State Highway 48

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Following a provincial tour of the North Island, State Highway 48 arrives in Auckland for five long nights, but not before bringing the Bruce Mason Centre to a complete standstill for 30 minutes. Going up half an hour late is not terribly problematic, but on this particular occasion it was indicative of what was to come. If I had to choose one word to describe State Highway 48, it would be unimaginative, only because a horrific post-show acknowledgement by writer/composer Chris Williams leads me to understand it was not uninspired. The effects of depression can be devastating, and art can be a therapeutic process for those left in its wake, but to treat such a prevalent issue with such irreverence is not only irresponsible, it’s dangerous. The only thing worse than ignorance is misinformation.

The fact that Williams is a self-taught musician is painfully evident, as the cast navigate lyrics that stumble their way through music with no variation or dynamism. In an attempt at imbuing emotive content, when not singing exposition, characters say exactly what they’re thinking and feeling, eliminating any internal work for the actors, resulting in either forced or absent emotion. I hesitate to even call them lyrics. These are words being forced against their will. They’re not songs. They’re hostage situations. Oh, and there’s no dialogue. The entire show is sung.

Dave is middle-aged, overworked, and drinks too much. And holy shit there’s a creepy man in a suit right behind him! Oh wait, that’s depression personified, portrayed by Chris Tempest, who is literally billed as Black Dog, but sings, dresses, and dances like a British dandy. He’s also completely inconsequential to the story in terms of character. Then there’s Dave’s wife, Sharon, who also seems to be suffering, but there’s no time to explore the effects of depression on a spouse, because Dave’s been made redundant and has decided to leave his family. But it’s all okay in the end, because Sharon doesn’t enjoy being single, so she decides to simply take Dave back without addressing his mental health. Correction, she does momentarily blame him for not telling her earlier about his depression. They kiss, Dave’s mates remain shitty partners to their wives, and the kids run tantalisingly close to the balcony from which Dave nearly jumped earlier. When the prospect of child-death is the most exciting moment in a musical, you better be writing Les Misérables or Spring Awakening.

Perhaps a subtle hand to allow the intention to permeate the production will help? Nope. Geoff Turkington has directed “over 30 productions of various scale throughout Australasia”, which is an odd way of listing one’s credits, but perhaps it’s best to hide your tracks when you don’t know what you’re doing. One of the roles of a director is to protect your cast by ensuring they won’t look foolish on stage. Turkington instead sets them spinning like dreidels, aimlessly filling space and time. There’s only so much an actor can do on their own, and Turkington has failed his cast.

But wait. There’s more. Content and direction are not the only problems with State Highway 48. For such a narratively episodic structure, production designer Ben M Rogers could have gone for a simple, minimalist approach in order to keep the show running smoothly, but where’s the fun in that? Instead, scene transitions take forever, the set design is boring, set dressing is superfluous, stage hands are often thrown into full light, scenes often begin in complete darkness, and mics are left on backstage and not turned on in time on stage. This show is the dictionary definition of what could go wrong. Sit in the right spot and you’ll even get a direct sightline to side stage, complete with a blue-lit stage manager. Both the back and onstage tracks are so under-rehearsed, at one point, Jenn Shelton FALLS THROUGH A FUCKING TABLE. Which brings me to the cast and crew, because holy shit did she make that moment work like a boss.

Being in a bad show is like parenting an ugly baby. You know. Deep down you know. And you know everyone else knows. The difference is, you see the beauty in and still love an ugly baby. The onstage and backstage talent should be applauded for not only enduring the most technically savage opening night I’ve ever witnessed, but also committing to it with everything they had. My only reason for not mentioning more names is to protect them from the annals of this website.

I don’t doubt that Williams had the best of intentions with State Highway 48, but productions with this level of sponsorship (if I discover they received public funding I’ll probably have a stroke) that have clearly not put the work through a rigorous development process with industry professionals, lower the bar of New Zealand’s theatrical landscape so far it may as well be six feet under. Males in rural areas between the ages of 45-49 are the second biggest group at risk of depression in New Zealand, but State Highway 48 provides no humanity as to how it truly effects peoples’ lives. Auckland, meanwhile, is notorious for rubber-necking, so if you have a macabre fascination with tragedy, State Highway 48 may just be the show for you.

Ghost Trees

Gary Stalker

Gary Stalker

The relationship between man and nature has inspired playwrights since the birth of theatre. From Sophocles to Shakespeare, the agonists of the stage have never been able to escape their fate. Try as they might, there will always be a natural order. Natural order, however, is a somewhat contradictory term when one considers what appears to be – from our perspective – the chaos of it all. Death, for example, while inevitable, can be so seemingly random. As random as human behaviour.

In a small room of the Arataki Visitor Centre, playwright Gary Stalker performs his solo work, Ghost Trees. It’s an apt setting for the piece, which weaves the story of Kauri dieback with the loss of the narrator’s wife to cancer, not only because of the fauna surrounding the venue, but of the lecture-like layout of the room in which it’s performed. I say narrator, because it’s never quite clear who Stalker is portraying in his recitation.

There’s always a risk when a writer performs their own work that the performance will never truly be one of discovery through the text, because the actor brain already knows what the writer brain wants to say. And in this instance, the didactic drive feels more like a TED Talk than a theatre piece. That’s not to say that Stalker’s writing is not worthy as a theatrical work. Far from it. The images Stalker seeds, aided by an evocative soundscape from Jude Robertson, is an excellent balance between the simple beauty of both science and nature. However, while there is a certain wild animation in Stalker’s eyes as he performs, it quickly becomes clear that between the beats, which director Paul Gittins masterfully orchestrates, Stalker is searching for his lines. What was a sense of excitement, quickly becomes one of danger, and not the good kind.

