Theatre Scenes: Auckland Theatre Blog (Reviews, interviews and commentary)

REVIEW: Dreams (Blackbird Ensemble)

Dangerous Dreaming [by Lucy Noonan]



This week Blackbird Ensemble have transformed The Basement into a magical boudoir complete with three beds, clouds, a glittery ladder and nine fabulous musicians for their latest show, Dreams.

As the audience finishes arriving, seven of the musicians gradually wake from their slumbers and begin to play their respective instruments. Almost instantly the audience is lulled into a beautiful dream land which, mixed with The Basement's special on hot toddy's becomes quite dangerous. The gentle lullabies make you want to curl up with the musicians in the onstage bed, unfortunately we are relegated to the seats. However there isn't a single moment when you do not feel a part of their world. Even when the show seemingly takes breaks and the ensemble have a jam session or relax back on the beds while glasses of water are delivered to them, you find yourself relaxed and smiling along with them.

After the first lullaby the two vocalists (Mikey Brown and Jessie Cassin) join the stage and we are escorted through what is presumably both of their dreams, sometimes as a couple in duet form and individually as the other picks up an instrument. Musical director Claire Cowan, has chosen a diverse set that takes us from Mikey Brown's haunting serenades to the more cabaret performances by Jessie Cassin. When the two come together it is nothing short of magical. Personal favourites are Don't Smoke in Bed and I Had a Dream, Joe, the latter of which results in an explosion of feathers over the stage, adding to a perfectly crafted set designed by Daniel Williams.


REVIEW: The Pianist (Auckland Live)

Bravura Recital [by Amanda Leo]

Thomas Monckton is The Pianist

Thomas Monckton is The Pianist

As a child, my parents very occasionally took me to the circus as a type of rare treat, which has resulted in much anticipation when going to watch any type of circus  act in my adult life. My anticipation of a night full of magic wasn’t disappointed as I arrived at the foyer of the Hearld Theatre for the opening night of The Pianist, created and performed by Taranakian Thomas Monckton with the international contemporary Finnish circus group Circo Aereo. Greeted by Arjuna De Simas-Oakes’ beautiful jazz piano accompaniment, we are put right in the mood for an evening of fun and beautiful music.

We are greeted by a hanging chandelier and a beautiful grand piano, both which reek of possibilities for mishap. In The Pianist the humour arises from the disjunction between what the pianist is attempting to perform and what is actually being performed. Monckton has chosen an ingenious  setting for such a parody of performance: a sort of classical piano recital with traditionally “highbrow” standards that the pianist attempts to follow. His failed attempts to constantly enforce and follow these traditions renders the humour very effective when he encounters common problems that performers face, such as a misplaced follows spot or a hidden gap in the curtains.

Monckton’s abilities as a physical circus performer and clown complement this piece beautifully while his childlike demeanour makes for a very endearing performance. This characterisation allows for the incorporation of pantomime, and we led, through the use of music and sound, into the pianist's imagination, as he plays with inspiration through a childlike affectation of body puppetry.


REVIEW: Beards! Beards! Beards! (Trick of the Light)

Beardiful [by Amanda Leo]

Beards! Beards! Beards!

Beards! Beards! Beards!

With a piece entitled Beards! Beards! Beards!, I had no doubt that theatre-watching beard-enthusiasts were going to enjoy this show about, well, a girl trying to grow a beard. I’m not exactly what you’d call an avid beard-enthusiast myself, but this show had me questioning why I wasn’t one.

We are greeted with a beautiful simple layout of a barber’s shop, complete with two barber’s striped barber’s poles. The stage is immediately taken by two dapperly-dressed, impressively-bearded barbers (Paul Waggott and Ralph McCubbin Howell), launching us in to a two-part barbershop duet introducing the world of beard-mania. With the entrance of their daughter Beatrix, played by Abby Howells, we surmise that her two fathers run the best barbershop in town but are pretty unhelpful when Beatrix reveals her desire to grow a beard in order to be taken seriously. In a world where it seems like only bearded men command respect and power , Beatrix gets upset at seemingly being denied a beard and proceeds to chop off her hair with a pair of scissors in the middle of the night. Her action sparks a magical encounter with the un-canonized Portuguese saint of Women’s Beards who sets her on a quest to visit prominent bearded figures throughout history to help Beatrix fulfill her desire to grow a beard (hello Darwin, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and a well groomed host of historical cameos). Although Beatrix is to inevitably come to the conclusion that she does not and should not need a beard to be taken seriously, the anticipated journey there is thoroughly enjoyable and gratifying fulfilled.


