Written and directed by Gary Henderson
The Court Theatre, Christchurch | February 7-28
Science fiction in theatre is incredibly uncommon, to the point where it’s practically nonexistent. It’s not that these stories are impossible to tell in the medium, merely that the genre poses a challenge to theatre-makers, demanding intelligent and creative ways to get around the limitations of staging. As a result, playwrights are rightfully scared off from writing such works, lest they be deemed difficult or impossible to stage. To my mind, Caryl Churchill may be the most successful playwright to dabble with sci-fi, portraying a dystopian world in Far Away and the implications of cloning in A Number. With Shepherd, Gary Henderson (best known for intimate dramas Skin Tight, Unseasonable Fall of Snow, and Mo and Jess Kill Susie) finds similar success in the genre.
Shepherd is set at a farming station in Fiordland, in the not so-distant future, which doubles as the Shepherd family’s home. What it is they are farming, and what it is they refer to as their flock, isn’t immediately clear. The plot device of this flock, cleverly revealed through carefully spread out exposition, and the way it affects the family, is what drives the story. The play is shrouded in secrets and lies, never revealing its full hand to the audience. As an interrogative thought experiment on the human condition, Henderson succeeds in asking us tough questions, without ever presuming to know the answers himself. In the words of sci-fi author Ursula K. Le Guin: “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.” To put it simply, what Henderson describes in Shepherd is not the way things will be, but the way things are now.
I can confidently say Shepherd contains some of the finest world-building I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing in the theatre. It’s a world that exists beyond what we see on the stage, and so well-conceived I didn’t want the play to end. In fact, I would’ve happily watched the story continue to unfold for another two hours. The key to success in sci-fi is that the audience buys the premise, and thanks to the brilliant production we do. The fantastic set by Andrew Foster is the first thing that sucks you into the story, perfectly reflecting the world of the play, combining rustic with modern, familiar with unfamiliar. The audience immediately gets a sense that they should expect something grounded in reality rather than space opera and alien robots. Costumes by Tina Hutchinson-Thomas and lighting by and Brendan Albrey also complement the production nicely, supporting the realistic tone, while the futuristic and fantastical elements are subtly played up by Sean Hawkin’s sound design and Andrew Todd’s AV Design, which are essential to narrative.
Henderson describes Shepherd as a family drama and sci-fi thriller. As a family drama it is somewhat flawed. The characterisation of the Shepherd family seems a tad undercooked. There is something too everyman about them, which might very well be the point, but they sometimes resemble tropes rather than fleshed out human beings. The result is characters who are recognisable without being wholly memorable. We have the blokey but sensitive kiwi dad played by Ross McKellar; the tough, pragmatic kiwi mother played by Donogh Rees; the sassy but wise grandma played by Irene Wood; the precocious and petulant son by Jordan Blaikie; and the daughter with a empathetic burden by Anoushka Klaus. Then there’s also Jonathan Martin and Kim Garret, outsiders to the domestic situation, acting as effective catalysts for trouble. Each member of the cast plunges headfirst into this world with commitment, helping to bring it to life. Not for once did I doubt that they lived here, that they breathed a different air from me, that their existences were threatened by something that felt very real. At the same time, I couldn’t shake the feeling the characters were being moved like chess pieces by Henderson’s masterful hands, that they were in service of the plot rather than the other way around. There are a couple of moments in particular where characters seem to behave in confounding manners just to trigger the next necessary event in the story.
On the other hand, as a sci-fi thriller it demands your upmost attention. Shepherd is an ode to humanity, or perhaps an elegy. An undeniably ambitious work of a well-seasoned playwright working at the height of his powers. It is hard to imagine any other than Henderson himself directing a production with such a clear vision. So assured and complex you’d think it was lifted straight from his mind. There are several shocking and harrowing moments that reminded me that the stage can be as visceral as the screen. Perhaps my only major reservation with the story is the ending which ends on an almost hopeful note. It isn’t so much that I wish it was more depressing, just that it betrays the tone of the rest of the play. A play that seems most comfortable when toying with discomforting truths and impossible decisions.
While not quite an unequivocal masterpiece, Shepherd is the rare play that attempts to say something about the state of things. At the very least, it is surely a worthy entry into the New Zealand theatre canon, setting a benchmark for the types of stories that we’ve come to expect from professional stages. Credit must be given to The Court Theatre for its willingness to both produce and commission this brave work. After all, just because theatre is old doesn’t mean it has to act its age. I urge you to see this thought-provoking production. Rarely does a play feel so important and necessary.
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Based on the story by J. M. Barrie; Directed by Daniel Pengelly
Anthony Harper Summer Theatre and The Forge at The Court
Riccarton Bush, Christchurch | February 4-22
Children’s theatre is tricky business. How do you please the kids while making sure the adults taking them to the show aren’t bored? It’s certainly a Herculean task trying to please both. With Peter Pan, director Daniel Pengelly and his team of actors accomplish this task, though perhaps with an uneven hand.
The production isn’t credited with a writer as the script is mostly improvised by the actors themselves. The result is a show that feels fresh and constantly spontaneous, consistently engaging from a performance perspective, but the narrative does take a slight of a beating due to this. Those familiar with J. M. Barrie’s original story or the Disney cartoon will have a nostalgic time following the flow of events, but children in the audience with no prior knowledge of Peter Pan are bound to get slightly confused. This isn’t much of an issue though. The production quickly moves from one even to the next, so nobody is really paying attention to plot specifics. And because of the frequent pop culture and current event references, I found that the adults enjoyed the show too—possibly more so than the kids.
Certainly the highlight of the show is watching The Court Theatre Youth Company, a promising bunch who all exude immediate likability, charging on and off stage with gusto. Ben Ashby is a perfectly spriteful Peter Pan, portraying a rebellious youthfulness and naiveté; Vincent Andrew-Scammell makes for an odd but effective Tinkerbell; Kate Hellings is well-suited to the understated maturity of Wendy; and Rheanna Walsh and Ellen Jones-Poole make for a giddy pair as brothers John and Michael. The older professionals are well-cast, exuding their own childlike energy appropriate to a kids show, never feeling out of place. Derek Flores is an effectively ineffectual Captain Hook; Andrew Ford is a flamboyant but slimy Schmee; and Vanessa Kumar is a strong, lively Indian Chief. The cast also play multiple other characters successfully, including mermaids, pirates, parents and a dog, giving them plenty to do. That some of the roles have gone through some gender-swapping is notable, but never detracts from the performances.
There’s a sad undercurrent to the proceedings of Peter Pan which I’ve always found quite affecting, from the inevitability of growing up to the longing for parents. Though these themes aren’t explored particularly in-depth in this production due to the focus on physicality and movement versus storytelling, there are still moments that touch upon those sad undercurrents. But, most importantly, the cast seem to just be having a blast, which is an utter joy to behold. They reject any attempts at realism, never forgetting this is the stuff of fantasy.
Those hoping for a definitive production of Peter Pan on stage might be disappointed, but for a free outdoor summer show you can’t do much better. It’s a family-friendly event with a little something for everyone. It might not be the show that ushers a new generation of theatre-goers, but it might remind you why you came to the theatre in the first place.