By Victor Rodger
Directed by Roy Ward
Presented by Multinesia Productions
Herald Theatre, Auckland | November 29-December 6
There’s a reason why plays set at or around funerals are a popular genre, from Broadway’s triumphant August: Osage County to last year’s successful homegrown Hui and The Royals of Kihikihi playing in the Q Vault this year: it gives licence to a writer to play around with as many emotions, tonal shifts, and revelations as they want to. At the Wake fits neatly into this genre, albeit with Victor Rodger’s usual cultural and blackly comedic twist on it, and it follows the tropes of the genre to a tee, for better or worse.
Rodger gives us three characters to contend with in this play, an unofficial sequel to his triumphant Sons. There is ageing actress Joan (Lisa Harrow), her Samoan and gay grandson Robert (Taofia Pelesasa), and his absentee father Tofilau (Robbie Magassiva). Olivia, Joan’s daughter and Robert’s mother, has passed away suddenly, although it was expected, and the play follows them as they get ready for her funeral, and then attend her wake. An unexpected Tofilau, who left Olivia when she was pregnant with Robert, turns up at the funeral unannounced. Drama, and thankfully hilarity, ensues.
There’s no doubt Rodger writes crackling, hilarious, and often bracing dialogue, and the characters to match. All three actors dig into their roles and each punchline hits hard, and the audience responds in kind. However, the story runs into issues with a lack of a clear protagonist. The play opens with a lengthy scene where Joan is the only character onstage. Lisa Harrow is an utter delight to watch as she chomps into the all the naughty words and risqué jokes that are given to her, and from Harrow’s sheer presence alone, the play seems to orbit her. However, the real conflict in the play, and the most interesting conflict, is between Robert and Tofilau. The moment where Robert takes him to task is one of the strongest in the play, and in Rodger’s entire career, a moment that has been two plays in the making.
The problem with Joan being the centre of the play is that she is less a character and more a construction of insults and grand damé sass. It’s the kind of role that Joan Crawford would’ve been asked to play in the ’40s and ’50s, and while all her jokes, insults, and jibes are engaging and hilarious, they often distract from the reality of the situation. Harrow finds the core of the character, particularly in some tremendous moments in the second half of the play, and is always entertaining, but Joan is an awkward central character, especially when the drama doesn’t turn its focus to her until the eleventh hour.
The play oscillates between two tones for the most part: black comedy and melodrama. The former is much more effective and engaging than the latter, especially as the revelations and twists come out of the woodwork, some of which stretch the suspension of disbelief and cast some characters in an unfortunate light. Towards the end of the play, the characters begin to feel less like people and more like pieces on a narrative chessboard. The play is never anything less than engaging, but it becomes difficult to feel anything for them. It’s only when the play discards the punchlines and goes for the gullet that it turns into something palpable, and you can feel the electricity in the theatre when the actors get those moments.
In saying that, At the Wake is a play that is remarkably, and admirably, even-handed. All three characters in the play have done, do, or say some horrid things throughout that risk making them unlikeable, but even the characters that would be most judged in other stories are given their due here. It’s a rare piece of fiction that gives both father and son an equal say, and the power of the play lies in this conflict.
Roy Ward’s direction is clean and crisp, and it always feels alive and urgent, despite the relatively low stakes. The transitions are less clean, and the play loses momentum while the set is moved around on and offstage. Philip Dexter’s lighting design is efficient, creating spaces with minimal fuss and allowing the focus to remain on the actors.
It’s possible I’m not the audience for At the Wake. There are jokes that come right up to the line of being risky, while never quite crossing it, and I’ll fully admit to not being a fan of the genre as a whole. It is more a genre of convenience than it is a genre of depth, and it’s a chance to get a group of characters together and forgive them for acting deplorably or saying things that shouldn’t be said. At the Wake falls comfortably into the tropes of this genre, both good and bad, and Rodger’s slant on it is interesting and engaging enough for it to stand out from the pack.