REVIEW: This is our Youth (The Basement)

Escape from New York  [by Tim George]

Ladies and Gentlemen: Our Youth

Ladies and Gentlemen: Our Youth

Directed by Benjamin Henson, this new revival of Kenneth Lonergan's pressure cooker of disaffected youth in Reagan-era New York is by turns claustrophobic, bleak, and nihilistic. It is also blackly comic and surprisingly profound.

A young man steals $15000 from his father and holes up with his only friend, who also happens to be his dealer. High on drugs and increasingly paranoid about how to fix this situation before they both get in trouble, the duo are forced to confront the pointlessness of their own existence.

With its hellish portrait a generation, a city and a country in crisis, This Is Our Youth is a small story with big ideas. The fallacy of the confidence of youth. The lack of control we have over our own lives. Our inability, as human beings, to ever truly communicate with one another.

Taking place within the sweaty confines of the drug dealer's apartment, Henson stages the action in what, for all intents and purposes, is a metal box (set design Christine Urquhart) that dictates both the geography of the apartment and the limited agency of the characters, with the audience arranged in a traverse stage arrangement.


REVIEW: Breath, Three Samuel Beckett Works (Q Vault)

Life is Krapp [by James Wenley]

Edward Newborn

Edward Newborn

It is tempting to interpret Breath as an encapsulation of the ultimate message of all of Samuel Beckett’s plays: you’re born, life is rubbish, you die, and then it happens again to someone else. Breath is all of 40 seconds. Spoiler alert: we hear a baby’s cry, the lights fade up as we hear the inhale of a breath, we see a static image of a landscape filled with plastics and pollution, and then the lights fade out on the exhale. While Breath is one of three Beckett plays that make up the evening, maybe we could have got the essential point if we’d just viewed only this one. If we collected our our tickets, chatted in the foyer, had our tickets checked by the usher, found our seats, and 40 seconds later, curtain call. That would have been very Beckett. But then, we would have missed all the rest of the Krapp.

As curated in Breath: Three Samuel Beckett works, Breath (1969) the play (or “performance installation” as performer Edward Newborn describes it) makes for a curious intermission between That Time (1976), and Krapp’s Last Tape (1958). Wedged between these two, it almost feels like Breath itself hasn’t quite been given justice. Beckett’s precise instructions calls for miscellaneous rubbish to be scattered on the floor (“No verticals, all scattered and lying”), and I wonder if this effect would have made a tangible difference compared with director Paul Gittin’s choice to mediate our experience by displaying instead a photograph on a screen. As it is, it is one of the enduring images from the night.


REVIEW: Fold (The Basement)

Fold again [by Matt Baker]

Fold by Jo Randerson

Fold by Jo Randerson

There are certain recurring words associated with Jo Randerson's writing: witty, refreshing, grotesque, absurd, surreal, irreverent; but it is only these last two I would attribute to her first play, Fold, which is currently playing in The Basement Studio. Its self-proclaimed "...mockery of pretension, self-obsession, and self-delusion..." is nothing more than that, a mockery, and while ridicule has its place in theatre as an arrow in the playwright's quiver, it must be launched with precision to successfully hit its proposed target.

Comedy is the imitation of inferior people, but to rely on the audience to project any cynicism (as spurred on by the playwright's polemic perspective of their purposely-penned one-dimensional characters) means the inferiority becomes misplaced. This misplacement in Fold results in writing with the sort of extremity you find in die-hard left/right-wing columnists whose fervour indicates psychological delusion. Randerson points the finger and openly mocks the one percent, but does so with little skill or class. There is no socio-political commentary in Fold, because theatre achieves this with the way in which it presents ideas, not simply by presenting them with the directness of German-language GPS navigation device.


