The Year in Review:
The Best of Wellington Theatre in 2013

ARTS, Features, Theatre & Performing Arts
Wellington Theatre Editor Samuel Phillips selects the best plays and performers to grace the capital’s venues and festivals in 2013.

img_midsummer1Spent the year overseas? Too transfixed by Breaking Bad and The Desolation of Smaug to make it to the theatre? Still not interested if there isn’t an arts festival on? Then by my count, here’s what you missed on stage in Wellington…

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Over the last 52 weeks I’ve seen over 100 works of theatre, from first year solos at Toi Whakaari and daring first-time fringe shows, to established companies dexterously flexing their craft and Wellington’s finest playing at the top of their game. Some have been mind numbing, complacent or plain disengaging. Others are bewildering, confusing or slightly sickening (did you avoid the bodily fluids in Dolly Mixture?). But what follows in this wrap up are the plays that had an impact, the performers who made me sit up and take notice, the work that was innovative, compelling or demonstrated mastery. Have a read of the highlights of the year in our cultural capital as I explain why I’ll keep going to the theatre in 2014.

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Downstage, resident company of The Hannah Playhouse, exited stage right in 2013, but not before giving its indie audience their familiar cocktail of new works and the revivals of the oldies and goodies.

On the ‘new’ front, Long Cloud Youth Theatre took over the Hannah Playhouse in February, and enticed their audience to experience a night on the town with them. Perfectly Wasted’s theatrical journey provoked audiences to observe a melange of revelling youths, following their evening’s twists and turns. It wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but it investigated youth without overt moralising or reductive commentary, and I bloody loved it.

Reviving Indian Ink’s touchstone production, Krishnan’s Dairy and their more recent work The Guru of Chai gave audiences the chance to see master performer Jacob Rajn again. And we were treated to a remount of Moving Stationary (thanks, Show Pony), a simple, delightful piece that followed a clown’s mundane day at work.

The best thing on The Hannah Playhouse boards in 2013 was an adaptation of a book by David Ballantyne. Telling the story of a small West Coast town through the mind of young Harry Bierd (Tim Carlison), Taki Rua’s Sydney Bridge Upside Down has set a high bar for contemporary theatre practice in 2013. James Ashcroft’s production was crammed with utterly original, evocative imagery, and beautifully crafted sequences. A microphone dangling from the sky exposed the whirlwind inner-monologue of a child praying, AV video cameras projected scribbles on the floor laying out the geography of a street, and mattresses became slaughtered carcases. Unfortunately, for all its beautiful moments and superb acting, this play was let down by its overall composition and an ending that lacked the payoff we deserved. I sincerely hope this work stays in development and look forward to seeing it again.

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Not one to miss a beat, BATS Theatre opened its temporary home on Dixon Street, an oddly shaped space that fits snugly inside former pub, The Big Kumara. Together with the excellent Understudy Bar, BATS Out of Site has come to feel like home.

The pokey theatre was best used by steadfast company My Accomplice in their sterling production of Joseph K. Played on a double story set, Joseph K took us inside a sprawling world of bureaucrats, lawyers, and a seemingly endless line of middle-managers as Joseph tries to make sense of his unexpected arrest. This light-hearted take on Kafka proved the perfect fit for BATS.

Solo shows were popular and pretty great. Freya Desmarais presented Home / The Hilarious Comedy About How I Nearly Killed Myself / A Play About How I Nearly Died But Didn’t Then Learned a Lot About Life Afterwards. Blending stand-up and suicide notes, Desmarais created a provocative but ultimately life-affirming hour of theatre. Nick: An Accidental Hero was a heart-warming true story told with warmth by Renee Lyons. Based on the true story of rugby player, Nick Chisholm, Lyons uses a few lights, a torch, and a snow machine to tell a story of locked in syndrome.

But the great solo treat at BATS was Squidboy, a deceptively simple, delightful play. On the surface this is a bizarre piece about a man-squid’s love life, hunger, fitness regime and pets. Really, Squidboy, by Trygve Wakenshaw and Theatre Beating, was an opportunity to open our imagination and, for 50 minutes at least, find joy in our ability to make believe.

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Circa was once again host to a stalwart collection of work, from the emotionally charged epic tragedy of Tu (revived from the 2012 arts festival) to Con, an entertaining caper about criminals double and triple crossing each other. But Circa’s greatest success came with the intimate, heart-warming Midsummer (A Play with Songs), written by Scotsman David Grieg. Pitched perfectly for Circa Two, Midsummer followed two thirty-somethings who share an unexpected night. Cheeky, snappy writing, two charming performers (Byron Cole and Kate Prior), and witty songs created one of the sweetest experiences in the theatre in 2013.

Tribes and Red, Circa’s two big West End/Broadway imports, were set to dazzle us with their poetic exploration of contemporary issues. Tribes, set inside an upmarket London home, followed a family confronting how to communicate with their deaf son. Red took us into Mark Rothko’s studio as he and his young assistant confront the integrity of modern art practice in the heyday of abstract expressionism. But they were dull. The considered, naturalist discourse was trotted out neatly, routinely, and they were perfectly pleasant. But I so wanted them to be good; big, international plays, both with excellent actors (Paul Waggott in both, John Bach in Red, Erin Banks, Emma Kinane, Jeffrey Thomas in Tribes), these works should be sizzling and thrilling us.

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The greatest moment of community in 2013 was the New Zealand Fringe Festival. People were genuinely excited to gather and talk about theatre, and we had a ball.

