Seed; Once on Chunuk Bair

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

img_seedBy Elisabeth Easther; Directed by Emma Willis
Basement Theatre, Auckland | June 17-28

It is a curious experience to sit in an audience watching a play that is aggressively not aimed at you. As a gay man, it is rare to sit in a theatre audience and be a minority. This is not a bad thing; I relish seeing things that are not meant for me and making the effort to engage with them. I see a lot of plays that aren’t meant for me. Seed is one of those plays.

Written by Elisabeth Easther, Seed is a comedy that follows the trials and tribulations that occur around pregnancy. One woman finds out she is pregnant and wants to deal with it, one married couple is doing everything they can to make a baby, one single woman is desperately trying to get pregnant, and another is trying to balance the children she has with work and her relationships with her friend and husband. Seed covers the spectrum of women dealing with the issue of pregnancy, their choices around it, and the consequences of those choices, making light of them while also taking them seriously.

Easther’s script stands at the forefront of this production. It is a thing to contend with in a lot of ways and I’m still figuring out where I stand on the specifics, or even whether I’m allowed a place to stand on the specifics. It is a quick-paced comedy with a lot of direct address monologues moving us along the lives of these four women. There are likely more puns than there are pages in the script, and it’s refreshing to see a writer willing to poke fun and embrace her subject at the same time. Crucially, the women are never the butt of any of the script’s jokes; it is their individual situations that come under fire. On paper, that is what the play is.

There are moments where the script ducks out of conversations that could be delved into, usually at the very point where the conversation is getting interesting, especially around the issue of a woman wanting an abortion talking frankly with a woman who wants to conceive but can’t. That this is a subject approached by the play frankly and without judgment is in itself a success, and something that I haven’t seen onstage nearly enough, but the script swerves where it could trailblaze.

There are also times where some characters are reduced to their stances on pregnancy, and although the actors generally do well in building an inner life for the characters, monotony builds in the latter part of the play, which is already a long comedy at over an hour and a half, especially when conversations and stances are repeated. There is a neatness to the structure and the characters that is understandable, especially in a comedy, but it seems to sacrifice some rawness as a result. When the play boils down the four characters into pairs, we see where the story is going, and long before it should be clear.

For the most part, the script is fun, even if it is reliant on the more-than-occasional pun and behaviour that was shocking onstage in the late-90s but not so much now, and it moves along at a clip. 90 minutes without an interval should be death for a comedy, but Seed manages to get across the finish line without alienating its audience. There are also moments that make me question it, though, like a situation early on that can only be described as attempted sexual assault—a situation nobody would laugh at if the genders were reversed—and a revelation of one character’s child that appears to come out of nowhere as if it weren’t a revelation at all.

The script really relies on the cast to carry it across the finish line, and it’s a curious group, a mixture of actors familiar to me from screen, stage, and burlesque. Fiona Mogridge starts the play off in an almost parodying tone as Hilary, trying to conceive with her husband, but settles quite nicely into the reality of Hilary’s situation and as the play continues, her resignation takes on a quiet dignity. Janine Burchett has a tendency to swallow her lines as Maggie, but is a generally likeable presence and makes a turn that I initially found dubious into a warm, convincing one. Renee Sheridan is well cast as Shelley and her refusal to soften up the edges of what could be a very unsympathetic character ends up giving that character dimension and shades of grey.

However, in what is the most sympathetic role, and the most strongly written, Alex Ellis turns in a legitimate star performance as Virginia. From her entrance, she is an extraordinarily likeable presence, and a presence that allows her to undercut the hopefulness of her character again and again and develop Virginia into a woman that I can recognise, and genuinely feel for. There is an easygoing naturalism to her that grounds her scenes while some of the rest of the play can sit in flux, and she is always a joy to watch.

Dion Boothby’s set is a curious fit for The Basement, and reminds me of some older Silo plays, and not in a bad way. Props are painted pink, the back of the stage is painted baby blue; we’re always reminded that babies are the end result and the focus of this production. Boxes on wheels are rolled on and off stage and serve various purposes throughout the play. Nik Janiurek’s lighting design is suitably poppy and bright, although it is marred by some slow operation from Russ King; too quick fades make the LED lights flicker, and occasionally frantic clicking can be heard throughout the Basement space, where you can hear a pin drop, let alone loud clicking from a mouse at the back of the room. Emma Willis’s direction is slightly old-fashioned; there are some delightfully dated music references and sometimes the tone isn’t managed quite as sharp as this script needs.

