we have. My greatest (and most irrational) fear is that at any moment I’ll be snapped into another version of my life, somewhere within the infinite multiverse, and the connections I have now will cease to exist – less than the memory of a memory. But we can’t let fear incapacitate us. Carl Bland won’t allow it. Something as insignificant as a red light isn’t going stop him. He’s moving forward, and we need to keep up. Bland has been working with the director of Nightsong’s productions, Ben Crowder, since 1999, and the trust invested in the collaborative relationship shows. There is no limit to the extent Bland pushes the boundaries of the worlds he creates, because Crowder makes the impossible possible.

Upon entering the Herald Theatre, one would be forgiven for thinking they had mistakenly entered a fully-functioning pie shop, such is the impeccable detail in Andrew Foster’s set design. Stuck behind the counter, reading a John Grisham novel (?), Richard Te Are does his best work as Joker when not talking. Diction is key, especially in the Herald, but his over-articulation causes odd plosives which break the rhythm of his dialogue. It’s incredibly jarring, and a complete contrast to Jess Sayer as Chrys, the object of unwanted attention from Joker, who wraps him up in words and witticisms, driving their scenes while simultaneously saying no. And while Chrys has the power, it’s still an awkward several minutes of a man talking to a woman who doesn’t want to be spoken to. Fortunately, Jennifer Ludlam, in a subtle yet powerful performance as Eva, is there to interrupt, but even she can only do so much. Cue Trygve Wakenshaw as the titular Mr Red Light.

Wakenshaw is New Zealand’s most successful clowning export, and while his physical expertise is incredible to watch, his vocal work is rather one-noted. The result is that without any subversive balance, the only sense of danger comes from the sound of the next gunshot, as opposed to the gunmen himself. Completing the cast is the whimsical and versatile Simon Ferry, playing a garrulous negotiator, a commedia-inspired Italian soldier, an existential ant, and the hapless, scene-stealing Alan. Acknowledgement must also go to Ferry’s backstage work, along with stage manager and assistant stage manager Sami Vance and Eleanor Swyer respectively, without whom the world of the play simply could not come to life. A world so specifically semiotic in its storytelling – right down to Charles Draper’s intuitive video design.

Bland is a beautiful writer. There is a poeticism to his dialogue and surrealism to his story-telling that is unparalleled in New Zealand playwriting. It is a delicate balance of child-like wonder and life-long wisdom that when reduced to words seems so simple. Simple, but not easy. While Bland doesn’t negate narrative structure, the units and beats in the script are capricious, often lacking consequential logic. The result is that a huge amount of heavy lifting through internal processing is required by the cast, and while both Sayer and Ludlam play the given circumstances and provide the emotional depth to ground their respective journeys, neither Te Are nor Wakenshaw work beyond the words, though the latter’s performance is absurd enough to keep us engaged.

Theatre critic Mark Fisher once said that trying to review a show is like trying to articulate a dream, which is the best way to explain the experience of watching a Nightsong production. The spectacle components that Crowder brings to life is theatricality at its finest, because it uses illusion to reveal truth. It’s the kind of theatre that makes film look boring, and turns first-time punters into lifelong patrons. Such magic is rare and requires a huge amount of financial support, and after a devastating blow to their funding, Nightsong have launched an SOS Boosted campaign to which I implore all donate. Better yet, buy a ticket to Mr Red Light. You may find a connection when you need it most.