While billed as a one-man show, there is a significant amount of dialogue provided by Elizabeth Hawthorne, who imbues every line with life as if it’s being spoken for the first time, which begs the question as to why a decision wasn’t made to either include the actress on stage or cut the role completely. There’s also the fact that being spoken in the past tense means that we can’t invest in the remission storyline, because we know Kate is dead from the near beginning. Which is the central issue with Ghost Trees. We don’t really care. Stalker shows little to no emotion, and speaks tripplingly through the text, so while the Platonic “dialogue” is there, any catharsis is absent. If the script were to be performed by another actor (Gittins perhaps?), the chance for a more full and rich character could lift Ghost Trees to a higher branch.

Coral

Emma Newborn

Emma Newborn

Anyone who’s spent time answering phones in office administration will know the mind-numbingly repetitive nature of the job. So when 90% of the dialogue for the first-third of a one-woman show is the same line over and over, but elicits laughs every time, you know you’re in good hands. After a sell-out two-night season at the New Zealand International Comedy Festival, writer and performer Emma Newborn returns to the Basement Studio with a delightful comedy that shows just how impressive the most unsuspecting can be.

A loyal employee, we begin to see exactly why that is as Coral awaits the return of her boss, Brian, who has a big presentation to deliver. It’s a simple premise, and works perfectly in allowing Newborn to show us who Coral is through what she does. Structurally, however, the show does work against itself, though the components are all there. The big presentation is the moment we’re all waiting for, so once we get past that point, the momentum wanes. The last third of the show provides plenty of dramatic content, but needs to be seeded earlier to heighten the tragic-comedy of the piece and allow the epilogue to wrap things up more quickly and concisely.

Fortunately, Newborn is an incredibly charismatic performer and drives the show with great ease. But not only is Coral a quaint show, it’s also an excellent metaphor. The coral reef narration (voiced by Edward Newborn) is a reminder that sometimes, in order to help, we need to step back and allow things to flourish on their own. At a time when climate change threatens our very future, Coral is a 50-minute reprieve that is sure to make you laugh, smile, and maybe think a little bit differently at the person on the other end of the line.

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.

The Blind Date Project

Natalie Medlock

Natalie Medlock

Five years later and serial-dater Anna is back in the game. App dating hasn’t really changed since then, nor since its boom in 2012, but that doesn’t mean there are any fewer suitors or potential theatrics since Silo Theatre first presented the show. Created by AFI award-winner Bojana Novakovic, who has played the role in Sydney, New York, and Los Angeles, the gimmick of The Blind Date Project, in that neither the actress nor the audience have any idea who the former’s co-star will be for the evening, is one that not only encourages multiple viewings, but also brings with it high risk. Anticipation. Failure. Success. Fear. But that’s what dating’s all about, right?

Perched on a stool in yet another karaoke dive bar, actress Natalie Medlock awaits her guest for the night. Inspired by the neon chic of the heyday of queer nightclubs, Michael McCabe’s “Locket” is an authentic and fully functioning bar operating in the Q Theatre Loft. As patrons purchase last-minute drinks before taking their seats at cabaret-style tables or the rear seating block, Rachel Marlowe’s lighting draws us in, while maintaining a theatrical objectivity. We’re voyeurs as much as spectators. People watchers and participants.

Entering with skateboard, helmet, and hi-vis, Anna’s date on opening night is Carol, played by actress, comedian, and television host, Hayley Sproull. Carol is a pharmacist from Glenn Innes, who’s been demoted to the Greenlane Countdown due to a penchant for “all of the pams”. It turns out she also has a boyfriend of 14 years back at home. It’s a backstory with plenty to play, but the drugs never take hold and the double-seven-year-itch doesn’t give Sproull a strong enough objective to play.

Both Medlock and her respective date receive direction via texts and phone calls, and while the Auckland premiere in 2014 was directed by Novakovic herself, this year, Artistic Director Sophie Roberts is at the other end of the line. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, co-creator and director Mark Winter says that he watches what emerges organically, and then tries to heighten it. “I try to give them obstacles to overcome so there is that tension between them. That is when they start to test each other’s personalities.”

This test, this tension, never really arises on opening night. There is plenty of play between Carol and Anna as they discuss sex and drugs, and sing rock ‘n’ roll and pop songs, and while it all reads truthfully, with laugh-a-minute hilarity thanks to both Medlock and Sproull’s comedic wit and timing, both the internal and external obstacles make no influence on either character until the very end, especially Anna’s more-often-than-not ill-fitting secret, which feels forced both narratively and emotionally. It’s also difficult to hear at times, specifically Yvette Parson’s bartender, Lucy.

While Auckland audiences may not be graced with the presence of Margot Robbie or David Harbour as other productions have, there are plenty of guests for whom I would return to see. There are even different versions of Anna which Medlock can play on any given night. As with any blind date, this show takes guts. You can be as prepared as you want to be, but you’ll never know what to expect. It requires a huge amount of courage, but also malleability. It is a show that is absolutely worth seeing in terms of the potential game that can be played. Whether the guest steps, however, is another question. Besides that, when was the last time you took a risk?

We Will Rock You

Willian Deane and Bridie Dixon. Photo by SomeBizarreMonkey.

Willian Deane and Bridie Dixon. Photo by SomeBizarreMonkey.

There’s a fine line between genius and madness. I’m not sure on which side of the line Freddie Mercury stood, but I have no doubt that his typically flamboyant persona would have been confounded to silence by the senselessly slaughtered carcass of a cash-cow that is We Will Rock You the musical. The show was panned by critics when it premiered in 2002, but audiences lapped it up and it became the fifteenth longest-running musical in the West End. The show has been updated in recent years (Planet Mall is now iPlanet), but not enough to address its incomprehensibility or inherent misogyny. It may be set in the year 3,000, but 1980s’ values are alive and well.

