The Year in Review:
The Best of Theatre in 2012

ARTS, Features, Theatre & Performing Arts
Our Auckland and Wellington-based theatre editors on the stage shows that deserved your attention.

Sam Brooks

Auckland Theatre Editor, The Lumière Reader

I saw about 35 shows this year—the most I’ve seen in any year—but I’m sure it’s still a lot less than some people. It was a great year for the two biggest theatre companies in Auckland, ATC and Silo. Both brought some high quality contemporary works to the stage in fantastic performances, and ATC in particular brought the spotlight back on some unheralded New Zealand plays. It was also a great year for smaller plays, and I genuinely regret not getting to some more of the smaller, experimental shows, but the ones I did see excited and delighted me. At any rate, here are the standouts of the years for me, from productions big and small:

Best Shows (in no particular order):

Brel (Silo) Read More
Not a musical, not a concert or even a play, Brel was an experience. Four performers working at the height of their abilities to deliver some of the best songs of the 20th century. Unforgettable, like mainlining bliss.

Titus (Unitec)
I walked into this show on closing night, after reading raves scattered across Facebook, and wasn’t disappointed. A muscular and masculine take on one of Shakespeare’s most reviled plays. A ridiculously well stacked cast and talented design team blew this play to pieces and reconstructed into a febrile attack on the senses.

In the Next Room (Auckland Theatre Company) Read More
Sarah Ruhl is one of the best writers working today, infusing her work with touching comedy and a searing intelligence. ATC’s sumptuous production suited the play well, and landed the ending spectacularly.

Private Lives (Silo) Read More
A well-trodden Noel Coward piece brought kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Hilarious, relevant, penetrating. I walked into this stressed out as anything, walked out completely carefree and delighted.

Standstill (The Rebel Alliance) Read More
Three actors on treadmills for an hour. More than a brilliant, fun concept, it explored some dark, human truths and then said that they’re okay. A really brave show.

Awatea (Auckland Theatre Company) Read More
Bruce Mason’s strongest play given a truly worthy production. Gripping performances, fascinating visuals, and an intense final act give this play the life that it has always deserved.

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later
(Alacrity Productions/The Moving Theatre Company) Read More
The ‘original’ Laramie project is one of my very favourite plays, and the follow-up is just as strong. Perfectly structured and incisive, but also served very well by this production and a committed, flexible cast.

The Frigate Bird Sings (Auckland Theatre Company) Read More
Another underseen, underperformed New Zealand play given a grand production by ATC. A powerful play on a little-broached topic in our society, and one I’ve never seen explored onstage.

The Guru of Chai (Indian Ink Theatre Company) Read More
The best solo show I saw this year. Lavish, but intimate, Jacob Rajan explores a well-known legend with his own idiosyncratic storytelling style. Saw it almost six months ago, but it remains vivid in my mind.

Tribes (Silo) Read More
Perhaps the smartest play I saw this year. Tribes is essentially a dissertation on languages, and the weird languages we develop within our groups, self-imposed or not. Even beyond that, it’s an affecting drama with a devastating ending. Silo’s best show of 2012.

Best Performances:

I had to do this list. One of my favourite things about going to theatre is seeing actors digging into a great character and giving their all, night after night. So this is my recognition of some of the best performances I’ve seen this year:

Elena Stejko, Where Are You My Only One? Read More
Stejko makes what could’ve been a stock character complex, moving, and idiosyncratic. Her stubbornness is as vivid and affecting as her self-doubt.

Laura Hill, The Shortcut to Happiness Read More
I was not entirely enamoured with the play as a whole, but Laura Hill’s pitch-perfect performance of a Russian immigrant is what I’d call a star performance. Holding the massive SkyCity Theatre stage with great comic timing, a flawless accent, and an incredible stage presence, she lingered long after the play did.

George Henare, Awatea
Visceral and emotionally devastating, Henare holds back until the last act where he detonates seventy years of familial anger and despair.

Anna Julienne, In the Next Room
Julienne digs into one of Ruhl’s richest characters with aplomb; she’s relentlessly appealing whether playing the character’s curiosity or her darkness.

Leon Wadham, Tribes
It would be easy simply to praise Wadham for playing the deaf Billy with empathy and accuracy, but it’s how he hardens Billy’s own desires to tell stories and be part of a larger group that really grabbed me. (Wadham was also fantastic in The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later as Russell Henderson, gripping and sympathetic.)

Renee LyonsNick: An Accidental Hero and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later
It’s hard for me to separate these two performances. Both show Lyons’s talent at being able to not only change roles on a dime, but also define them immediately with quicksilver specificity.

