By Stephen Sinclair
Directed by Elena Stejko
Presented by Sweet Thing Productions
Musgrove Studio, Auckland | July 5-July 27
Intimacies is a double bill of two plays that are fascinating in their flaws. Stephen Sinclair’s two plays, Sweet Thing and I’d Rather Be Pope are linked in the way that they approach technology. Sweet Thing revolves around a woman who clones her mother and the familial and personal fallout from that action, while I’d Rather Be Pope follows a young man who cannot disengage from the videogame that dominates his life. These plays are also linked by their misguided, bizarre. and fearful ways that they approach the technology they depict.
For me, the downfall of this double bill lies in the writing. Despite the three week run, this seems like a development season for two first drafts that have been finished, hastily rehearsed and put on stage. For plays that are billed as “hilarious satires” and “a disturbing premonition of where society is headed,” neither play is particularly funny on a writing level; it’s only the performances of a few actors that make it so, and neither play sets up a world that is believable enough that it could be ours, let alone ours in the future. The rules of neither world are clearly defined, or in the case of I’d Rather Be Pope, they’re defined far too late for an audience to take them in properly. Each play has their own particular issues, however.
Sweet Thing revolves around a woman, Sally, who clones her mother and tries to relive her childhood and the mistakes she has made. This is definitely the better of the double bill; the satire is very clear and even though it is heightened, it’s easy to see that this is what could happen if cloning were to become a thing. However, the world that Sinclair sets up is unbelievable and only casually referenced to, with one clunky line declaring, “It’s not even illegal.” We are instead confined to the world of Sally, and it’s a largely oppressive and plotless one. There are occasional tidbits where we see a woman who is trying to make her family accountable for what happened to her, but the scenes are shapeless and without levels. Conflicts, meanwhile, repeat until a dull twist straight out of either a student production or a play from the ’80s occurs, and themes are thrown out of the window. It becomes a play less about cloning, and more a play about an insane woman.
I’d Rather Be Pope is even more problematic in the way that it approaches its topic: video games. The protagonist Rod is immersed in a videogame called Cathar, which resembles no videogame I have ever played nor any videogame that I can imagine existing in the conceivable future, and is called upon to deal with his issues with councillors. This play has more of a plot than Sweet Thing, but it’s even less comprehensible and realistic. Point blank: this play sounds like it has come from somebody who has never played a videogame or has even heard of one. Not only is the depiction of videogames and people who play them hilariously off-kilter and dated, it’s borderline offensive. The fact that a protagonist in a play that is going on in 2013 utters the line “girls are weird” shows a complete ignorance of where videogames and videogame culture is today, or even ten years ago.
All this is putting aside a ludicrous plot where a councillor is slowly getting obsessed with the titular video game herself because of her own loneliness, something which could be played off as touching and real, but is instead dully introduced as a mid-play twist and then limped through until an unsatisfying ending. Again, Sinclair doesn’t set the world of the play up effectively; there’s no real sense that this is in the future and even when that’s made clear, it is unclear what kind of future this is and what the rules of both the world, and the game, are. It is a play that, again, comes off like it was written by somebody without a working knowledge of video games or the culture surrounding them, and more crucially, by somebody who doesn’t really care. For this kind of play to be effective, it needed to be from somebody who can empathise with these characters, not make fun of them. And beyond that, for a satire, it isn’t even funny. There is one laugh within this play and I’m not sure whether it was supposed to be one.
Which brings me to the shining light of this double bill: Rima Te Wiata. Simply put: Te Wiata is devouring these plays whole to make them work. Lines and motives that shouldn’t be funny suddenly become hilarious—the repetition of “Jam” during Sweet Thing, for instance, or a Basic Instinct-type manoeuvre in I’d Rather Be Pope (the aforementioned one laugh)—and she makes her characters in both plays, Sally and the councillor, seem close enough to real humans. These are not great performances, but they are highly watchable performances and when you’re watching her, the plays come close to being something human and something engaging. Jordan Selwyn as Rod in I’d Rather Be Pope, is also engaging as he conveys the duality of this character: his power and life during the video game scenes, and his utter listlessness during the real life scenes. He provides a heart that the play doesn’t give him, and the scenes between him and Te Wiata, even in the latter part of the play, are always watchable.
The plays are nothing to look at, either. There’s some nice lighting in I’d Rather Be Pope, and some nice images provided by a smoke machine and some footlights, but the cast are somehow dwarfed by the far from cavernous Musgrove Studio. The minimal, frankly cheap-looking set does them no favours and lines often drop in the dead space between the actors. Elena Stejko’s direction does provide some of the aforementioned nice images, and some engaging blocking, but for the most part these are two plays where the stage is as empty as the script.
It seems curmudgeonly and even cruel to go after the double bill in this way. And if these plays existed in the ’80s or even the ’90s, I might be kinder. But we’re in 2013. As an audience, these incredibly messy, apparently undeveloped and under-informed plays come off as lazy and pandering. Cloning is a thing, and honestly, it’s not something I know a lot about, but all I got from Sweet Thing is the dated viewpoint that “cloning is bad and there are moral ramifications,” which I could get from an article on Stuff. I’d Rather Be Pope is even worse. It’s a backward view on video games and the people who play them which comes from a seriously uneducated viewpoint and re-establishes old stereotypes and clichés. I expect intelligent discourse from satire; I don’t expect to be offended by a lack of knowledge or understanding.
Usually I end these reviews with a nudge to go see the play I’m critiquing, because I think most plays are good and worth seeing. I can’t say that about this double bill, so I’ll let the above speak for itself.