A bi-monthly commentary on the Wellington theatre scene. In this edition: The Motor Camp, No Taste Forever, Etiquette, Daughters of Heaven, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Broken China, The Love of Your Life, Heat, A Winter’s Tale, The Peek Party.
First off, and to begin, apologies for the delay in this round up of the beginning of the year’s theatre offerings in Wellington. The recent Fringe Festival (covered in the next edition of this column) really knocked the time out of me, and I promise to keep a much more regular reviewing schedule.
With that out of the way, let’s begin…
The January theatre season in Wellington is always an interesting litmus test for the year to come. Battling post-holiday fatigue and the summer sun, the theatres have to make bigger pushes to attract audiences. This, more often than not, results in the commissioning or programming of work that stands very much as an exaggerated archetype of that institution or brand’s output. These are not just shows; they are shows designed—some of them more cynically than others—to force audiences out of their well-worn loungers and into the theatre. They tick all the boxes that each theatrical brand holds itself to has. “It’s a New Year and this is what we do,” say the January shows. This rule holds true in 2011 as much as it has any other year. The Motor Camp in Circa One stands as testament to this. A new piece of writing by Dave Armstrong (from a story by director Danny Mulheron), it already feels well run in. It is a gentle, predictable and deeply chucklesome comedy about a middle class family of university lecturers and their spoiled daughter holidaying next to a working class builder, his vivacious wife and mysteriously stoic child. Conflict, as a matter of course, hilariously flares up, a few secrets are spilt, and everyone makes up at the end.
The cast all do well, with Tim Spite as the neurotic lecturer being the clear standout. Spite squirms like a dried out lizard and ties himself into delightful comic knots as he is battered from all sides. Mulheron’s direction is functional and milks the laughs with a cruel efficiency, torturing the audience with giggles. However, he does very little that is actually theatrical with it. It just kind of happens in front of you. The Motor Camp feels less like a play and more like the feature length Christmas episode of a hit kiwi sitcom. The major problem that arises from this more televisual tone is that the humour of The Motor Camp occasionally dips into the kind of mean-spirited and racist bullying that the seems to be largely consigned to our screens rather than our stages. I’m sure that if to raise this concern with Armstrong, he would point out that it was simply the characters that were being racist and him or the actors or the audience for laughing. This argument would hold more water if this style of rather unneeded meanness wasn’t a running trend in his recent work—with his recent smash hit Le Sud being largely an expose on how the French and Maori are hilarious because they aren’t English. The Motor Camp is on the whole enjoyable and drenched with local talent. But it pre-figures all major plot points far too much and far too soon, is about 20 minutes too long, and is resoundingly, teeth-grindingly middle class. So, a Circa One show to a tee. This play is not going to break hearts or change lives. It is for the well to-do Labour voters to go and have a good chuckle and maybe a ‘Awww’ or two at. This is what Circa likes to fill its main stage with. The trusty, the reliable. The solid. The “It’s fine, I guess.” And there’s nothing wrong with solid and fine most of the time.
Beginning the year over at BATS, is No Taste Forever, the latest play by Paul Rothwell. His work is constantly coloured by a refusal to do anything but run full tilt at big, serious issues. While shaded by an always-darkening sense of humour and a profoundly solid understanding of dramatic structure, his work has always been hit-and-miss with no clear curve of improvement or decline ever really emerging. He can go from genius to hack in the space of two plays. Sadly, No Taste falls to the very depths of Rothwell’s canon, fighting with 2007’s Deliver Us—a disturbingly misjudged melodrama about abortion—to be his worst work. Its multiple, intertwining stories detailing different people’s relationships with food—a chronic over-eater, a chronic under-eater, someone with flatulence, terrorist vegetarians, organic obsessives and so on—all feel unfinished, and half of them occur so erratically and end so abruptly that they cannot feel like anything but ghosts of past drafts.
The most satisfying and complete narrative thrown across the stage is a nutritionist’s film noir-tinged battle against the very concept of food. It’s inspired and occasionally delightful, but falls very heavily under the big mush of the rest of the play. David Lawrence trots out all his standard directorial tricks, shaping the whole show as a giant cartoon, a “musical without songs,” but this often only serves to emphasise the lack of content and shape in the work rather than highlighting any deeper truths as it seems to want to. No Taste Forever ends with a massive food fight, but it falls very flat and seems to act as little more than an extended metaphor for the whole play—lots gets thrown around, very little hits anyone and the actors seem to be the only ones enjoying themselves. By opening their 2011 season with No Taste Forever, BATS seemed to making a rather sure step. Successful productions of Rothwell’s work have cast a positive light over other years of work there in the past, like 2005’s Hate Crimes and 2009’s The Blackening. It is rather this production’s fault rather than BATS’ that No Taste falls so far beneath their usual standards.