Galileo Figaro is a prophet. No reason. He just is. Deal with it. He doesn’t understand the words that pop out of his mouth like a Tourette’s episode, but we do – WINK WINK. He and Scaramouche, who literally does not have a name until he gives her one, are both anomalies in a generation of conformity. They’re arrested by Khashoggi, the police commander of the Orwellian state, and then just kind of escape. They meet some bohemians and search for an axe (that’s guitar for all you idiots out there), while being pursued by Killer Queen who spends a lot of time not moving. Do they find the axe? Do they fall in love? Does Khashoggi ever take off his sunglasses? Couldn’t care less. I give up on the narrative and deducing any dramaturgical logic after the first scene. It’s all about the music now.

And that’s the issue. The most common problem with jukebox musicals is that they work backwards. They start with songs spread across multiple albums that have no correlation other than the artists that produced them, and then attempt, often perfunctorily, to form some sort of cohesive narrative. Lyrics are forced into dialogue against their will, like male genitals into leather pants, and songs occur because the character has to sing not out of an internal, emotional necessity, but because the plot makes them. As a writer, I love wordplay, but after over two hours of dialogue that plays out like an extended Song Titles game from Whose Line Is It Anyway?, I began to see how others have viewed my puns as a neurological disorder. And as I wonder if the entire audience is suffering from Witzelsucht, I also wonder why if Galileo is the prophet, everyone else can speak Queen lyrics, and why they are unable to pronounce ancient words that were part of their current lexicon. Fortunately, the music of Queen, under the musical direction of Mark Bradley and Edwin Randall, is in good hands, with vocal performances offering a slight personal signature while staying true to the originals.

WWRY relies predominantly on vocal strength, which William Deane, Bridie Dixon, Caleb Muller and Rebecca Wright each have to glorious degrees. Telling the story of the song, however, is where things begin to falter. While Dixon fights back with warrant at everything in the script working against her in portraying a three-dimensional character, Deane reverts to the most common and unattractive action of whining. This lack of character depth in Emma Carr’s direction is seen most evidently in David Mackie’s rendition of These Are The Days of Our Lives, which is clouded with superfluous stage direction and gesturing, and Muller and Wright’s reduction to farcical caricatures, which they admirably wholly embrace. Meanwhile, ticket-selling Annie Crummer chews the scenery as if she hasn’t eaten since her original performance in 2003.

WWRY is not an easy show. It’s a ridiculous one. And while Theatre Co. have presented it with all the necessary bells and whistles to detract from the nonsensical narrative, there is one central component which the production ultimately lacks. While executed with professional flair, the soul of rock is as cold as Freddie’s effigy. The cast have an excellent band supporting them, and Rebekkah Schoonbeek-Berridge’s choreography gives the show a momentum it otherwise lacks. But other than Dixon and Wright (and Kristin Paulse, who looks like the only cast member who has ever been in a mosh pit), there is none of the hedonistic freedom that rock offers to lift the show beyond its technical aspects. But when you have to prompt the audience with surtitles for the most well-known song as an encore, you’re already working against this freedom. You could pay $60 to see the show, but you could also pay less to smoke a joint and sing along to your favourite Queen album at home.

Soft 'n' Hard

Thomas LaHood and Jo Randerson

Thomas LaHood and Jo Randerson

In Games People Play, by Eric Berne, the author postulates on the negative behaviours associated with the three ego states in which we interact, the Parent, the Adult, and the Child. The emergence of these states, which are developed over a lifetime and unconsciously adopted, are not always the ones you’d expect to arise in any given circumstance. Romantic relationships, friendships, and even colleague dynamics, are often susceptible to the infantilising of one party or the other as we play out our roles as Parents and Children – as much as we’d like to think we’re all Adults. I mention this not as psycho-analysis of husband-and-wife Thomas LaHood and Jo Randerson’s marriage, or of their working relationship as two of New Zealand’s most radical and hilarious theatre makers, but in regards to my recognition of my own Child in the misplaced anger and crippled emotional expression of LaHood’s character.

Soft ‘n’ Hard is the inevitable happening between two practitioners who share not only their practice, but also their home lives. While each working on a solo show, and acting as unofficial dramaturg on the other, they came to the conclusion that both their thematic territory and theatrical languages were complementary. Randerson was investigating how women have to hold themselves to accommodate others, while LaHood was exploring men’s relationship with emotional labour. The result is a hilarious hour of gender-role exploration, from internal desires to external expectations, by two of New Zealand’s top clowns.

Randerson mentions that after a showing of their solo works, “some of the male responders present felt they couldn’t comment on my show, that it wasn’t their place, that it ‘wasn’t about them’.” Ironically, by intertwining the content of their individual works, the final message seems to be that men should simply shut up. And we should. In certain circumstances. Women continue to fight tooth and nail for spaces and platforms with which to use their voice, and the wave of feminist theatre works in New Zealand over the past few years has been a welcome shift in our theatrical landscape. However, in this particular instance, it feels Randerson’s platform has come at the cost of LaHood’s. We spend a significant amount more time with the former, which is no complaint thanks to her ability to hold an audience with nothing more than a sigh, but once the turning point, which feels forced, hits, and the dialogue begins, LaHood becomes little more than a device to serve Randerson’s story. This is fine if it’s indeed the intent of the show, but it comes at the cost of losing the intent LaHood may have had in his own.

Such content is never easy to navigate, for either audience or performer. Fortunately, Randerson and LaHood present images, objects, bodies, and sounds that are not only both incredibly vivid and evocative, but also free of semiotic confusion, allowing the audience to project themselves into the scenes. It is the epitome of complexity through simplicity. This is heavily supported by Owen McCarthy and Poppy Serano’s pastel-coloured design – an innocent façade that hides the set’s theatrical magic. Sound design by Waylon Edwards along with love ballads through the decades complete the spectacle, as director Isobel Mackinnon orchestrates Randerson and LaHood through the narrative with just the right amount of push and pull to excite, fulfil, and surprise.

