The Current Theatre:
January/February/March 2013

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts
A wrap-up of the main-stage productions in Wellington so far in 2013. In this edition: Kings of the Gym, Coriolanus, Perfectly Wasted, You Can Always Hand Them Back, Talking of Kathryn Mansfield. Coming soon: The New Zealand Fringe Festival and the Capital E National Arts Festival.

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The bureaucracy surrounding education is always deserving of a good satirical punch to the guts, and Circa’s first play of the year, Kings of the Gym (Circa Theatre, January 19-February 16) offers a cavalcade of commentary on ridiculousness in the New Zealand education system. Kings of the Gym is a light, light hearted satire that is consistently funny and peppered with classic Kiwi common sense.

The plot(s) would be at home on a television screen; the two hour long play really feels like four sitcom episodes back-to-back. The concept is a classic: drunken, lazy, overweight, curmudgeonly charming HOD of PE, Laurie Connor (Paul McLaughlin), supported by his ex-student and best drinking bud, Pat Kennedy (Richard Dey), has a pretty sweet life in the PE Department of a low decile school. Despite the occasional spat with clipboard-carrying headmistress Viv Cleaver (Ginette McDonald), they can gamble, drink, and teach how they please. That is until the arrival of non-drinking, born again, netball playing Maori student teacher, Annie Tupua (Acushla-Tara Sutton).

During the play new curriculums are instated, special needs and foreign students are given an (affectionately) hard time, and the evolution vs. intelligent design debate is decided by a push up competition. Dave Armstrong isn’t writing with a political agenda, rather his satire serves to highlight over-seriousness in education. And there is no shortage of material to poke fun at. With the breadth of issues (Novopay, the closure of special schools, the introduction of charter schools, where to teach religion, the eradication of the word ‘fail’, and the list goes on) under the satirical microscope, it is testament to the charm of the performers that we don’t get bogged down. Played out on a successful set resembling an open-plan, ramshackle office, Kings of the Gym is a great start to the year.

Aside from Summer Shakespeare and school productions, it is uncommon to see Shakespeare’s lesser known tragedies on stage. The Bacchanals have given Wellington a real treat with their exuberant production of Coriolanus (The Long Hall, Roseneath; January 24-February 2) in the stunningly beautiful Roseneath Long Hall.

David Lawrence introduces the production, acknowledging the length and difficulty of the text. The contract immediately changes from the traditional actors telling a story to the audience to the ensemble and audience working together to ‘beat the text down’. It’s not audience participation or shock tactics; rather we want to be a part of this journey together.

A notoriously difficult title role, Coriolanus is largely unsympathetic as a tragic hero. The character spends much of his time flying in and out of rages in the face of his changing public perception. Alex Grieg plays a seething, bitter Coriolanus, as childish as he is honourable. Battered by advice and demands from the senate, tribunes and his family, Coriolanus’ tragic fall sees him totally reject his society in favour of retaining some pride.

Unlike Shakespeare’s more famous tragedies, Coriolanus is concerned with how the faults and foibles of an entire society can destroy a man, rather than how individuals destroy themselves. This plays into the Bacchanals favour, the troop’s famous ensemble work has been consistently impressive, and this production is no exception. With simple theatrical tricks the company expresses loyalty, honour, and anger with style.

Visually the production resembles an eclectic junkshop where items can become props, then be discarded when finished with. The same casual approach applies to actors, who watch the action from onstage when not performing. The production plays with the aesthetics of American regionalism. Banjos, singalongs, and hillbillies abound, and the two Tribunes (David Lawrence, Brianne Kerr) pay homage to Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

This production is not striving for subtlety and honesty, which is no bad thing. The Bacchanals are more interested in an unrestrained, joyous celebration of a great, if slightly difficult play.

Perfectly Wasted (Downstage Theatre, February 1-16) is a collage of the funny, scary, mean, heartbreaking, and heart-warming events that make up a drunken night out, told with theatrical creativity and unrelenting energy. Under the direction of Leo Gene Peters, Long Cloud Youth Theatre has researched, devised, and presented the landscape of party going in Wellington.

The company tells the story of an entire night out. One of the joys of the production is the many scales in incorporates; the whole space is Wellington city as everyone prepares to leave, then transforms into a single club, then individual house parties emerge. Occasionally stories appear; ‘the boyz’ play drinking games, three girls sneak out of home and into a club. Other moments exist in fragments, such as a list of things one character ‘remembers’ from his first party. We are initially guided around the space with desk lamps and a roving microphone that collects snippets of conversation, but as the piece progresses, we are allowed to simply people-watch, enjoying the adventure of the 22-strong cast.