Across the road at Downstage, something a lot more experimental is being tested. Etiquette, presented by Downstage and made by British theatre company Rotozaza, is much more of an experiment in form than a work on its own terms. The two audience members sit at a table and listen to synchronised iPods. You are told, over the show’s 30-minute running length, to do various things, ranging from the mundane—“Place your hand on the table”—to dictating to you complex scenes of dialogue to be reenacted. It is a very interesting form and one that the company has made several shows in the mode of. Unfortunately, looking up the other works made in this way—which they have branded Autoteatro—they all seem more cohesive and complete than Etiquette. There is no narrative or real thematic arc to hold on to in Etiquette; it slowly drifts from bit to bit with little logic or explanation or growth. It seems a lot more like a proof-of-concept than a finished work. Thusly, Etiquette is a work that is hard to be excited about. However, Autoteatro as a form most certainly is, and one can only hope for another show made in its shape is not long for these shores.
While Etiquette began Downstage’s year with a signature middle class experimental twist—the theatrical version of very good fusion cuisine—it was a double bill of work by the ever talented and constantly growing Long Cloud Youth Theatre, that were the first actual works to cross the Hannah Playhouse’s boards this year. The double bill of Michelanne Forster’s Daughters of Heaven, directed by Sophie Roberts, and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, directed by Willem Wassenaar, stands as a thematic sequel to Long Cloud’s previous Downstage work, the pitch-perfect and comfortably epic Vernon God Little, which was directed by Wassenaar and Roberts together. All deal with “youth issues” with a maturity, élan, and perspective that groups of young performers such as Long Cloud so often lack. When contrasted against the monumental success of Vernon, Daughters and Dorian cannot help but fall a little short. Both suffer from bad pacing, each feeling much longer than they need to be. With Dorian, the cast and director devised the script from Wilde’s novel, and one could not help but feel that a more assured, or at least road tested adaptation, would have lacked the jerking narrative and unnecessarily elliptical storytelling of this one. The casts are, as always with Long Cloud, way above par but it is interesting to note that these productions came out of a series of workshops on ensemble work, and yet both shows focus very distinctly and intensely on two characters which form the centre of each work. It is apparent that a slight misstep has been taken in the selection of these two as the works to demonstrate the explorations of ensemble—there are other plays which would have allowed the whole company to show off more, rather than restricting the glory to fewer performers and requiring the other students simply to fill in the space around them. However, with that all said, both performances more than meet the already high standards which Long Cloud consistently set for themselves.
Across the road from Downstage at BATS was another Wassenaar/Roberts production: Broken China. Originally directed by Wassenaar for its Auckland 2010 premiere production, and now developed by performer/devisors Roberts and Chelsie Preston-Crayford with new director Nina Nawalawalo for this second season, it tells the story of two suburban housewives in the 1950s and, as such, carries with it all the requisite repression, desperation, and drug-abuse that has become the grammar of the litany of stories of suburban madness that dwell on this period. Roberts and Preston-Crayford are both performers of the highest order and sustain the long single scene over which Broken China occurs with masterful ease. They are, however, giving marked different styles of performance. Roberts’s is heightened and at points almost absurd, whereas Preston-Crayford’s is a striking case study of profound naturalism. These two performance styles often contrast too starkly when they should blend together. At points, the juxtaposition of the two performances makes it seem as if Roberts is hamming it up far too much, or that Preston-Crayford is simply doing nothing at all.
The show begins with a wonderful symphony of subtext, as the context, back-story, and exposition of how these two women came to be thrust together is entirely between the lines of the most banal small talk. Its greatest tragedy is that this height of textual and dramaturgical dexterity wanes the longer the play runs, with the final moments being far too blatant to be anything other than unintentionally comic. The plot travels well-trod ground of all the stories of this ilk, so when it succeeds it is not with the surprise of the twists and turns of the story, but with the deftness of how it is expressed. The middle does drag awfully and does melt down into little more than an extended comic riff at times. While far from a failure, the overwhelming feeling one was left with was that the introduction of a dedicated writer, or at least a dramaturg, into this theatrical equation would see it develop from simply being a good work into a great work. Broken China is a much more successful beginning for BATS’ year than No Taste Forever, signifying programme manager Martyn Woods’s notable push for more theatrical exchange between Wellington and Auckland. By encouraging more sharing and less sneering between the two big theatre towns of the North Island, Woods is doing everyone, especially the audiences, a favour.