As disruptors, Randerson and LaHood are no doubt open to the discussions their works provoke, and in response to art, criticism is simply the first word, not the last. Had this review been written immediately after viewing the show, you would be reading a Child’s words – you most likely still are, to a degree. But upon further reflection, hopefully as the rational Adult, the discomfort which the show evoked can be seen as a sign of the work that both men and women must continue to do in order to develop healthier and happier relationships with not only one another, but also themselves. While the show may not have explored the greater effects of men’s relationship with emotional labour, it does offer a starting point for the conversation. I just wish we had more time.

Soft 'n' Hard: Preview

Chris Parker once described Barbarian Productions’ Artistic Director Jo Randerson as “the master of meaning”. Establishing the company in 2001, Randerson was joined by her now husband Thomas LaHood in 2006, and over the years the two have developed nation-wide reputations in the New Zealand performing arts industry as radical progressives. Their dramaturgical expertise, alongside their penchant for clowning, would inevitably make for the merging of two solo shows on which each were working. While LaHood was exploring men’s relationship with emotional labour, Randerson was investigating how women have to hold themselves to accommodate others. Each was acting as unofficial dramaturg for the other, and it became clear early on that not only was the thematic territory complementary, but they were using a similar performance language to create the work. Working with costume and clown, and a visual, tableaux-building physical style rather than text heavy monologuing, the result, Soft n Hard, makes its third appearance in Auckland next week at Q Loft.

Following two sell-out seasons in Wellington, the show is an exciting opportunity for Auckland audiences to once again engage with the anarchic fun for which Barbarian is known. But how much has the content of the show been informed by their own relationships?

Jo Randerson: This show is not auto-biographical, but tries to reflect relationship dynamics we have observed, read about, seen presented in popular culture, and also lived through. But the work we make is always hugely informed by our own experience. That's the way clown works, it has to come from you. The making process includes research, investigation, talking with others, testing ideas on trial audiences, but there always has to be a connection to ourselves and our own lived experience.

Thomas LaHood: I would say observation both of ourselves and our own journeys, and those of people around us (peers, family, colleagues) has been at the heart of the process - at least speaking for myself. I don't feel that the show has 'been informed by our relationship', rather that many small observations about the stances that we take, the impulses we suppress and the conflicts we find ourselves repeatedly enacting have certainly been used and woven to create a larger, more universal and abstract experience.

The abstract universality has certainly resonated with audiences, with LaHood adding that “A huge number of people have said they felt like we had recorded their conversations and they were watching their own lives being played back to them.”

So after 10 years of marriage, how has the relationship dynamic informed the collaborative process?

TL: Massively! The rehearsal room could get pretty terse at times, even though everyone in the team was really good at keeping things fun and funny. I can only say personally that I know I brought a huge number of blocks and insecurities to the process that are very much visible in the finished work. There's a lot of creative use of conflict in our collaboration, but I also think we both trust each other creatively and probably our material evolves to a richer, more complex place by having two creators having to negotiate constantly.

JR: These two dynamics are different – business partners and parents, and they are different again when we co-perform, although I think in all situations I tend to be the 'driver' whereas Thomas is a very good implementer. In all situations it's helpful to have someone else beyond the two of us, either our kids, the rest of our team at Barbarian, and in our show, our awesome director, Isobel McKinnon to help us get perspective.

Learning that one of her favourite writers, Doris Lessing, had left her children at a young age to focus on her writing, was also helpful for Randerson as a young parent. 

JR: Not that this was something I wanted to do, but it widened the scope of possibility. I’ve found there to be such pressure to be a superlative mother, to take to the role 'naturally', but I know many women who do not find this role an easy shift. It’s important to remember there is a spectrum of experiences in parenting, and that regardless of your gender you may sit anywhere along that spectrum as a parent. One of my favourite pieces of graffiti is Fight Back: MAGIC (Men Are Good Infant Caregivers). We need to liberate ourselves from conventional stereotypes for everybody's sake. 

This rejection of the pressure of conventional gender roles is also reflected in the couple’s work.

TL: I think Jo's leadership of Barbarian means that she takes on a lot of the 'provider' responsibilities that are conventionally considered a male domain, while I’ve had a more hands on role in domestic parenting than many, particularly with the children in their infancy. Jo still has to manage almost all of the emotional labour, and it's always surprising to me how much I still take on the mantle of 'grumpy dad' keeping behaviour boundaries firmly policed. We don't always work from the same page and I think we probably are both more intuitive parents than strategic or systematic ones, so we can forgive each other quite readily. Parenting is a really complex and confusing experience.

The show has been astutely described by the couple’s 11-year-old son, Geronimo, as “two monsters who turn into people and then have lots of fights”. The observation made them realise how visible the struggle with their own inner monsters can be, so how do they address these often creative yet potentially destructive forces in the home?

JR: We played a lot of loud music when our kids were small, we all danced and sung and crashed around the room. This was a much needed release when the pressure mounted in hard times.

TL: We both use comedy a lot. It's the best way to address monsters head-on, but you need some emotional/spiritual energy in reserve to be resilient enough to have a sense of humour in the first place! I've learned a lot through working in the arts with Jo about the value of being able to lean into or sit still within uncomfortable or challenging experiences, and that really is the challenge.

JR: I also get outside, into the air, next to the trees and the earth. Our whole whanau chill out as soon as we leave the house. I address the inner monster by be-friending it, getting to know it and finding out what it needs. Art is one of the best ways to work with your inner monster.

TL: If you can create a space for your monsters, and treat them with a kind or even loving sense of humour, then they have the opportunity to grow into something quite beautiful.