I return to my preface. This is a play that is not aimed at me. The audience around me, all older than me and of a different gender and sexual orientation, seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves. They are an audience who knows what an IUD is, who knows that ovulating is the opposite from being on a period and who, ultimately, this play should speak to. I can speak critically about Seed and also praise it, and I will say that it is one of very few plays I’ve seen this year to be aimed so specifically at women without apologising for that fact. That by itself is something to be commended. But know that I am not this play’s audience. Take this review with all the grains of salt you want.

img_chunukbairBy Maurice Shadbolt; Directed by Ian Mune and Cameron Rhodes
Auckland Theatre Company | Maidment Theatre, Auckland | June 12-July 5

I also have to preface this review by saying that I am generally unaffected by media or literature that deals with war and its horrors, whether it be TV, movies, video games, books, or in this case, theatre. I understand the appeal of the genre, and definitely understand the emotional reaction, but it’s a genre that leaves me unmoved and often uncomfortable.

Once on Chunuk Bair is a curious case. After walking out I was left wondering if this was a play meant to affect me or educate me. As a tool of education it is unparalleled, and I have no doubt the schools that will come to see this show will leave with a greater appreciation of the history of their country and the struggles that have forged it into the place it is today. However, as a piece of theatre, I felt a little left out.

The play is a 30 year old work by Maurice Shadbolt and revolves around the capture of Chunuk Bair, one of the only victories from the Allies in the Gallipolli Campaign, and even then only a temporary one. 12 soldiers are depicted holding this particular trench against the Turks, and many of them are onstage for the whole time. The script is a largely plotless endeavour, not always to its detriment, and it goes a place that we’re expecting it to go, but it is a piece of writing that truly shows its age. The slightly stylised patter, particularly in the first half of the play, is right out of a writer’s head and it takes a lot of suspension of disbelief that these men would talk in this way in this situation.

So it rests on the production to reach out and grab the audience, and it almost gets there. John Verryt’s set design is a stunner; a labyrinthian cross-section of a trench with tunnels, levels, and hazards everywhere. It’s an incredibly literal set, but one that underscores the theme of the play nicely: that the people who that are meant to help these characters, the Brits, are the things that might do them more harm than their actual enemies. Their enemy is the war, not the Turks. Similarly, Jason Smith’s sound design is a marvel; subtle, but conveying the mood of the play more effectively than anything else could. Tracey Collins’s costumes appear to be spot-on and provide flashes of colour amongst all the mud-brown colours onstage, while Sean Lynch’s lighting design provides a few key moments of stylistic flourish.

It’s the kind of production that only a company on the scale of the Auckland Theatre Company can mount, and after seeing many international shows recently, it’s a breath of fresh air to see what a company can do with a budget. The design elements of this show are fully realised, and are some of the best I’ve seen this year.

The cast are also tasked with carrying this story across, and giving it a human element. Stephen Lovatt is an excellent actor for the play to orbit around and the moment he is onstage he lends the situation a gravity and a reality it needs. From him alone you get the sense that these are real men who are really fighting. Kevin Keys is a good foil for him, providing a more modern sensibility to war compared to Lovatt’s old-fashioned military brass. Sitting somewhere in the middle is Sam Snedden’s lieutenant, a well-bred man full of affectations and traditions, but Snedden grounds what is a comic relief character is genuine pathos.

The rest of the cast have less rounded characters, largely as a casualty of being less prominent in the script, but Tim Carlsen and Byron Coll in particular make the most of what the script gives them to make impressions and gain audience investment, leading to genuine investment in the second half of the play. There are no weak links among the cast, even if at some times it is not easy to hear them, and there is a clear energy when all twelve actors are onstage.

Directors Ian Mune and Cameron Rhodes give the play a literal interpretation and one that manages to merge the technical feats of the design with the large cast without any noticeable detriments. It is not an easy play to give life to, especially a first half full of exposition and little action, which is surprisingly for a play about war. But when the play builds into life it occasionally taps into what people love about this: that these are people who died, not just a number that died a hundred years ago.

For people for whom World War I is important—and given the success of this play and the response of much of the audience, it is still a subject that not only interests many people but is important to them—Once on Chunuk Bair is a good reminder and a good representation. I understand the importance it might have to an audience, and as an educational tool I could hardly recommend it more, but it was not a play that moved me; it is not the kind of material that moves me in any configuration or any form. It’s a production I find easy to respect, but very difficult to feel for or feel changed by, and that’s ultimately why I go to theatre.