By Grace Taylor
Directed by Mia Blake
Presented by Auckland Theatre Company
Mangere Arts Centre, Auckland | October 16-22
Utilising a structure that foregoes any dramatic conflict, the form of My Own Darling often feels aimless. The two narrative threads, if they can be called such, are its portrayal of Auckland City’s body and Grace Taylor’s personal struggles as a spoken word poet and Afakasi woman. While the two threads could easily come together, they instead lay parallel in stark contrast. Additionally, there are also two styles the play operates on. One is descriptive and poetic, drawing a landscape with only words. The other is character-driven, showing us four distinctly drawn people, presenting them to us in vignettes not dissimilar to Toa Fraser’s Bare or Victor Rodger’s Black Faggot.
The main calling card of the show, Taylor herself, is also its biggest weakness. While there’s no doubt that the well-known Auckland poet knows how to deliver her words with a tough elegance, despite being the central figure of the story, there is something cold and distancing about her performance. What she presents is Taylor the performance poet, not Taylor the character, resulting in a show where the poetry sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s impossible not to imagine that the show would be stronger with a different vessel for Taylor’s words than herself.
This is most glaringly obvious in the best parts of the show, featuring actors Fasitua Amosa and Gaby Solomon in multiple roles. During the rare moments where Taylor’s poetry finds harmony with their performances, it is easy to see what the show was attempting to do, juxtaposing the poetic with the everyday. Amosa often steals the show as The Lady Next Door, bringing much needed life to the proceedings. And this is also where director Mia Blake seems the most confident, finding moments of pathos and comedy with ease.
The set design also poses a problem for the audience. Yes, bare staging works, but the assortment of rostrum never bring life to the various Auckland locations, resulting in a world that feels unfinished. But the main problem is that the bulk of action happens closer to the left side of the stage, meaning the audiences on the right get a skewed perspective of the whole production. The LED lights on the floor of the set are much more effective in conveying the world of the play, but never rescue it either.
My Own Darling isn’t entirely successful as a piece of theatre, but I admire it for its refusal to conform to conventional narrative and its obsession with poetry. Because of this, it might be Auckland Theatre Company’s most daring show the year, despite feeling somewhat inessential. But those interested in Taylor’s evolution as a writer will find it impossible to miss.