Soft n Hard is presented by Barbarian Productions and is performing at Q Loft, Tuesday 20th – Saturday 24th August.

Ngā Puke

Kimo Houltham and Simone Walker

Kimo Houltham and Simone Walker

Ngā Puke hadn’t been performed professionally for 20 years before Cian Elyse White made her directorial debut with the 2015 production at Te Pou. A simple two-hander, it’s an appropriate vehicle for a new director, and a story with which White clearly connects, “It’s a beautiful story about the power of love and the pull of the land.” However, set in the late 30s and early 40s, and written by John Broughton in the late 80s, it appears White has not been able to present Ngā Puke with much of a theatrical language beyond either of these eras.

Movement in the transitional sequences works beautifully, however, the Herald is a notoriously difficult space to fill, and that doesn’t mean actors should omit their characters’ internal drive for the sake of gesture, superfluous blocking, and miming with dialogue. It harks back to a time of highly dramatic performances, where everything is an exclamation and the comedy is played so hard one can almost hear the slide whistle. The result is that Kimo Houltham and Simone Walker don’t draw us into the world which Waru and Angie inhabit. Instead, they attempt to create a nostalgic idea of a generation that turn them into caricatures.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the play avoided painting a romantic hue between its lead characters, and focussed on the text’s strength, but it never seems sure as to whether the relationship between Waru, the proud and naïve sheep farmer, and Angie, the educated and capricious artist, is a romantic or platonic one. While Auckland Live correctly label it a “beautiful friendship”, Broughton’s script and White’s direction certainly push for the former, with sudden jumps to a confession of love and a request for marriage, but there is no chemistry between Waru and Angie, or Houltham and Walker, to justify the shoe-horned and unnecessary girl-meets-boy trope.

As an artist, whakapapa can be a powerful influence on one’s work. As White says herself, “my lineage is my inspiration… my whakapapa makes me who I am.” However, as artists, we must work beyond influence and inspiration, and make the personal universal. When we do, we allow audiences to reflect the art we present them onto their own lives. Few have come close to losing someone they care about in a hospital bed in Crete in 1941, but that doesn’t mean the scene cannot resonate if the work taps into the universal sense of loss. And while plenty will undoubtedly stifle sniffles, as they did on opening night, I’m left cold by Walker’s crocodile tears.

It is this lack of truth that ultimately fails Ngā Puke. There is, however, one redeeming quality. The story of the land. There is no question that Broughton, who has also worked extensively in Māori and indigenous health, has imbued his script with fierce wonderment of the tangata whenua, and in that regard, Houltham, as directed by White, meets the play in a performative sense. Unfortunately, it is only one section of a show that otherwise presents a story trapped in the theatrical era in which it is set.

Theatre & Protest: Like a River

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While Europe and Africa host some of the most recently founded nations in the world, the countries from which they were established are often steeped in thousands of years of political turmoil. As one of the last land masses to be discovered, New Zealand’s much shorter history, while not without its own bloodshed, has resulted in not only a more comparatively moderate political spectrum, but also an arguably less politically-driven theatrical landscape. That’s not to say that New Zealand theatre is without a political punch, simply that there is a lack of cultural resonance when compared to the work of Moscow’s Teatr.doc or Scottish playwright Rona Munro’s The James Plays. Protest, however, is certainly a form of theatre, and from Hōne Heke and the Maori Land March to the Waterfront Dispute and the Springbok Tour, it is action with which New Zealand has an extensive history, most recently seen with the school and tertiary students’ climate change strikes in March and May.

While no specific social or political views or events catalysed the development of Massive Company’s latest work, Like a River, they were inevitably part of the discussion. Director Stef Fink, who joined the company in 2010 as a member of Massive Nui Ensemble and took part in the Director’s Lab 2016-17, notes that “the schools’ march, the Christchurch attacks, and abortion being made illegal in some US states have all been happening while we have been developing the work, and were definitely things that we talked about whether to include or not in the script. Some of them are mentioned, as the work is contemporary and reflects the current world, but some are so huge and began to become about issues not central to the theme of our show that we didn't feel it was right to just give them lip-service in the work.”

Stef Fink

Stef Fink

In response to creating the script, playwright Jo Randerson was “keen to get in around protest and agreement, which we do so much in New Zealand,” so set provocations for the Massive Nui Ensemble, from which the cast have come. Questions around beliefs, disagreement, communication, change, and freedom. “We were all interested to know how our young people were feeling and acting about protesting and disagreeing, from the big issues to the smaller,” says Sam Scott, founder and artistic director of Massive. “[The ensemble] responded to these initially over a group devising weekend. Jo then went away and began her work. Once she had the cast a few months later, she fine-tuned the characters etc. to reflect some of the casts own ideas and thoughts.”

If protest is about societal progression, and progressive ideas have long fuelled some of the world’s greatest artists, then there’s no ignoring the inherently left-wing, anti-establishment nature of art. But how do such artists accurately portray the perspectives against which they rail? For cast member Francesca Browne, it’s about “engaging with open ears, and the knowledge that the world is filled with different perspectives for a reason. I try not to get too caught up in my head when I'm portraying views I oppose. It's unproductive thinking really. Perpetuating the cycle of negative thinking doesn't achieve anything positive. I remember that stories are told from someone’s truth, that this character is a part of their truth and a vital part of this story.”

Francesca Browne

Francesca Browne

So is art a mirror to society, or a hammer for shaping it? “Both,” answers Browne. “I think artists have always been at the forefront of revolutions. By reflecting current events back at society, it can allow people to gain some outside perspective, therefore helping people to change it. But when you're in the middle of really ridiculous situations, it can be a struggle to see that. Igor Stravinsky wrote The Rite of Spring in 1913 and redefined 20th century music, and at the premiere people literally rioted at how disgusting they thought it was. But not only was he creating a musical revolution, he actually pulled the roots of his ballet from Russian Folk Music. He was just showing the bourgeoisie what their society looked like.”