Nathan Mudge, Punk Rock
The lead in Simon Stephen’s Punk Rock could very easily be a symbol for the disaffected youth of today’s Britain, or today’s world, but Mudge lends him an impish sincerity and a disarming forthrightness that cements William as a much more real, and close to home, character. From the first show I saw this year, and it’s a turn that has stuck with me.

Jacob Rajan, The Guru of Chai
Rajan deserves immense kudos for holding the stage in the massive Q Theatre with only a few props, but it’s his keen sense of storytelling that I really praise. Rajan’s charisma and presence keep the story on track through the character shifts and plot twists, and he was just a sheer delight to watch.

The Cast of Munted Read More
It’d be unfair to single out of the actresses in Munted, when all three are working so well in tandem with each other. So I’ll just say that the last show I saw this year also brought three of the best performances I saw all year: Victoria Abbott, Frith Horan, and Jackie Shaw.

Jodie Hillock, Tribes
Hillock has a key role in Tribes, and it’s one that could be a wash, but she plays her character’s loss of her own language and sense of self with such heartbreaking frustration that it galvanises the entire production and uplifts it into a more complex, troubling beast. Brilliant.

Samuel Phillips

Wellington Theatre Editor, The Lumière Reader

Highlights:

  • The Intricate Art of Actually Caring (Downstage Theatre) Read More
  • Tiny Spectacle / Shitty Lyricism (BATS Theatre)
  • Clybourne Park (Circa One) Read More
  • All My Sons (Circa One) Read More
  • The atmosphere in Wellington during the International Arts Festival/Fringe Festival

There are a lot of reasons to see theatre. You are treated to stories and worlds that cannot exist anywhere else. Visiting the theatre is a pastime that suggests to your parents that you are staying out of trouble. The theatre can become a sort of home for those of us who cannot follow a game of rugby. And occasionally, theatre can do that incredible thing of revealing to you parts of yourself or your world.

For the Wellington theatre industry, 2012 has been a success. BATS Theatre was bought by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. Downstage Theatre, recovering from their early closure in 2011, presented a series of exciting, if slightly small-scale, works. There were no original plays on the bill, but we saw some recent Kiwi highlights return. Circa Theatre had three Roger Halls, but to compensate we were treated to Manawa (Read More) that reminded us New Zealanders can write, Chekhov in Hell (Read More) and Clyborne Park to keep us in touch with what’s going on overseas, and All My Sons, a timely revival.

While there wasn’t bucket-loads of money to go around, Wellington enjoyed its fair share of spectacle. From the International Arts Festival to the New Zealand Opera Company, there has been a lot of very clever theatre. Raoul (St James, Arts Festival), staring James Thiérrée was a surreal treat. Inviting the audience into a magical, uncontrollable world that is totally foreign and yet strangely familiar, Raoul was my Festival highlight. A world that never stays still long enough to be understood, it was an awesome piece of theatre. New Zealand Opera also programmed a great year and Rigoletto (St James, Read More) was a hit. Grand music, an epic set and some wry modern parallels made Rigoletto a real treat. (The NZO also needs to be applauded for offering great student discounts.)

In this age of HBO and high frame rate 3D films, we’re always looking to find theatre’s point of difference as a medium. To my mind, the real successes in Wellington theatre in 2012 were those small plays that felt really vital, as if the production needed to be shared with you. I love being able to tangibly feel the hard work and care of the people who craft theatre. The Boy and The Bicycle, one half of Tiny Spectacle / Shitty Lyricism (BATS) demonstrated a real bravery, both in the performer’s emotional vulnerability, and its bold theatrical creativity. The Intricate Art of Actually Caring (Downstage), the play that seems determined to be seen by every New Zealander, continues to articulate an unspoken condition of twenty-somethings. One Day Moko (BATS) was marked by Tim Carlison’s care and empathy in his performance. A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and A Prayer at Meow Café melded politics and theatre (literally; Meteria Turei and Grant Robertson both played roles) with a real poetry.

So what about the future? Why turn off the TV and go to theatre in Wellington in 2013?

  1. The Fringe Festival kicks off on Feburary 15, and with over 90 creative endeavours, there are sure to be some diamonds in the rough. Check out fringe.co.nz.
  2. Downstage will have a much bigger season of kiwi works. The current resident companies, The PlayGround Collective, A slightly isolated dog, and Binge Culture Collective have spent 2012 quietly working away, so fingers crossed for 2013.
  3. BATS will move to The Big Kumara while its Kent Terrace home gets earthquake strengthened. Come see if they decide to keep the Big K’s stripper pole.
  4. Wellington is home to some great international works. Circa is doing Tribes and Red, some brand spanking new writing from Broadway (that went down a treat in Auckland in 2012). Or to get as close as you can to the West End without leaving Wellywood, check out National Theatre Live. Great shows from London’s National Theatre broadcasted to cinemas around the world (microsites.nationaltheatre.org.uk/ntlive).