The spirit of the Fringe was most obvious in the work of Binge Culture Collective. Binge’s triple threat of theatre started with The Whales, calling on the public to save huge pods of cardboard fin wearing ‘whales’ beached on the Wellington waterfront. Then, recalling bad university tutorials and motivational speeches, For Your Future Guidance was a seminar to help relieve ‘future tension’. It engaged an entire hall of people to dance with their own futures. Finally Beep Test* meandered around the competitive ‘give it a go’ mentality that infects New Zealanders.

Other Fringe festival highlights included:

  • A Play About Space; celebrating the quirks and clichés of science fiction, working because My Accomplices’ geeky adoration of sci-fi was totally evident. Told with gusto and lo-fi tricks, a great work of theatrical fan fiction.
  • Hidden in a corner of The Hannah Playhouse, Affinity (1st Gear Productions) modernised Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. Blending absurdism, sci-fi, and horror, three apparent strangers are flung into a space that has been ‘allocated’ for them and are forced to unravel why they have no memory.
  •  [Title of Show] (at Whitireia Theatre), the self-mythologizing musical about taking a risk on something new and original, was the best show for makers of other fringe shows to see.
  • Little Town Liars (BATS); fun, camp, and a little bit cheeky. Taking its cues from the likes of Grease or Little Shop of Horrors, Little Town Liars freely acknowledged its cheesy genre, and included enough sex, drugs, and rock and roll to stay edgy.

The highlight of the festival and the theatrical year was an incredibly assured, slick, and satisfying piece of theatre by Trick of the Light, The Road That Wasn’t There. After being called home to look after his aging mother Maggie (Elle Wootton), Gabriel (Oliver de Rohan) is told the story of Maggie’s youth. Drawing us into a world of myths, maps and puppetry, the play explores an element of New Zealand history in a beautiful, subtle way.

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The New Zealand International Comedy Festival included some theatre works, of which my clear highlight was Outsiders’ Guide (BATS) by Hayley Sproull and Chris Parker, produced by Tim Nuttall. Composed as a series of sketches, Outsiders’ Guide forced us to collectively acknowledge the horrible awkward events that plague our lives. From negotiating ‘the morning after’ to deciding what gifts to take to funerals, Sproull and Parker bare all their social anxieties in this hilarious, cringe worthy play.

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One of Wellington’s best qualities is its generous nurturing of emerging artists. 2013 proved promising as co-ops and companies emerging from Vic, Toi and Whitireia premiered work for the first time. What Goes Up, Stages of Fear and Teechers were made by companies with great potential, and I’m excited to follow them in 2014. Highlights included Rageface (by Making Friends Collective, during the Fringe at FATG), a cautionary tale about online escapism, depicting a life divided between reality and an online existence with a series of tin cans connected to the ground. Kaitiaki (by Hank of Thread, at Newtown Community Centre) deserves special mention for its promising promenade adventure through the woods.

Long Cloud Youth Theatre’s new artistic director, Stella Reid, continues to take the company into exciting places. Their incredible promenade piece, Oneironaut (Whitireia Theatre), guided audiences through the whimsical world of the company’s subconscious. Played in a beautifully designed land of bedside lamps, Oneironaut blended the company’s trademark grassroots actor training and an engagement with contemporary theatre making, firmly securing Long Cloud as the most exciting youth theatre company in Wellington.

Atlas/Mountains/Dead Butterflies, part of the Young and Hungry Festival of New Theatre, solidified Joseph Harper as a really important young New Zealand playwright. His matter-of-fact writing speaks directly to young people with a poetic clarity, and his theatre is intelligent, elegant and whimsical. Directed by Ralph Upton, the play follows a man trying to make sense of a broken world.

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My absolute favourite week of 2013 was the Capital E National Arts Festival 2013. An audience of children (the best critics, you know immediately if they’re thrilled or bored) causes performers and performances to be lively, immersive, and brimming with energy. Full of surprises and delights but with only a few public performances of each work, this festival was one of the hidden gems of 2013.

Te Rau o te Rangi, a Maori myth, was told in Te Papa’s Te Marae by three young performers. It’s spoken in Te Reo and used traditional Maori storytelling customs. While the language barrier could have proved a block the experience compelled and engaged its young audience.

Sky Dancer (Wellington Town Hall) was an introduction to classical music, a sort of ‘Peter and the Wolf’ for New Zealanders. Composed by Gareth Farr and conducted by Grant Cooper, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra told the story of Witi Ihimaera’s novel of the same name. Beautiful puppets constructed from musical instruments and scores were a nice addition.

The finest offerings by New Zealanders in the festival were Duck, Death and the Tulip (Hannah Playhouse) and The Magic Chicken (Soundings Theatre). Duck, Death and the Tulip was a delicate foray into loss, grief and death. Beautifully crafted lighting and a gentle, touching score sent this production into realms of magic. Theatre Beating’s The Magic Chicken was an exceptional comedy. Basically a live action cartoon, the piece is perfectly crafted to engage young and old. Live cooking, surprise ninjas, and a rogue golden-egg-laying chicken puppet made this classic slapstick comedy my favourite theatrical experience of 2013.

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Some plays were easy to find, others were plays I was lucky enough to stumble upon, unexpected joys where the makers had crafted a life enhancing experience. For every play that almost put me to sleep, there was always one that woke me up to why Wellington deserves its ‘cultural capital’ mantle.

Main Image: Midsummer, with Byron Cole and Kate Prior.