It’s a sentiment echoed in Massive’s work, with alumni Villa Junior Lemanu recalling post-show forums while touring New Zealand. “Close friends would enter the show not knowing what to expect, laugh and cry in the audience, then later come up and tell me how the show had changed their attitudes towards things. It sparked a bit of hope and a bit of magic for them. I believe all art is capable of creating that magic.” While not as extreme as revolutionary Russia, it’s a result not unexpected. “Massive often works from provocations,” says Browne. “For me, acting and writing served as the perfect outlet to protest, using comedy to spark conversations about change that I indirectly started. By the end of my first year in the company, I was a completely different person. Now, I speak up. Now, I try and engage in discussions and understand why other people think the way they do. Now, I focus writing on making a point.”

Written by Jo Randerson and directed by Stef Fink, Like a River is presented by Massive and is playing at Basement Theatre from July 23 – 27. Starring Francesca Browne, Seto Ierome, Elsie Polosovai, Jasper Putt, and Sherry Zhang. Post-show forums will be held following Thursday and Friday’s performances. Click here for more details

Power

Talia Carlisle, Emma Maguire, Sara Cowdell, and Elizabeth Connor.

Talia Carlisle, Emma Maguire, Sara Cowdell, and Elizabeth Connor.

What does power look like? For some, it’s dominance over others, for others, it’s autonomy over one’s own body. Whichever way you perceive it, the concept of power has, rightly or wrongly, been integral to societal development, for both those who have it, and those who are suppressed by it. But what happens when the latter subvert it, change it, use it against their suppressors?

Created and directed by Sara Cowdell, POWER is “a tribute to UK pop sensation Little Mix”, interspersed with personal “stories of heartbreak, frustration, and the ongoing struggles of living in this patriarchal weirdo world.” This dichotomy between movement and word is strictly adhered to, but never feels jarring or incongruous with the piece as a whole. Dance. Speak. It’s a simple yet effective premise, and one which provides a structure and rhythm which resonates well. This is especially noticeable with Elizabeth Connor’s text, which often ends in devastatingly simple words that silence the audience.

From witches and the Celtic Goddess Sheela na gig, to aging and doxing, the content is indeed unapologetically honest. At times at length, at others with a few short words, performers Talia Carlisle, Emma Maguire, Cowdell, and Connor take turns musing on events in their lives that highlighted these various moments for them. Moments of acceptance, confusion, and abuse. Each one feeding the audience with joy or sorrow. A man two rows ahead of me lowers his head. A woman in the front row finger snaps.

Lighting design by Tony Black makes excellent use of the traverse Basement theatre, juxtaposing cool side and warm top lighting which provides depth and atmosphere respectively. Pulsing back lights illuminate the audience, but it never feels confronting, as the cast perform with an open yet non-confrontational demeanour. Which is where POWER lacks a punch. If you can’t express righteous anger in the theatre, where can you express it?

In terms of execution, the cast don’t come across as dancers or actors, however, that’s also exactly what makes the piece. While Joanne Hobern’s choreography is not quite synchronised, and the feminist rants subdued with emotional control, POWER is not about professional performance perfection, it’s about performers using their bodies and voices to own a space in which they can speak, dance, and even flash their stories. In that way, it’s almost a proto-performance of the works that are currently being presented by the next generation of New Zealand’s female theatre-makers, and, ironically, one of the most theatrical shows in our feminist catalogue.

Once

Adam Ogle and Lisa Crawley

Adam Ogle and Lisa Crawley

The most profound changes in our lives are often inspired by those who arrive most unexpectedly. Winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song, Falling Slowly, by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, is a tender yet evocative cry that epitomises the intimacy of such serendipitous connections. Written, composed, and performed for the Irish musical romance, Once, the success of the 2007 film led to a 2011 theatrical adaptation that quickly featured on Broadway and in the West End, as well as in Seoul, Toronto, and of course, Dublin. It’s taken some time to reach Australasia, but Peach Theatre Company has a knack for obtaining the rights and funds to present large scale works on par with (and even beyond) New Zealand’s leading theatre companies.

The decision to cast musicians as opposed to actors worked in favour of the film, given its indie, diegetic style and predicted off-screen romance, but a lack of stagecraft is not something around which a theatre director can edit. While film dictates what we see, theatre exposes a performer, and it is up to the director to ensure their talent has the tools to navigate such territory confidently. While some are loved by the camera, Adam Ogle, making his theatrical debut, has a stage presence and charisma beyond his musical talents (though some support is still required for his upper register). A phenomenal guitarist, Ogle has a quiet yet intense depth to his portrayal of Guy, at one point delivering a nostalgic monologue with simple yet affective phrasing. This instinctive pacing, however, goes against director Jesse Peach’s beats, with the remainder of the show rushed, especially in the apologetic moments of the script.

While Ogle is at home on stage, Lisa Crawley is uncomfortably stiff. Elbows locked at her sides, she gestures on every line and pivots her entire upper body forwards when trying to make a point. Unfortunately, no point is ever made, as Crawley has no variety of notes in her performance. What makes this so egregious is not an unwarranted expectation or even fault on the part of Crawley as an actress, but the lack of such basic stage craft Peach has failed to provide her, and to have done so is, quite simply, contemptible.

Fortunately, Crawley has an incredibly smooth singing voice and nails the direct dry delivery of the Czech Girl, which provides most of the show’s humour (along with Alistair Sewell’s Svec), and while the notorious dark Kiwi vowels flatten certain words, dialect coach Alexandra Whitham keeps the entire cast otherwise in check.

