By Phil Ormsby
Directed by Stuart Devenie
Basement Theatre, Auckland | September 16-20
When you walk into a theatre and see a boardroom table, it’s easy to be nervous. You expect a show where people are sitting down for two hours and shouting statistics or figures at each other. Wild Bees is not that show, thankfully.
Wild Bees is set in 1991, just after the Rogernomics restructuring and the Labour Government’s asset sale. The union of an unnamed company is fighting for contract changes and pay rises, and the company is unwilling to provide it. It’s something we expect, given the world that we live in today, but as the play, and the characters, are quick to remind us: it wasn’t always this way.
Even though the play takes the side of the unionists, it’s a surprisingly balanced piece of theatre. The union characters are full-bodied, and even though there are six unionists in the rooms, you can probably find about twice as many opinions. Wild Bees is a reminder that even if you read about these negotiations in history books or the newspaper, real people engaged in these negotiations, and they were fighting for the rights of real people.
It’s a great ensemble piece, with six actors forming the union members and representatives: the quiet president Joe (Alistair Browning), the charismatic and experienced Marina (Donogh Rees), the wide-eyed and bushy-tailed Rich (Jordan Blaikie), the tired Leo (Wesley Dowdell, the hyper-competent Mac (Emma Newborn), and the angry-at-everything Alan (Kevin Keys). On the side of the company are the constantly smiling Clare (Alex Ellis), the demonic Fergus (Damian Avery), and the charmingly incompetent George (Alexander Campbell). The play really sparks when it fits as many bodies onstage as possible, and it gives the sense of a world outside this room, a world where these negotiations matter.
Sometimes the portrayals of the company executives slide into being a bit simplistic. In the first half, especially, Clare and Fergus seem like embodiments of a bureaucratic brand of evil, and it’s only in the second half where they become a bit more human. Part of this is in Stuart Devenie’s direction, which mostly keeps the play a vibrant piece of theatre, but occasionally directs Avery and Ellis into corners that are sadly more simplistic than the script deserves.
The cast are a stunning ensemble and it’s always a joy to see nine actors onstage working towards opposing goals and really fighting for what their character want, but there are a few standouts. Donogh Rees gives us a character we’ve seen before—the outspoken liberal who wants the best for her workers, who works on the floor, knows the everyday struggles that comes with it, and doesn’t care what the executives want—but she has sketched her character incredibly well and the play feels her absence when she’s not onstage. Alex Ellis is another stand-out, especially in the second half when her character becomes more nuanced and has the chance to take control. She represents both a character and a standpoint: a worker who has compromised herself a little to get ahead, and a company who has compromised itself a bit for a peaceful and stress-free negotiation.
As a piece of education, Wild Bees is a success as well. Although this particular negotiation is presumably a work of fiction, this is an era in New Zealand politics that is more than a little grey for me, and in this crucial and depressing political time, it’s a key reminder that people in New Zealand have never laid down and let their rights be taken from them. It’s a testament to the people who have fought, and continue to fight.
But even as a piece of theatre, Wild Bees is an entertaining romp. With credit to Phil Ornsby’s play, Stuart Devenie’s direction, and an entertaining cast, it’s a piece that deserves to live on past this short season, and get into the heads of New Zealanders who don’t know this era well—even though they should.
* * *
By Barnie Duncan
Presented by Theatre Beating
Basement Theatre, Auckland | September 16-20
Taking up residence in The Basement Studio this week are more newspapers than you’ve ever seen in your entire life. When you have to take it all in at once, it’s amazing the amount of information we are required to process, either consciously or sub-consciously, on a daily basis.
Also taking up residence is a peculiar man (Barnie Duncan) who is introduced to us coming out of a pile of newspaper, along with a person (or hug machine) he has crafted out of paper too. In the next 50 minutes, we explore this man’s life as he wanders around the newspapers that are spread across the walls, roof, and floor, and reacts to the news.
Conceptually, …Him is an incredible piece of theatre. The idea of a show that exists as a reaction not only to the news media in this country on a whole, but the news media on each and every given day, is something that’s inherently fascinating. Seeing Duncan, who is unusually subdued and quiet, take in and react to the news in an entirely innocent way is affecting, and a reminder of the people who take in a fairly outdated method of receiving the news like communion.
There are points where it becomes less engaging than it should, where the concept is a little overstated and the beats are extended a past the point where the audience understands them—but that’s not the point of the show. The beauty of this show is watching a person, albeit a constructed character, react to our media in a way that exposes how we as a society react to the news.
It’s the kind of piece that you want to see more than once. I saw it on September 17th, and I have no doubt that it would’ve been an entirely different show the day after or the day before. But as it stands, it’s a surprisingly affecting and deep-burrowing piece of theatre. Small in scope, but large in what it means to an audience.