By Dan Bain and Brendon Bennetts | Directed by Mark Hadlow
The Court Theatre, Christchurch | October 25-November 8
With a tagline of “Boys, Beers, Bush,” I was hardly expecting 21st century enlightenment, but The Forge at The Court’s new production, Stag Weekend, is profoundly interested in what it means to be a male in the modern age. That’s not to say it’s an issue play, though. It is, first and foremost, a comedy, and a successful one at that (if the side-splitting laughter of an audience is anything to go by).
If the title hasn’t clued you into the basic story, Stag Weekend follows four guys who go out into the bush for a stag do. It’s about the sort of mischief men get up to when left to their own devices and the games that they play. They drink booze, they argue, they shoot stuff, and they fight. The result is something quintessentially Kiwi.
It seems highly appropriate that Stag Weekend, the first full-length adult play by Dan Bain and Brendon Bennetts, is concerned with rites of passage into manhood. That both writers have a history of writing for children’s theatre, as well as being Court Jesters at The Court Theatre, seems to have served them well; a sense of playfulness in the script is apparent, a reminder that the best theatre is never static. It’s also chock full of of witty one-liners, moments of slapstick comedy, and true-to-life banter.
The second half of the play amps up the drama and indulges in some serious plot revelations. None of them are jarring enough to hinder the play, but some of them feel more than a little out of place. It’s actually the quieter or sillier moments that feel the most truthful. Somewhere between the laughter and the juvenile antics lies a genuine melancholy and poetry, whether it’s with two friends discussing the point of marriage or the four of them sharing a psychedelic experience.
The characters might represent different stereotypes of the modern kiwi male, but it’s almost impossible not to recognise ourselves or people we know in each and every one of them.
First off is Cameron Douglas as Simon, the straight man, the groom, and centre of the story. His whole character arc rests on having no real sense of self and no idea what being a man is. Douglas fits the part well with his affable boyishness, conveying someone stuck awkwardly between youth and adulthood, lacking confidence in his own decisions, but not totally hopeless either.
Then there’s Andrew Ford as Andrew, the sensible gay best man, or the domesticated one. Adding a ‘token gay’ to a comedy has become fashionable these days and always runs the risks of outdated characterisation, but Andrew isn’t presented as a caricature any more than the others, and his domestic sensibilities are just as important as his sexuality. Ford plays him with a touch of camp but, thankfully, never invites us to laugh at his mannerisms. It’s not a groundbreaking gay role, but it’s one that fittingly reflects the acceptance of homosexuality into the mainstream, neither oversexualising nor neutering him.
Tom Trevella plays Gary, the troublemaker and shit-stirrer. He’s a grotesque caricature of the Kiwi bloke and obnoxious by design. Trevella arguably has the toughest role of the bunch because he’s forced to play a character whose ignorance is laughed at for the better part of the play, rarely giving the audience much reason to sympathise with him. Luckily, he is able to find the moments in the script where his obnoxious bravado reveal something terribly pitiable about acts of machismo.
Lastly, Owen Black plays Tim, the free-spirit, or the reliably unreliable one. Like the rest of them, he is some sort of male stereotype, but his vulnerable side feel less organic, more a product of plotting than character development. Black does a fantastic job playing the superficial side of the character, totally embodying a philosophy of hedonistic living and the “she’ll be right” attitude, but he understandably struggles to give his character’s dramatic arc the weight it needs to elevate it beyond plot contrivance.
Lighting by Sean Hawkins and set design by Nigel Kerr go hand and hand to take us into the heart of New Zealand wilderness, perfectly evoking the cabin in the woods during both the radiant autumnal daylight and moody evening moonlight. And the sound design by Peter Booth, which effectively captures the ambience of the outdoors, is the icing on the cake.
Director Mark Hadlow has done an exceptional job creating a world at odds with the modern man. He expertly stitches the disparate scenes together, allowing one to flow seamlessly onto the next. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the direction is that it never feels messy—a real feat considering how much goes on in the play.
Despite its all-male cast, Stag Weekend will appeal to anyone who has ever been fascinated by the ridiculous nature of male-bonding rituals or has ever felt the pressures of adulthood. More than just a story of boys trying to become men, it’s about people trying to become just that little bit more human and compassionate. In an age where most comedy is fueled by cringe and irony, Stag Weekend stands out for its painstaking sincerity.