ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

Redmond Barry Theatre Company
The Wine Cellar, Auckland | June 8-12

There’s probably no play better suited to the decadent grunginess of the Wine Cellar than Tape. Initially written in 1999 and set in Michigan, USA, Tape translates perfectly to the present-day Auckland CBD. Names and references have been changed to reflect the new location (for example the motel room becomes a room at the K Road backpackers, and the Lansing Festival the New Zealand International Film Festival). Possibly not much updating was needed for the colourful language—no sensitivities are spared. And with the noise from the bar next door, there’s no problem believing in the location. But it all quite nicely adds to the ambience.

Vince, a small-town (well… Hamilton) drug dealer, has travelled to the big city to support Jon, whose film is debuting at the local film festival. Through an amateur video played at the start of the piece, we find out that Jon and Vince were best mates through high school and that Vince was loud in his rejections of a boring/stable job.

Fast-forward ten years and Vince (Paul MacDiarmond) is a washed-up drug dealer with a nasty cocaine habit. He’s just been dumped by his girlfriend for being a touch too abusive. We know this because Jon (Devlin Bishop) has arrived in Vince’s room to harangue him about his life choices. It’s not long before Vince starts hitting back.

The power struggle between Vince and Jon is the centrepiece of the play. Using words as their sparring weapons (only at one point in the play does the conflict between the men turn physical), the two friends go back and forth over their history. When Vince mentions a name—Amy—Jon suddenly becomes the defensive one.

MacDiarmond embodies the character of Vince with just the right amount of taut energy. From the start of the play, when he paces nervously around crunching beer cans underfoot, to the comically frenetic climax, his is the most believable characterisation, perfectly pitched between muscular tension and emotional impotence. He’s more prone to outbursts than reason. Bishop is excellent as the confused, faithful friend with a secret to hide and quickly gains the sympathy of the audience. Romy Hooper, who enters as Amy (and also directs), gives her smaller role a warm believability.

This play is low-budget and low-tech, and instead of hiding this fact, it’s embraced. The lighting is two spots aimed at the ceiling plus some red paper lanterns (which are normally part of the Wine Cellar décor). It doesn’t vary through the play and the room itself is lit so that the audience can see each other. The starting video (actually DVD) is played on a small TV in a corner of the set. And the tape recorder which becomes the centre of the action is—well, as Vince says, it’s a cheap tape recorder from K-Mart. Yet for all this, it works. It works because it’s the Wine Cellar and because of the absorbing action.

The dialogue is undoubtedly what makes this play work—fast-paced and smart, constantly turning back to examine its own peculiarities, it’s also real-life and laced through with expletives. This is theatre for smart people—and strangely, for a play about sex, one where the actors get to keep their clothes on. We slowly realise that this is not, in fact, a play about sex. It’s really a play about love, betrayal and memory.

It works that we can see other members of the audience reacting. Although it affects the suspension of disbelief, it’s a reminder that plays hold the mirror up to ourselves. Hooper has chosen to play some of the action around the audience, using the real door and real toilets to represent the ones in the play. So we’re constantly turning around to catch the expressions of others in the room—amusement, concern, tension. The four walls are up—at no point do the actors acknowledge us, even though they’re so close—but this is still a group experience.  It’s like we’ve all crammed into Vince’s bedroom.

A note on the marketing of this play: normally this is not included in a theatre review, but I thought its innovation deserved a mention. Tape was largely promoted through social networking such as Facebook. Even the booking system involved each audience member ‘tagging’ themselves on a promotional picture to receive a discount—simultaneously declaring their support and promoting the play to their own circle of friends.

This is only the second play to come out of new independent theatre company

Redmond Barry, but the strength of its staging and assuredness of the acting is convincing. If one of the goals is to “create… relevant theatre for the city centre” then the staging of Tape—updated for a New Zealand location—is a worthy example.

By Stephen Belber
Produced by Leigh Fitzjames
Directed by Romy Hooper
Featuring: Romy Hooper, Devlin Bishop, Paul MacDiarmond.