REVIEW: The Book of Everything (Auckland Arts Festival)

Missing Pages [by Matt Baker]

When the book that inspires a play has been called a modern classic, when the play itself has been self-attributed with "...beautiful, magical, surprising, touching, terrifying, joyous, inspiring, funny, and ultimately uplifting...", and when the premiere was critically acclaimed as a "hilarious, honest, and beautifully rendered play", there is a lot to which any other production must live up. This pressure that accompanies The Book of Everything means that although it is a logical co-production between Silo and Auckland Arts Festival, advertising its accessibility to everyone aged 9-90, the hype can be more detrimental than beneficial. Simplifying "adult" concepts via the eyes of a child is a powerful device and has been used successfully in myriad books, films, and plays, and while author Guus Kuijer has been consistently recognised for his literary contributions, there is a lack of resonance in the issue of domestic abuse as addressed in Richard Tulloch's adapted script.

While the rationale behind the chalkboard construction of John Verryt's design is clear and allows for a degree of play on the set, its use is minimal – and chalkboard paint does come in colours other than black – and the logistical repetition of opening Mrs. van Amersfoort's apartment to the audience loses its inventiveness very quickly. Sean Lynch's lighting design makes up for the absence of colour, as do the costumes by Kirsty Cameron. The on-stage foley sound performed by supporting cast Tim Carlsen, Michelle Blundell, and Jennifer Ward-Lealand is fantastic, and although Thomas Press' sound design allows for additional scope, it, ironically, reminds me more that I'm in a theatre than the former theatrical convention.

Carlsen steals the show as a colloquial Jesus Christ, with a semi-glaze and calm-cadence that results in an excellently pitched performance, and allows for the comedy and pathos to be played with absolute subtlety. Blundell is endearing as the vivacious Eliza, and Ward-Lealand perfect casting for the ethically resilient attire-challenging sister-in-law to Sam Snedden's Father. Rima Te Wiata completes the extended cast with a wonderfully funny and intense portrayal of the gleeful yet wise Mrs. van Amersfoort; the catalyst for change through the absence of fear for protagonist Thomas Klopper.

Of the family unit, Olivia Tennet is an absolute standout as she perfectly balances the capriciousness of the supercilious yet platonically understanding role of Thomas' older sister Margot, with the still genuine wonderment of youth, culminating in a ferocious catharsis. As Thomas, Patrick Carroll plays up the childlike exuberance a notch too high. As soon as he tells us he's nine, almost ten, we accept that this is the set up for the duration of the play. Fortunately, Carroll settles into his performance and allows his intelligence as an actor to seep through into the more comedic moments in the play. Were this to occur in collaboration with the introspection of the character, Carroll's already solid ability to carry the show would only be enriched. As mother and father respectively, Mia Blake and Snedden give measured performances. For Blake, the absence of truthful extremity comes from the lack of clarity in her journey in Tulloch's text. For Snedden, it is a misplaced weight that does not earn him the poignancy of the change he reveals in his character.

On paper, this is a winning play, and an excellent choice to mark Silo Artistic Director Sophie Roberts' first programmed production. However, even excellent inspiration, a good script, and a great creative team and cast does not necessarily result in something more than the sum of its parts. That's not to say that the play does not work or is not worth seeing (in fact, something about it makes me want to see it again), especially as a production offered in the Auckland Arts Festival, simply that the transition from prose to script to stage can sometimes miss a page or two.

The Book of Everything is presented by Silo and plays at Q Theatre until March 22. For details see Q.

SEE ALSO: Theatreview review by Nik Smythe


REVIEW: The Kitchen (Auckland Arts Festival)

Humdrum [by Sharu Delilkan and Tim Booth]

The kitchen disappoints

The Kitchen lacks spice

An intriguing premise for tonight’s show – 12 drummers in a pyramid, a kitchen and a couple cooking the delicious Indian rice pudding that is payasam.

Having seen The Manganiyar Seduction at the 2011 Festival we felt The Kitchen had the potential to be a little gimmicky, a re-packaging of their previously successful formula.

