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

REVIEW: The Good Soul of Szechuan (Auckland Theatre Company)

Brecht-Through Experience  [by James Wenley]

Robyn Malcom as Sha Tui photography -  Michael Smith

Robyn Malcolm as Shui Ta photography - Michael Smith

It’s surprising to learn that The Good Soul of Szechuan* marks the first time Auckland Theatre Company have produced a play by Bertolt Brecht. Surprising perhaps because a Brechtian sensibility is very much apparent in Artistic Director Colin McColl’s signature ATC productions – recall how often he strips back the stage of the Maidment such as in Other Desert Cities or Awatea, reflecting the Brechtian impulse to draw attention to the theatrical conceit, to make the familiar strange. I think of his interpretation of August: Osage County, the sloped stage so different from the originating Chicago production that recreated a three-storey house. While Brecth’s plays are rarely revisited here, his influence dominates our modern expectations of theatre. Brecht is everywhere, and nowhere. So how thrilling to have a full blown production of a Brecht play, unseen in these parts since Silo’s The Threepenny Opera in 2008.

A cynical modernist update of a morality play, a trio of Gods arrive in Szechuan looking for someone righteous and good. The presence of trio of Gods – a muted Cameron Rhodes, Simon Prast and Browwyn Bradley in white chem suits – is barely noticed by the down-on-their-luck inhabitants of a plastic shanty town, too consumed with questions of their bodily existence than any spiritual concerns. Only a humble water seller, Wang (Shimpal Lelisi) is there to greet them. The only place to stay is the abode of prostitute Shen Te (Robyn Malcolm); and it is she, society’s transgressive tabooed figure, that is declared to be the town’s one good soul. Shen Te deals with the consequences of this proclamation, drowning in the gulf between her will and reality. With an under-the-counter payment from the Gods, she invests in a Tobacco shop - a symbol even more striking today with the demonisation of said product – to help fund her charitable desires. But the more she tries to be good she attracts an equal amount of negative energy and leaches into her life, and the more misery she creates for herself.


REVIEW: Putorino Hill (Taki Rua)

Hill of Memory   [by James Wenley]

Putorino Hill by Chris Malloy

Putorino Hill by Chris Molloy

“More of a murky puddle than a fresh water spring” is how Whiti (Rob Mokaraka) describes trying to look back into his past. Taki Rua’s new work, Pūtōrino Hill by Chris Molloy by is a captivating memory play where the past’s reflection is a murky place indeed, revealing curses, hushed up scandals, patupaiarehe (fairies) demons. When your turangawaewae is cursed, what are the foundations on which you stand on?

A researcher, Sarah (Lana Garland) has come to the rural Reinga to research its history and myths. She knows of the stories of the patupaiarehe and ancient tapu that has cursed the land, and the prophecy of a lost pūtōrino (flute). She’s come to kaumatau Whiti for his oral testimony.

No longer a “spring kumara”, Rob Mokaraka’s old Whiti is a beguiling figure, who is charming and sincere in the present, but when his eyes go blank, slips into the terrain of his interior. This is how he is when Sarah, and we, first meet him, a long introduction in which he shuffles forward as if in a trance, until Whiti breaks the silence – “away with the fairies again nē”. Mokaraka gives a remarkable performance, believably crumbling into the skin of someone much older, Whiti’s mana radiates out of Mokaraka.

Director Te Kohe Tuhaka fully explores the theatrical potential in Malloy’s script of Whiti witnessing the events from his past, as actors Jade Daniels as Young Whiti and Kim Garrett as childhood friend Hana replay the formative events of his childhood (the only period when, Whiti says, you are fully engaged with the here and now).with the here and now”. Whiti looks on through empty picture frames hanging in rows from the Loft roof stage left, Sarah watching Whiti with anxiousness and intrigue, trying to see what he sees.


