Auckland Town Hall, THE EDGE
March 1-6 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

Beyond the Blue is a devised theatre piece that takes “courage as the initial starting point”. It certainly doesn’t end there. As a piece of physical theatre, it is impressive: twelve bodies in constant motion, moving through a combination of improvisation, acrobatics, dance and ensemble singing for over an hour. Even for trained dancers this would take stamina; we are told that young actresses that make up the cast are, for the most part, on their first real theatre outing. And they are young: for the most part these women are under twenty, and some are still at school.

But back to the performance itself. Gala opening nights are always strange nights to attend, surrounded as one is with proud family members and “industry types”. But packed as the Auckland Town Hall was, it fell into entranced silence as the music (arranged by Jordan Greatbatch) started and the first soaring, swooping butterflies appeared.

The story appeared loose initially, but gained focus as the performance went on: a young female adventurer (Ella Becroft in a finely nuanced performance) leaves everything she knows behind, including a devoted young man, to journey around the world collecting and studying butterflies. As her story unfolds it is blended with a more comic sister story, of an earlier feisty female explorer who tackled the African jungle, wild beasts and randy chiefs, all while wearing ten layers of petticoats and drinking English tea.

Pandemonium Theatre is a theatre company specialising in devised theatre pieces for youth. This is their second theatre production, and took twelve months to come to fruition, starting with a workshop last year in Auckland’s youth arts festival Ignite. The show’s twelve actresses were auditioned from hundreds of hopefuls, mainly senior college drama students, then went on to work with industry professionals in a series of block workshops.

And how they must have worked. I was impressed at the attention to detail in the show’s staging. Devised theatre often has a loose, almost shifting feel to it; Beyond the Blue by contrast is a tight little number in which nothing is left to chance. The lighting (by Vera Thomas) is subtle and not too overdone, though the position of the main character spotlight in the centre of the lower stage meant that at times the actress was obscured by audience heads. The costumes, by the grand dame of Auckland theatre design Elizabeth Whiting, were versatile, opened out in surprising ways and coped well with the rigors of movement while at the same time managing to suggest a “period” feel of corsetry. There was only one moment in which an actress appeared to struggle to manipulate her costume, but this was smoothly covered over in the next movement sequence. The props (made over what must have been many painstaking hours of experiment and design by Simon Coleman) deserve a special mention. There were lots of them, for a start: tens of butterfly puppets, nets, hats-with-houses, falling leaves. They were also necessarily intricate: long swathes of translucent silk which had to move in a particular way, a tea chest which had to hide a person, a luminescent butterfly which flicked out at the touch of a hidden button. They certainly added to the magical feel which quickly and confidently enveloped the audience.

By far the most impressive theatre device was the movement of the actresses themselves. They coped well with the difficult space of the Concert Chamber, moving with apparent ease over three significant drops in stage height. The directing team of Kate Parker and Julie Nolan delivered tightly choreographed ensemble pieces where eleven bodies simultaneously became a ship, a market, a snake or a Buddhist temple, effectively conveying the story. As the actresses relaxed into their roles their endearing humour and individual quirks became evident, sparking chuckles from the audience. There was a surprising amount of athleticism on display, as they constantly picked each other up, bodysurfed or formed three-dimensional human sculptures. (They had their own “fight choreographer”, Beth Kayes.) The trust between the actresses was obvious. I was reminded of last year’s devised theatre piece by Massive Theatre, Up Close Out Loud, in which eight young Kiwi men told their stories in a supremely energetic style. At the time I wondered if a similar piece with women would have as much physical energy, but I think Beyond the Blue has proved that it can.

My only quibble was that the sound levels needed more attention. The Auckland Concert chamber is a difficult theatre space, designed as it is for music more than spoken voice. I found the reverberations made the dialogue difficult to pick up, especially at the beginning when the music was too loud, and wondered whether the speaking parts would have been better off miked.

Ultimately though, the rest of the package more than made up for this and I found myself easily immersed in the wondrous world of the female traveller of the last century. The young womens’ delight and admiration for these early feminists was evident; I would liked to have seen the theme taken a little further and applied to their own lives, but there is only so much you can do in one theatre piece. As a homegrown theatre piece, Beyond the Blue stands out also for the complete lack of reference to a New Zealand world view – not necessarily a bad thing. Although that being said, it did feel a little “colonial”, focussing as it did on English explorers and customs.

A highlight for me was the constantly emerging motif of butterflies, symbols of transient freedom and beauty. And I found it significant that these twelve human butterflies – with so much future potential – chose the final conclusion of their story as not necessarily the happiest one, but the truest. Courageous indeed, and a lesson which no doubt they’ll take with them to their future careers, in theatre or otherwise.