They Saw A Thylacine; Fallen Angels

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

img_theysawathyacineCreated by Sarah Hamilton and Justine Campbell
Basement Theatre, Auckland | February 18-22

It’s not often I leave the theatre supremely jealous of the people who made it. They Saw A Thylacine has to be the most impressive, brave, bracing, intelligent, simple, and yet ridiculously complex piece of theatre I’ve seen in months. Coming from winning awards at last year’s Melbourne Fringes and embarking on a tour around both New Zealand and Australia, it’s a show that quietly demands to be seen. I walked out of the show not only in awe of the product, but in awe of the creators and how they did the show.

The concept is deceptively simple. Writers and performers, Justine Campbell and Sarah Hamilton, sit in a cage onstage and tell two stories: one of a young girl in her teens trying to find a thylacine, and one of a zookeeper’s daughter trying to fight for her zoo and the thylacine that lives there. The thylacine is a Tasmanian tiger that became extinct in the 1930s.

The stories are told like poems. Hamilton delivers her character’s story, the girl trying to find a thylacine, in rhyme while Campbell’s zookeeper daughter is a little more direct. The styles blend together perfectly, and as each story progresses our understanding and engagement with the other story increases, up until the seemingly inevitable ending.

The text itself is a thing of beauty, and comes across much more simply than it sounds. The stories are almost like songs in the way the performers deliver them, musical in their structure and feel. It’s a feat that the show is as accessible as it is, given how difficult it would be to assemble such a text in a way that not only made sense, but was emotionally gripping and illuminating. It’s one of the best written things, film, TV, theatre, whatever, I’ve seen in a while and one that gave me the biggest gut punch after leaving.

The production is also flat-out gorgeous to look at. With very minimal lighting and movement, it’s almost like watching a piece of performance art, but each image is as striking as the next. When Campbell moves her arm up to the cage, we know what character she’s playing and the shivers run up your spine. And when they put skulls on their hand, it’s placing a sense of importance on these characters—and their stories—that is deeply felt without anything being said or any undue attention being drawn to it.

Four hundred words in and I don’t think I’ve done this work any favours in describing its pleasures, virtues, and strengths. All I can do is entreat you to go and see it. I haven’t been this profoundly, inexplicably moved by a piece of theatre in a long time.

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img_fallenangels1By Noël Coward
Directed by Raymond Hawthrone
Auckland Theatre Company
Q Theatre, Auckland | February 13-March 15

Some plays transport you to another era. They put you squarely in the time of the play, the morals, and the values—in the world of the play. Fallen Angels does this in two ways. In one way, it successfully transports us to an opulent time when people spoke in words with lots of syllables and tremendous wit. In another way, it transports us to a Theatre Corporate production of Fallen Angels in the ’80s.

As the opening production of the Auckland Theatre Company’s 2014 season, Fallen Angels was never going to shake Q’s Rangatira Theatre to its core. It’s a Noël Coward play from the 1920s, aimed at people who are almost as old as the play itself. You can throw all the style you like at a Noël Coward play, and this production has a lot of style that works tremendously in its favour, but it’s still going to be a Noël Coward play.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. This isn’t going to surprise anybody, but Noël Coward wrote a lot of very good plays and a lot of them are very funny. Fallen Angels is one of those plays. When the play gets going, it’s rip-roaringly hilarious, and this production showcases what makes Noël Coward plays great: seeing intelligent, composed, and classy human beings giving into their basest desires.

A synopsis is a little bit pointless, but the play follows two women, Julia and Jane (Lisa Chappell and Claire Dougan), as they alternately attempt to avoid and reconnect with an old lover who has come back to England while their spouses are away. Hilarity, twists, and melodrama ensue. It’s not a particularly fresh plot, as you might expect, and once the play gets it out of the way, the good parts can start.

The good parts consist of Lisa Chappell and Claire Dougan. Both actresses dive into their roles with gusto, making the most of their lines and their characters’ increasing intoxication. In the second act, where their characters are scheming, avoiding, drinking, and drinking more, the play really lifts off the page and off the stage into something truly effervescent and fun. Unburdened by plot, Chappell and Dougan get to milk every comic moment for all that its worth, and the milking pays dividends. Dougan, in particular, has such a refreshing lack of vanity that lends the play its funniest moments: under a table, on a phone, and sometimes even just drunkenly reacting to somebody else’s line. Both actresses have an envious chemistry, and seeing two actors clearly having this much fun is infectious.

It’s a chemistry and an energy that the rest of the production lacks. Some parts, especially in the first and third acts, appear so precisely blocked that the play and performances lie limp on the stage. The male cast, Stephen Lovatt and Stelios Yiakmis in the thankless roles of the husbands, are particularly hamstrung by this as they march from mark to mark, punchline to punchline. The verve that should come naturally to Coward plays is lost, and while some of this is due to overplotting, it also seems like watching a production from a time where a director’s job was blocking, not directing.

In these moments it helps that the play is immensely pretty to look at. Tracy Grant Lord gives us a set that sits squarely in between circa 1920s and today, with some beautiful minimal furniture and wallpaper that should be hideous, but instead represents some kind of idyllic faded lifestyle that Julia and Jane have had. Grant Lord’s costumes are also stunning; Dougan’s Jane is in a black dress that wouldn’t be amiss at the Oscars; sparkly, shiny, and classy in a way that Jane almost certainly is not. The design supports the play in every way, and at times even steals the show.

At the end of the day, it’s Fallen Angels. It’s a Noël Coward play starring two actresses clearly having a ball of a time. It’s not going to change your life, it might be aimed a couple of demographic brackets older than you, but when it’s funny, it’s pretty damn funny. If you’re looking for a laugh on a muggy Auckland night, you could do a heck of a lot worse.