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.