Having won, among other awards, Best Book of a Musical at the 2012 Tonys, Enda Walsh’s adaptation of John Carney’s screenplay is surprisingly problematic. While the translation to a theatrical world is well-plotted, especially thanks to Matt Munford’s inviting design, supporting characters are incapacitated with two-dimensional conflicts that are never satisfyingly resolved. Shop owner Billy (Peter Tait) is egotistical and hypocritically lecherous, charitable only when his base desires are subdued by a reluctant and alcohol-necessitated favour by Priya Sami’s Réza, while Jesse O’Brien and Jared Hill are both forced to manufacture inequitable ends to their stories as Andrej and Bank Manager respectively.

Fortunately, Emily Campbell, as Ex-Girlfriend, manages to imbue her minimal dialogue with an emotional weight that not only evokes the history of an entire relationship, but also reminds us of the variants of love and how they can be both justified and misconstrued.

While the ensemble aren’t provided with fully-realised characters, their pre-show musical entertainment, driven with impeccable comedic timing by Jackie Clarke, sets a juxtaposing upbeat tone to the sombre romantics for the evening, as some mill through and engage with the audience. Jo Kilgour’s lighting design evokes the communal warmth that music brings and the spotlit streets of Dublin, while Arran Eley’s sound design fills the ASB Waterfront Theatre with a wholesome balance. Like attending an album tour concert of your favourite band, experiencing Hansard and Irglová’s music live by an ensemble of exceptional musicians under the precise musical direction of Josh Clark is truly beautiful. And while the theatrical components might not always fit in place, the charm of Once reminds us of the power of music and the connections we can make with it.

The Wolves

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A common misconception, the lone wolf is not always one which prefers a life of solitude. Traditionally a pack animal, what the independent seeks, more often than not, is a partner, and a new pack. As for many animals, tribes are integral to our behavioural development, and the social network of sports is one of the most common methods used. But for every eleven pairs of studded boots that tear divots on a Saturday morning, there are silent lips reciting Caryl Churchill or Sarah Kane, waiting for their chance to speak aloud. It’s not often that a prominent theatre company presents a work aimed at giving space to young women, or when it is, it’s often lip service at best. By earnestly engaging in this practice, Silo Theatre has not only struck gold, but also proven the attention deserved and artistic merit of our younger practitioners through a cast of nine exceptional actresses.

For all but two, The Wolves marks their professional stage debut, but you wouldn’t know that based on their performances. There are actors who have worked on stage for decades and not reached this level of authenticity, but to suggest the cast are only succeeding in their craft at a level beyond their years would be to insult that they are also quite simply bringing all that they are to these roles. This is the fundamental reason why The Wolves is such an important work. It allows women to be women.

This aforementioned authenticity begins, as it always does, with playwright Sarah DeLappe’s text. Writing nine voices is no mean feat, and the multiple and honest perspectives DeLappe provides allows the cast to construct their characters, not only from the words they say, but the topics they discuss. There is no stereotypical reduction to boys and periods (though these subjects do arise). Instead, we hear young women philosophising on politics, from genocide to immigration, as they navigate the dynamics of their relationships. The result is that the audience are presented with fully-formed characters and motivations that are deeply layered. Not even small talk is off the cuff, because every line tells us something about someone.

But to simply say words on stage does not an actor make, and while there is some inconsistency in the evocation of delivery, this is a minor and singular discrepancy in an otherwise flawless set of performances. This is because what director Sophie Roberts has imbued in her cast, more importantly, is an acute sense of the use of space and the temporality of the characters’ respective and collective journeys, which, in addition to Christopher Stratton’s costume design, allows them to present these characters with lives that exist both on and off the stage. And each of these young actresses absolutely owns them. I simply cannot imagine anyone other in any of these roles.

They say casting is 90% of a director’s job. If so, Roberts has mined the remaining ten for every decimal. From the moment Sean Lynch’s lights hit Ruby Read’s set, the pace is exquisitely established, and the beats between the scenes and within the units are definitively yet subtlety marked, allowing the moments between both them and the actresses to resonate beyond linguistic restriction. It is the fundamental reason why we see a production rather than simply read the script. Vignettes punctuate the narrative progression, with sound design (also Lynch) evoking a near physical response, as the events of the play, and the characters themselves, slowly begin to unravel.

It is this skill in the art of the reveal that DeLappe, Roberts, and the cast are able to execute, which makes Silo’s production so much more than the sum of its parts. Certain themes and events that plague young women are seeded throughout, yet never directly mentioned, striking deep with minimal force. Every woman should see this show, and every parent of women should take them. It may not be easy, but it will be worth it, because these wolves are out for blood, and their primal howls, which haunt the Q Loft long after the audience have left, will continue to echo through the history of New Zealand theatre.

MANIAC on the Dance Floor

Daedae Tekoronga-Waka

Daedae Tekoronga-Waka

He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata. 12 days after the Labour Government announced the 2019 Wellbeing Budget with a four-year $445.1m investment in mental health frontline services, the Basement Theatre, once again, presented a show concerning mental health. With a one-in-five diagnostic rate the issue is prevalent in New Zealand, but while Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addresses the issue with a humanity that has disrupted the concept of political action worldwide, our younger playwrights continue to struggle to tell such stories with any theatrical complexity.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Playmarket Playwrights b4 25 Competition, Natasha Lay’s MANIAC on the Dance Floor is not so much an “extravaganza” as it is music-inspired didacticism with a lesson that is never actually learnt. After the apparently mandatory opening number, performer Daedae Tekoronga-Waka introduces themselves as Anna, who, aided by back-up dancers Phillip Good and Adam Rohe (who also directs), is here to teach us about hardship, heartbreak, resilience, and recovery. There are, however, two fundamental problems with this premise as presented: construct and narrative.

