By Victor Rodger
Directed by David Fane
Auckland Theatre Company
Mangere Atrs Centre, Auckland | October 16-25
Auckland Theatre Company’s productions at the Mangere Arts Centre are often a highlight of the theatrical year—I still remember the tremendous production of A Frigate Bird Sings two years ago vividly. This year they bring us a production of Victor Rodger’s 1995 play Sons.
Put simply, the play holds up and has lost none of its relevance. Noah is a young man with a Samoan father and a Pakeha mother who barely knows his father, but when he tries to initiate a relationship with that side of his family, and by proxy his identity, he is rejected. The play follows Noah’s struggles to get to know his family, and his struggles with an identity passed down from a father he never knew. It is a searing exploration of afakasi identity and the hypocrisy of the previous generation, one that is marked with Rodger’s beautiful, blunt-force dialogue.
It’s a play that needs a strong cast to pull it off, and for the most part this cast succeeds. Beulah Koale has a massive arc to pull off in the role of Noah. He hits all the right notes at all the right times, especially towards the end of the play, but lacks the vocal dexterity to make the most of some of Rodger’s dialogue, leaving some punchlines out in the cold. As Noah’s half-brother, Troy Tu’ua is a pleasant presence as Lua, which makes the character’s later dilemmas truly chilling. Max Palamo is suitably imposing and threatening as Manu’a, Noah’s dad, and his stoicism is truly affecting as the play goes along, but is often hard to hear, and muffles his final moments onstage.
Largely in supporting roles, the women fare better than the men. Lauren Gibson is particularly impressive as Alex, holding her own against Koale and lending Alex her own, equally oppressed narrative. Rima Te Wiata, armed with a formidable wig and on-point accent, is stunning as Noah’s Scottish grandmother, selling the images that Rodger sets up for her with elegance and dignity. Alison Bruce is delightfully spiky as Noah’s mother, Grace, and her goodbye is one of the most poignant moments of the play. On the flipside, Bronywn Bradley convincingly sells the dilemma of Manu’a’s current wife, Sandra, and the impossible situation that she’s been put in with aching honesty. In the smallest, but not least significant role in the play, Joanna Mika-Toloa is suitably appealing, but has less of a handle on her arc than the rest of the actors, and so the character seems pulled in two completely different directions.
David Fane’s direction of the piece is largely solid, and he makes the wise choice to keep the play moving along like an express train; it makes the second half of the play that much more emotionally engaging and lets the finale land with the tear-rending punch it’s meant to hit with. There are risky flourishes, some of which don’t pay off as well as they should, namely the use of a live feed with a camera to direct the audience where to look. It is more distracting than it is helpful, and from a purely technical standpoint the angle of the camera tends to flatten out the stage in ways that don’t flatter the actors or the blocking. Other choices, like two characters singing part of Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ and the use of masks in a party scene, are more bizarre than effective and are unfortunately distractions from the primary drama.
The design elements are uniformly excellent. Rachel Marlow’s lighting especially helps establish a sense of place, and mobile lights moved around by the stage management team effectively highlight scenes. John Parker’s set, which looks like we’re backstage at a TV studio, initially seems jarring, but slowly reveals itself as a piece of brilliance: this family is being set up like something we’d see on reality TV, but the weight of their situation slowly dawns on us. It also allows for characters to be beautifully isolated; as much as they’re in a position of power, they’re also tragically alone in that place. Charlie Baptist’s costume design updates the piece and establishes the character’s place in this world effectively, from Grace’s ensemble when she goes to the supermarket, to Alex’s black-on-black style, to Lua’s cheapish suit. Each aspect of the design effectively highlights little parts of the script and explodes them into a reality, all without taking focus.
It’s a production that will relax into itself and it’s one that deserves to be seen. Victor Rodger’s Sons remains a powerful, relevant story of the clash between cultures and the clash between generations. Noah is a tremendous creation; he’s a character that is representative of more people in our society than our society would care to name. Massive credit has to go to Auckland Theatre Company for returning this story to the spotlight, but the kudos remain all Rodger’s for bringing this story to audience’s hearts in the first place.
* * *
Directed by Jo Randerson
Presented by Sonypony and Barbarian Productions
TAPAC, Auckland | October 16-25
Yo Future is a difficult beast to get a hold of. On one hand, it is as subtle as a brick through a window, but on the other, the power of its message comes from how obvious it is. In the same vein, there is a certain level of discomfort that comes from the message of an older theatremaker—in this case, firebrand Jo Randerson—being funnelled through the mouths of a younger generation.
The show opens with a theatrical game, with the cast lined up in front of the audience, turning around at the sound of the bell. They are then engrossed with a TV placed in front of them, an image that is effective if heavy-handed. The show is largely made out of these games, though a narrative begins to emerge as we’re presented with certain stereotypes, played up beyond the point of satire into parody, and then presented with a literal Trojan Horse-come-time-travelling machine.
The cast form a strong unit, with all the actors getting their own showcases, and they all hit the same not-quite-naturalistic but not-quite-absurdist register—a difficult ask of even an experienced cast, and they pull it off and make it seem easy. Some of the chorus moments are less clear, and perhaps intentionally, what should be a cohesive unit is instead a scattered, confused one.
The messages of the play are important; it has salient things to say about how the generation’s uncertain future is up to them to decide, or else bad things are going to happen. However, to hear these messages that come from an admittedly—and delightfully—political theatremaker in Jo Randerson and see them funnelled through the cast in a way that is critical of the very generation they belong to is a little discomforting. It’s not that I disagree with the messages being delivered, but the tone and ending left me feeling like I was being told this from on high, rather than being spoken to on an eye level.
This is a show that has travelled around the country, being re-devised with a cast in each city, and it’s hard for me to determine how much of the message comes from Randerson, as director, and how much comes from this Auckland cast. It’s not a bad show, and the design elements are in particular excellent, but the messages combined with the mixed authorship of the piece leave me troubled, and not in the way that is intended.