By Arthur Meek; Directed by Simon Bennett
Auckland Theatre Company | Maidment Theatre, Auckland | September 4-27
Sometimes a troubled production can be so much more fascinating than a good production or even a great production. In the days since I’ve seen Trees Beneath the Lake, the new play by Arthur Meek and Auckland Theatre Company’s second production of the writer’s work, I’ve been working through the production in my head, figuring out what parts worked and what parts didn’t, and why these parts worked and why they didn’t. It is a play that has lingered with me for a long time, but probably not for the best of reasons.
The label Chekhovian comes to mind when thinking about the play, especially with its focus on a family who is undoubtedly in decline, even if nobody seems willing to admit it. Our protagonist—though anti-hero is more apt—is William Campbell (Michael Hurst), a financial advisor who has recently come under fire and investigation for doing less than savoury things with investors’ money. He has retreated to his family home in Central Otago, where his mother Nieve (Catherine Wilkin) lives, and he has brought his WASP-ish wife Jennifer (Theresa Healey) and maladjusted son Ross (Leighton Stitchbury) along for the ride. Complicating matters are William’s less than experienced counsel Ruth (Brooke Williams) and Nieve’s neighbour Tom (Peter Hayden) who very clearly has feelings for her. An event that looms over the play is the loss of the Campbell’s business due to the Clutha Dam, which drowned their orchard, the titular trees beneath the lake; a loss which haunts Nieve more than anybody else. If you shift around some of the jobs, names, and times, you wouldn’t be far off from the set-up of a Chekhov play.
Where this script largely differs from Chekhov is with the character arcs. A slightly awkward, and possibly truncated length, drives the characters through a series of actions over a vague period of time that never feel psychologically clear and, more damaging to the production, believable. This leaves some of the cast stranded in scenes that seem miles from where they were previously, or forced into actions that can’t help but feel like calculations of a writer. This is especially clear in the second half of the play, where the stakes are raised to alarming, almost melodramatic places, and then things are tied up in ways that betray these characters and how complicated they could be. Unfortunately, in this production, the characters seem more like devices for the play’s many twists and turns rather than living, breathing human beings.
The three leads, Hurst, Wilkin, and Healey, emerge from this largely unscathed, doing work that is solid, especially Hurst. Hayden, as the stoic Tom, finds a quiet dignity in his character’s own internal machinery and anchors the show’s dramatic second half. Brooke Williams and Leighton Stitchbury come off less well, hampered by the thin conceits of their characters who serve mostly to create drama rather than develop through it. This is especially true of the one scene they have together, which pushes them through increasingly ridiculous hoops, and although the scene has other troubling problems, it’s a credit to both actors that it makes any emotional sense at all.
The lack of clear character arcs restricts the cast from doing their best work, and this is further hampered by the management of tone throughout the piece. On opening night, the laughs came out like we were watching a Roger Hall play, which seems at odds with the serious, legal thriller-esque, proceedings of the play. Any dramatic momentum is cut short as the actors stop to let the laughs go by, and the entire piece appears to be like a family sitcom. The design does not help in this regard, with Philip Dexter’s bright lighting and Jason Smith’s plinky score setting us up for a much lighter experience than what actually transpires. This ends up twisting the intention of an entire character, Ross, who is sold to us as a gamer (the play’s dialogue around video games is awkward and jarring, considering how fluid it handles some complex business jargon) with social issues, and who gets the most laughs out of the older audience, but ends up being the darkest character in the play; a character perhaps irreversibly warped by the sins of his father.
Eventually the laughter takes over the play, and the very serious nature of what is going on is crippled by it. The act one showstopper brings out awkward laughs from the audience, and a late-breaking scene that escalates from blackmail to attempted rape to suicide, instead of provoking horrified silence from the audience, instead provokes chuckles. Part of this is absolutely in the DNA of the script, there are laugh lines and one-liners abound, but Simon Bennett’s direction pushes the play in this direction, and it’s an unfortunately safe choice for a script that has more interesting things to say about the nature of deceit and those who fall for it.
Other elements of the design are mixed in terms of their success. Tracey Collins’s raked set is a great idea in theory, but it is traversed awkwardly by the actors and when the rest of the direction is so naturalistic, this stylistic choice makes less and less sense. Sara Taylor’s costumes are largely great; the family’s costumes seem like they’ve come straight out of the back of a Remuera family’s wardrobe, but Ross’s clothes seem strangely anachronistic and Ruth’s clothes are strangely fitted and out-of-sorts with both her job and the impression her character is trying to make.
Trees Beneath The Lake is a play with great potential. It leans against some very present concerns to New Zealanders today, especially about how we dealt with the financial crisis, and how we deal with the damage caused to us by entities bigger than ourselves. It scratches against exploring the horror of what happens to a human when they’ve been manipulated and lied to, sometimes for years and years, and this is by far the most compelling part of the play.
This production does not showcase that, frankly. The edges of this play have been dulled in favour of showcasing the safest, most palatable, parts of it, and processing these choices are what have lingered most for me. It is easy to see why these choices were made, as we are dealing with some potentially unlikeable characters here and some physically funny moments, but it is unfortunate too. The potential for a future production of this—a braver and spikier one—is one that excites me, but for the time being all I can see is Chekhov sanded down into a sitcom.