Some characters reappear throughout the show. Morgan and Will meet up, hook up and break up over the course of the evening, and then endure awkward post-breakup run-ins. We also see a band practicing together, fighting over the same girl, and then waking up her flat trying to serenade her. While intriguing and often very funny, these stories complicate the production by suggesting there could be a hidden central narrative to seek out.

Like a choose-your-own-adventure, audience members each seek out their own story. They can try to follow Morgan and Will, or just pick an actor who does something funny and see what happens. The impossibility of comprehending every thread, the sense of organised chaos and the mob mentality is an appropriate metaphor for being in town on a Saturday night. An original presentation of a large part of the teenage experience without overt moralising or easy explanations makes Perfectly Wasted a unique experience for every audience member.

Kath (Lynda Milligan) and Maurice (George Henare) are grandparents. Their children, Annabel and Mark have produced two children each and Kath and Maurice couldn’t be more proud or happier. You Can Always Hand Them Back (Circa Theatre, February 21-March 30) takes us on a journey through the common grandparent experience from those first walks in a pram to babysitting to attending school plays. The core problem of You Can Always Hand Them Back is stated explicitly by Maurice in the opening scene: “no one cares about other people’s grandchildren,” so the challenge is for our cheery couple to fight against this maxim.

The structure helps: Kath and Maurice chat with the audience about some aspect of being a grandparent, then jump back in time and act it out. Songs are peppered throughout to colour their experiences. ‘Don’t Let The Little Bastard Get Away’, ‘They Grow Up So Quickly’ and ‘Grandmas and Grandpas Live Forever’ are some titles. Tom McLeod accompanies on the piano, as well as acting as a narrator to remind Kath and Maurice to mention this and that.

The set (Andrew Foster), initially just a white walled middleclass house, becomes a living photo album with the aid of projections. Memories are effectively evoked, and locations are changed very quickly, supporting the pace of the play.

You Can Always Hand Them Back is a harmless two hours in Circa One and Kath and Maurice are nice enough to spend the evening with. They joke and bicker and are clearly having a lot of fun, and so are the audience. But I cannot help thinking back to the first lines of the play: “Are any of you grandparents? Of course you are or you wouldn’t be here!” Unlike Perfectly Wasted or the Capital E National Arts Festival, works about a specific generation that nonetheless speak to many, You Can Always Hand Them Back is specifically targeted at those with their own grandchildren.

Talking of Kathryn Mansfield (Circa Theatre, February 27-March 16) does what it says on the tin. Using a combination of direct address, dramatisation, and readings, Catherine Downes spends 90 minutes sharing her passion for Kathryn Mansfield. There are a few stories being told here. One is the legacy of her original play, The Case of Kathryn Mansfield which travelled the world impressing critics. We also hear about Downes’s life since the play and Mansfield’s continued influence over her. And most interestingly, Talking of Kathryn Mansfield colours in the ending of Mansfield’s life. She recaps and dramatises Mansfield’s wanderlust, time in London, travels around Europe and ultimately her admission to The Gurdjieff Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.

Downes is very open in acknowledging her sources behind Talking of Kathryn Mansfield. She credits Theatres of Resistance on Waiheke Island for helping get the play up, and refers to Fiona Samuel’s made-for-TV movie Bliss and her original play as the genesis for this work. The behind-the-scenes insights into the play occasionally get in the way of the play itself, but we are still treated to three of Mansfield’s short stories, ‘The Fly’, ‘Thistle Inn’ and ‘The Doll’s House’.

Catherine Downes is an impressive performer. Her passion for her subject is inspirational and her warmth and generosity makes Talking of Katherine Mansfield a genuinely pleasant experience.

‘Kings of the Gym’
Written by Dave Armstrong
Directed by Danny Mulheron 

‘Coriolanus’
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by David Lawrence
Presented by The Bacchanals

‘Perfectly Wasted’
Directed by Leo Gene Peters
Devised by the Long Cloud Youth Theatre

‘You Can Always Hand Them Back’
Written by Roger Hall with music and lyrics by Peter Skellern
Directed by Jane Waddell

‘Talking of Kathryn Mansfield’
Written by Katherine Mansfield
Directed and performed by Catherine Downes

Filed under: ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

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Samuel Phillips is the Wellington theatre editor for The Lumière Reader. When he isn’t reviewing theatre he can be found making theatre with Wellington-based company, Bright Orange Walls, or studying at Victoria University of Wellington.