And that’s how things turned out for us – the cooking antics, in almost slow motion, kept our attention for all of 10-minutes before boredom set in. We found The Kitchen lacking in soul, storyline and despite the splendid musicianship of the 12-strong Mizhavu drummers, the show had little effect on us – except deep disappointment. The food element of the show, with the two cooks Mandakini Goswami and Dilip Shankar, was probably the biggest let down of the entire production. The laborious stirring and pouring into the large cauldrons on stage was just that – laborious and somewhat boring at times. We failed to see the connection between the food that was being made, the actions in the foreground and the rhythmic drumming taking place in the background. According to the programme, which we only read after the show, the two characters cooking were an estranged couple going through a myriad of emotions akin to the food bubbling in the pots – sorry to say that definitely did not translate on stage.


REVIEW: Macbeth (Auckland Arts Festival)

Viva Verdi? [by Matt Baker]

Playwright, designer, and director Brett Bailey has made a career in avant-garde theatre, and while I have a desire to engage with more of his productions, it is based more on reading about his other works rather than witnessing his adaptation of Verdi's Macbeth. The concept of Congolese refugees recreating Verdi's production based on the coming across of theatrical paraphernalia echoes what was presumably Bailey's desire to adapt the piece and allow the company to tell their own story, but, while this is a necessity for any adaptation, the heavy-handedness of presenting the political history of Eastern Congo via narrative text projections felt more like a hijacking than an adaptation. The result of combining these text projections with the other myriad visuals and translated surtitles results in a lot going on in this production, and when also considering the cast and orchestra, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by its theatrical content.

As an Italian opera, Macbeth has all the hallmarks of grandeur. As an avant-garde theatre piece, presented by a South African theatre troupe, it contains a ferocity inherent in war, but it appears the former has become the Birnam wood for the latter trees. The key to universality in a production is, ironically, the specificity of culture; the more specific it is, the more we inherently recognise and can consequently project our own lives and cultures onto it. The only moments of this in Bailey's production are those leading up to Banquo and Lady MacBeth's deaths, where the Kongo language and the harrows of war are respectively employed. Other than these moments, the "potency of African rhythms" is virtually non-existent, which is frustrating, as the brutality of war and the warring of tribes that exist in Central Africa, are not unlike that in Scottish history (regardless of the fictionalisation of Shakespeare's "original" text). That's not to say that the cast's handling of Italianità is in any way incongruent or unjustified in their performances, merely that its juxtaposition with the gritty brutality of the story has not been fully integrated.

As the titular anti-hero, Owen Metsileng develops little throughout the piece. Although Macbeth is accused and spurred on by his spouse questioning his manhood, the eventual necessity of that transition (though not by any means an indication of manhood) must occur. Macbeth is at best a tyrant, and at worst a murderer. Nobulumko Mngxekeza is able to play once she has something to play with as Lady Macbeth, but it is Otto Maidi as Banquo who is able to truly expose his character's internal process through his singing, and consequently present us with a more resonant performance. The seven-piece chorus provides excellent vocal and performance support, especially when Bailey focuses his direction of them between the focus points of the play, and, while working with a new orchestra inevitably requires a period of adjustment, the majority of the cast can afford to be more on par with Premil Petrovic's conducting towards the end of the production when performance fatigue begins to set in.

The Parisian premiere of Verdi's production was received well by the public, but not by critics, and I can't help but note a similar happening as the Auckland opening night crowd slowly clambers to their feet for a standing ovation. Years after the aforementioned production, Verdi conceded that "All things considered, Macbeth is dull." Unfortunately, for all his originality, this is one element to which Bailey has stayed true.

Macbeth is presented by the Auckland Arts Festival and plays at the Aotea Centre until 15 March. Details see Auckland Arts Festival.

SEE ALSO: review by Dione Joseph


REVIEW: One Night Stand (The Basement)

Second Date Material [by Guest Reviewers Lucy Noonan and Tim George]

One Night Stand

One Night Stand

Theatre Scenes sent reviewers along to the first two nights of One Night Stand at The Basement – a 24 hour play festival where 4 teams get just 24 hours to write, direct and stage a 10 minute play. Here are their verdicts. First up Lucy Noonan with night one:

24 hours before showtime the teams were told they had to incorporate a character, “someone who is definitely in touch with their feelings”, a line of dialogue – “It was a bluish-greenish colour”, and they each given their own theme.  From there, they could go wild. tThe festival was hosted by the hilarious Chris Parker, who kept the night light and fun for both the actors and the audience. The night as a whole was fantastic and such a great opportunity to see what established and new talent can accomplish when pushed to the extremes.