Also early in 2011 were…
The workshop season of The Love of Your Life (devised and performed by Kate McGill and Emma Draper) at BATS was defined largely by the fact that the performers spent too much time pre-judging their characters for us, and not allowing the audience to make any real decision about where they stood with the inhabitants of this desert island. This meant it was very hard to care about any of their attempts to escape that same island. McGill and Draper are both talented performers, and one feels that they needed a stronger guiding hand with this one to help it out of the standard heap of vanity projects that litter the Wellington theatre scene.
Heat, written by Lynda Chanwai-Earle, and directed by David O’Donnell, was finally performed in Circa Two, the space for which it was written—it had to go through a 2008 STAB season at BATS and several tours around the country to end up there. The adjustments that have been made since the initial production are all improvements. The moving of the fact that the protagonist couple have a dead child (that’s how you know Heat is an New Zealand play; because it has a dead kid in it) from plot twist to being one of the initial facts you are informed of does clean up a lot of the structural issues that plagued the initial production, though there are still about three endings too many. However, the question that overwhelmed me in the original production—that of the matching of plot to setting—still sits strongly in this return season. The enforced isolation of the Antarctic tundra is a very interesting dramatic device and I’m really not sure that a loose adaptation of Carson McCuller’s The Ballad of the Sad Cafe is the story that needs to be told there. Heat seems like two ideas stuck together that simply do not fully align.
Victoria University’s Summer Shakespeare this year is A Winter’s Tale, directed by Lori Leigh. Leigh has clearly done a lot of good work towards making this famously troublesome play work in performance, but a lot of her good intentions are undone by things outside of her control. The painted backdrop that covers the whole back wall of the sound shell stage for four of the five acts is incredibly, distractingly ugly. The microphones designed to amplify the actors voices simply amplify the reverb from the walls making it much harder—at least from where I was sitting—to hear them than if the microphones had not been there at all. The performances are, on a whole, the kind of workable you would expect from a Summer Shakespeare with a few standouts being Sophie Hambleton’s Paulina and Theo Taylor’s Autolycus. Also, it was in severe need of a good cutting (at least 40 minutes) and it has a script that can survive such cutting—the first three acts have enough plot for, at most, one act. By the interval I was wishing for an ending, not a break.
The Peek Party at the Gryphon is an interesting experiment where four theatre companies present unfinished drafts of work seeking the feedback that can be only gotten from a live audience. The clear highlight of the evening was the Playground Collective’s exploration of The Tinderbox, which was a hypnotically beautiful exercise in form and scale and how to express the cinematic on the stage. However, it lacked a thematic core, and at the conclusion one couldn’t help but feel: wow, that was amazing but why tell that story? The Binge Culture Collective’s performance of a piece of their upcoming work, This Rugged Beauty, held true to the electric frailty of their previous work, with an introductory sequence involving a comically inept stage manager seemingly a part lifted from any of their works. The following storytelling sequence—in which the audience is asked to close their eyes and imagine as the cast create a soundscape around them—is inspired and delightful. However, the segment ends with an extended sequence of two actors being coached through a scene by other actors as lights shift across them. This game doesn’t develop and goes on far too long to be of any interest.
Dan Weekes performed a section of his upcoming Fringe work, The Aliens of Poverty Bay. Weekes is developing a very distinct style of performance based around heavily structured improv. This is interesting and I have seen him do it a lot more successfully elsewhere. Unfortunately, in the performance I saw, he was simply too distracted and incoherent to be understandable. The video footage by Hunter Abbey is, however, exceptional. The final piece is I Am This, directed by Stuart Henderson working with 14-17 year old kids under the name of Not Another. While it is admirable to get a group of actors this young to devise, in a non-traditional way, non-narrative work—and surely the kids must have gotten a lot out of it—the resulting work is simply far too obscure to be accessible. Indeed, the opening video sequence as techno blared while the screen flashed up stark words like ‘Soma’ or ‘Fear’ or the Facebook logo was quite unintentionally hilarious. The extended sequences of slow motion, which seemed to want to create tension, simply read to this audience member as padding. However, the scenes in which the kids revealed facts about themselves by playing recorded interviews with themselves through iPods was an inspired stylistic device, and it would be great to see that further development in future productions.