REVIEW: The Selecta (Auckland Theatre Company)

Grate the Skin, Grit the Teeth, Probe the DNA  [by James Wenley]

kin, directed Grace Taylor, an Auckland Theatre Company 'Next Big Thing' production; photography -  Michael Smith

kin, directed Grace Taylor, an Auckland Theatre Company 'Next Big Thing' production; photography - Michael Smith

When the diversity featured in The Selecta moves up onto the mainstage, Auckland’s theatres will be a very exciting place to be. Following last year’s outstanding immersion in teen drinking culture, Like There’s No Tomorrow, Auckland Theatre Company have gone back to the three-shows-in-one-night format to showcase Gen Y talent in their Next Big Thing program. In The Selecta you’ll find a carnival ride of hashtags, schoolyard packs gone wrong, and talented performers staking their claim for their voices to be heard.

In Skin, directed by Rising Voices Youth Poetry Movement's Grace Taylor, the company delve deep past the surface to deliver a series of profound, self-penned spoken word meditations on their lives, experiences, and attitudes. The content is diverse, as an example, Alice Pearson opens with a reflection on the inadequacy of glad wrap, which transitions into a thoughtful consideration of Rewa Worley’s contemporary Maori cultural identity. Pearson wraps Worley in the wrap as we enter, the visual image of containment finding release in Worley’s words.

The poetry, honed through workshops, and deeply felt by the writer-performers, sends shockwaves through my own skin. There are vital issues canvassed here – rape culture in Pearson’s Wolf Gang, the climate plight of Kiribati in Naotia Atiana’s Sink or Swim (“forced migration / relocation”) and the rejection of traditional gender roles in Zech Soaki and Ilena Lameta’s moving collaboration Galaxy. In Courtney Basset’s changing rooms, I’m caught by her feeling that she’s “out of the womb too soon” as she considers the other girls in the changing room. Mohammed Hassan draws us in with his Palm Reader. Ileana Lameta’s vulnerability and storytelling control in The Voice is Mine, beautifully accompanied by music, is completely compelling. There is strong work also from Arizona Leger and Hanna Olsen – they are all great.


REVIEW: Sin (Outfit Theatre Company)

Seven Deadly Narrative Sins  [by James Wenley]



In a secular society, what does it mean to sin? When you are encouraged to take whatever you want, who decides mortal morality? If there’s no-one there to judge you, who is there to stop you? In Outfit Theatre Company’s devised show around the seven deadly sins, what is striking is that religion plays no part in the lives of the contemporary Aucklanders that make up the characters. Sure, Ryan Dulieu stalks the stage, clutching an apple, like some sort of tempter-serpent figure, but at rarely do the characters stop and think about any of the big questions of right and wrong. If these are sins, who is counting?

Outfit Theatre Company have been absent from Auckland’s stage since a massive year in 2012 (with just one kids show in 2013), as the company took stock and worked on that most vexing of questions: how to make their ensemble model sustainable? Sin returns the company to what they are most well-known for, like The Sex Show, a large ensemble cast, contemporary (mostly) 20-30 something characters, and a show devised around a sexy topic. This time it is the seven deadly sins, devised by directors Sarah Graham and assistant Andrew Ford and the cast using material through both anonymous surveys and face to face interviews. It’s a well-trodden theme (Vice in April played in similar territory), but while Aucklanders flirting with their dark sides holds much fascination, Outfit bring little new to the table.


REVIEW: Hoki Mai Tama Ma (Te Rehia Theatre Company)

Cross-Commedia Clarity  [by James Wenley]

Te Mata Kōkako O Rēhia

Te Mata Kōkako O Rēhia

The masks, masterfully crafted with aroha by maker Tristan Marler, are exquisite. The etched mokos glimmer with detail under the stage light. The performers tongue flicks out from under the half mask. It’s as if the ancestors, carved on the beams of the wharenui, have jumped off and sprung into fresh and blood life. It is these masks that make Hoki Mai Tama Mā special, a new artform Te Rēhia Theatre Company call Te Mata Kōkako O Rēhia, blending Maori tikanga and the Italian art form of Commedia dell’Arte.

It’s remarkable that somebody hadn’t thought of this before. Indian Ink are the immediate touch point that in this country that have been experimenting and localising mask form, more recently embracing Balinese mask in Kiss the Fish (indeed, Justin Lewis assisted the company). Regan Taylor wondered what would happen if a Commedia mask spoke Te Reo, and the result is the new tangata whenua form from playwright Tainui Tukiwaho and Director Gerald Urquhart.

