By Carl Bland and Peta Rutter
Directed by Ben Crowder
Presented by Nightsong Productions/Theatre Stampede/THE EDGE
The Civic, Auckland | January 13-25
360 – A Theatre of Recollections is one of those shows that does not lend itself well to a review. The pleasures involved resist being written down and explained and to do so is a disservice to the show and its many, many highlights. So right off the bat I’m going to tell you to see this show. You won’t see another like it this year, or probably ever, and it uses the Civic stage in a way that you will never see it used again. See it twice if you can.
360 is above all a memory play, in the vein of The Glass Menagerie if Tennessee Williams’s background was a circus performer instead of a tortured Southern gay man. Gee, played in three stages of his life by Milo Cawthorne, Gareth Reeves, and Bruce Phillips, leaves his circus performer family for his dreams and delusions of grandeur. His family consists of a sister (Olivia Tennet), a brother (Adam Gardiner), a father (Andrew Grainger), and a seal (a puppet, ably puppeteered by Rosalie van Hork). The play moves vaguely along from Gee leaving his family to Gee returning, but throughout we’re treated to excerpts from the life of the family, played as memories from Gee’s mind as he travels back to his home.
The main drawing point of 360, and one that turns the show from an affecting play into an engaging spectacle, is how it is staged. The audience is lead into an enclosed circle of eighty or so swivel chairs; the entire stage is around them. The play takes place in this circular stage and the audience turns to watch the action. Often there is parallel action, allowing the audience to choose where they look, editing their own experience of the play much like Gee is, unconsciously, editing his own memories.
On its own, the story is affecting, and one that is genuinely felt despite the outlandish nature of the subjects. Carl Bland and Peta Rutter’s script has given us characters who, despite doing ridiculous things and having many moments of silliness, feel achingly real and true to life. From Gee’s sister’s dreams of becoming a seal, to his brother’s way of keeping memories intact, to the father’s repetitive stories, these feel like real people and more importantly, like the memories of a real person.
A lot of this comes down to the performances, which are not only physically astonishing, but help to ground the spectacle in reality. The three Gee’s are all excellent, in particular Gareth Reeves as the young-but-not-quite-young Gee makes an impression; there are moments when he’s watching memories of his family where the regret and guilt plays out on his face, and it’s absolutely painful to watch. Among the rest of the cast, Olivia Tennet and Andrew Grainger are standouts. The former has an electric presence that draws the eye whenever she’s onstage, while the latter brings a laudable amount of energy to his role, making the entire space burst with life and authentic feeling.
Where 360 succeeds as a play, and especially as a memory play, is that it feels like reliving somebody’s memories. The beautiful parts, the painful parts, and the vivid parts are brought to the forefront, not in a chronological manner, but in the illogical way that memory works. One thing triggers another, which triggers another, until you’re left with the most painful memory of all: a memory that gives 360 an iconic moment and an image that will stay with me for a very long time. A family, caught at their best, and enclosed in amber forever.
The creative craft on display in 360 supports and lifts the production up to another level entirely. Elizabeth Whiting’s costumes are, as usual, stunning to look at and sum up these characters in a glance without ever overstating themselves. John Verryt’s design is beautifully minimalistic until it needs to come to the forefront. The curtains are a genius way to show off this world of memory, with characters suddenly appearing and disappearing, or slowly fading into the ether. However, the two outstanding parts of this show are Nik Janiurek’s lighting and John Gibson’s music and sound design. Janiurek’s lighting is flat-out gorgeous and amongst the most beautiful I’ve seen on a stage, and even more impressive given that it has to work from every single angle. He turns the stage into a hazy world, again evoking that we’re in a world of memory, and it lends the play a delicacy. Gibson’s score does the same aurally: it suggests delicacy but also purpose, and when some of the blocking gets a little obtuse and odd, Gibson’s score is there to provide the audience with a solid emotional grounding so that we’re never lost.
That this all comes together as superbly as it does, and not just as a host of empty spectacle, is a credit to director Ben Crowder. He does spectacle well, and never better than he has here. 360 doesn’t just show us what theatre can be; it shows what theatre can do and should do. It takes us into a world like no other and provokes us to think and feel in new and interesting ways. If you don’t see this, your theatre experiences this year will be much poorer for it.