Breaking the fourth wall is a perfectly valid convention, but not when it’s used in lieu of theatrical semiotics. If you’re being literal, as Lay’s script often is, you’re not making theatre, you’re on a soapbox. This problem is driven further by the fact that the line between performer and character are blurred due to the text’s inherently biographical and retrospective nature. We’re told where the show will end, so any dramatic irony and, more importantly, accountability, is lost, no matter how far the “unexpected” moments are pushed.

This is not, unfortunately, the worst misuse of metatheatrics. After soliciting an audience member to dance with them, Anna asks, “What do you think is wrong with me?” And with this informal request for a diagnosis, the show turns from a theatre piece to a hostage situation. The device is abused even further, as the audience are asked to read aloud, a line per person, the remainder of the script – much of which goes unheard. Audience interaction is one thing, but to put such onuses on them to drive your message home is not only lazy, but dangerous when considering the material.

Disjointed and jarring, sometimes driven by character, sometimes by time, others by nothing, Lay injects the narrative with adverbs and reactions on preconceived judgements from the audience. One result is that while Tekoronga-Waka moves well, they have no sense of rhythm when it comes to pacing dialogue and weighting the beats in the text. Gulfs of silence through which trains could pass suck the energy out of an already tepid opening night audience thanks to awkward pauses, weak punchlines, and slow musical fades.

The other result is even more problematic. No one likes to think they’re an asshole, but to correlate mental health issues with particular behaviours to which all are susceptible borders on the Marilyn Monroe attributed “If you can’t love me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best” quote often seen posted on Facebook by awful people attempting to justify themselves. This is not a misdiagnosis of the legitimate and commonly misconstrued hypomania-associated bipolar grandiosity, but a commentary on narcissistic condemnations, such as that of Good and Rohe, “I only used you because you make me look good”, and the character of James, who’s expression of vulnerability is labelled “emotional manspreading”.

But MANIAC is not entirely without care. Though burdened with a troubling text, Rohe, as both performer and director, orchestrates the tone throughout with a delicate hand as much as it allows. Lighting design by Spencer Earwaker is loud and gaudy, and captures the atmosphere attempted in the text perfectly, but the songs themselves are shoe-horned into the script, not born from the conflict within it. Hayley Robertson’s stretched-lycra set construction appropriately threads the strain of mental health within the piece, and choreography by Marianne Infante is simple yet effective, and uses the Basement Studio space well.

There is no universal remedy for mental health issues. And while community has been proven to have a direct correlation to our wellbeing, to directly advise one’s audience to simply accept help from others is a patronising takeaway, barely a step above the “You just need to get out of bed” and “You should get more exercise” tropes. While the gesture is genuine, and difficulty in doing so is acknowledged, without any theatrical conduit, it’s insulting at best and arrogant at worst, and one would think someone who would have undoubtedly been on the receiving end of such “advice” would have known better. It is not that Lay is wrong in her assertion, it is that she has not used the artistic medium at her disposal to make her point.

An Iliad

Michael Hurst

Michael Hurst

That war is bad is nothing new. Be it the expansion of territory, the challenge of leadership, or the objectifying reward of the most beautiful woman in the world, the event that triggers the discord of militant violence is, in the grand scheme of things, irrelevant. And yet, its history educates us. Epic poetry was not only a form of artistic expression and entertainment in Ancient Greece, but also a means of archiving the culture of preliterate societies for generations. They contained not only the facts, but also the lyricism through which the author could imbue thematic morality.

First staged in 2012, Lisa Peterson and David O’Hare’s An Iliad narrows Robert Fagle’s translation of the original Homeric text to the conflict between Achilles, his bravery born from his invulnerability, and Hector, who earned his through didaskein. This focus on the historical and academically cited contrast in masculinity allows the Poet, played by veteran thespian Michael Hurst, to ruminate with resonant intimacy on the consequences of not only the rage provoked in battle, but also of a lifetime recounting it.

When the heavily-bearded Hurst enters, he sighs in response to the abruptly hushed, house-lit audience. This sigh tells us everything. And yet, even with the weight of war heavy in his throat, Hurst’s Poet cannot quell the passion his words evoke. At times it overwhelms him, as it does us. Slumped in a chair, Hurst performs an epic catalogue with such pathos that one could hear a pin drop. Moments later he’s enacting a slaughter with the bloodlust of a Spartan. Hurst, like the Poet, was born to tell us stories.

However, as the house lights dim in the notoriously drowse-inducing vertiginous Herald Theatre, Peterson and O’Hares script drags through the establishing exposition. There are moments, such as the regionalising of place names, which allow Hurst to drop the audience into the piece, but the 20-30 minutes of the text, once the Poet begins his narration, creates a false sense of the expected duration of the piece.

Fortunately, director and conceptual designer Jonathan Hendry has orchestrated a dynamic pace and rhythm that progresses the story with an imperceptible delicateness that never feels forced, accentuated by Rachael Marlowe’s lighting design. Whether flooded in house light, contained in spotlight, or shadowed against the back wall, Marlowe encapsulates Hurst in the mises en scènes with classical antiquity. The live soundscape, composed and performed by Shayne P Carter as the Muse, is jarring at first, but settles into place once the gimmick is forgotten and the attention is redirected back to Hurst, allowing Carter’s music to truly feed the piece as intended.

When Peterson and O’Hare’s words paint the pictures, it’s beautiful, but when Hurst sees the scenes, it’s devastatingly deep. However, there are some moments that are not given their time to breathe or resonate, such as Carter’s entrance, and while there is no direct mention by Homer, it does seem conservative to distinctly label the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus as “friends” over the more culturally likely paiderasteia.

An Iliad was the last production staged at the abruptly closed historic Fortune Theatre in Dunedin last year. The blow of this tragedy is lessened only in the knowledge that its 44-year history culminated with a show inspired by one of the greatest texts in history, performed by one of the greatest actors in our country. And thanks to Artsense Productions and Auckland Live, Auckland now has the opportunity to bear witness.