In Hoki  Mai Tama Mā, two storytelling forms play opposite each other – the world of Mata Kōkako, and a more usual naturalistic drama (sans masks) – which finally merge at the end of the play in a refreshingly unexpected way. Tama (Rawiri Jobe) has returned from Italy, just in time for Matariki. He went there to track down his Koro, who had gone awol overseas, however  Tama had neglected to tell anyone, and neither his cousin Bella (Amber Cureen) or girlfriend Patricia (Ascia Maybury) are very happy with him. Reviews from its opening week at the Mangere Arts Centre indicated that the play’s opening was problematic. While its second week at the Herald Theatre seems to have increased the energy, the focus in the opening scenes seems to be in the wrong place. The conflict is generated around Tama’s absence, and the initial one-dimensional characterisation of Patricia as the pissed off Pakeha girlfriend is at odds with the more nuanced and supportive character revealed later. In short, it’s not the most engaging opening, and the heat surrounding Tama’s travel soon disappears. What drives the play’s engine is the mystery surrounding why Koro went to Italy, and it is question that the conflict could be more meaningfully associated.


REVIEW: MANA WAHINE (Okareka Dance Company)

Okareka Wows [by Sharu Delilkan]

Five strong women truly represent.

Five strong women truly represent.

Being a bit of an Okareka Dance Company junkie I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the Auckland debut of their new original piece Mana Wahine. And I realised that I was not the only one there to get their Okareka fix.

What can I say but Taiaroa Royal and Taane Mete (Okareka’s artistic directors) have blown us away yet again! And the winning combination of World of Wearable Arts (WOW) artistic director and principal choreographer Malia Johnston was obviously a stroke of genius that has made this company’s Matariki offering jaw-droppingly memorable. Watching Mana Wahine was indeed a treat, comprising stunning music, lighting, imagery, set and costume that exquisitely complemented the astounding choreography and fabulous dance performances.

Never had I seen an audience so transfixed, so attentive, so mesmerised, so moved all at the same time. And the audience erupting in a spontaneous standing ovation clearly depicted that the crowd was just itching to show their delirious euphoria.


REVIEW: Seed (The Basement)

Inconclusive Result  [by Matt Baker]



Working in the arts industry is by no means a secure trade – especially in New Zealand. The independent contractor status coupled with the number of people versus number of jobs means that diversifying and creating self-instigated works is often a key component to longevity in one’s career. Actress Elisabeth Easther clearly understands this, and the result is her 2014 Adam New Zealand Award winning script, Seed, now playing at The Basement.

The dialogue starts out playfully, and there are puns abound, not to mention the odd couplet, however, as the lyricism wanes and once we’ve heard every colloquial variant of the noun cum the content is revealed to be quite dry. Everyone says exactly what they think and feel, leaving the audience with no need to actively engage. Add to this some of the most brazen and morally corrupt attitudes of the characters, and the result is that there is no real emotional investment for the audience to make.

Fiona Mogridge pitches the show with an immediately heightened sense of theatricality, while Renee Sheridan and Janine Burchett are far more subdued – their performances and vocal projection bordering on filmic. Mogridge’s performance seems more in tune with the tone director Emma Willis has set for the show, that is perhaps also more in line with the voice of the writer. The problem with this, however, is that any moments of pathos aren’t allowed to sit, and the moments that should resonate seem frivolous.


REVIEW: La traviata (NZ Opera)

Shines, not sparkles [by Sharu Delilkan]

Lorina Gore as Violetta Valéry in La traviata.

Lorina Gore as Violetta Valéry in La traviata.

Auckland really set the scene for the opening night of Giuseppe Verdi’s renowned opera La traviata with grey skies, cutting winds and the occasional burst of cold rain. On a night like this one might wish for a tragi-comedy or an uplifting story of trials and tribulations overcome by love and devotion. However clearly that isn’t the story told by Verdi which is essentially a story of a sickly courtesan manipulated by her male peers. Verdi’s storyline doesn't leave room for much deviation from the theme, making it a challenging piece from a dramatic standpoint.

From the start we understand that Violetta Valéry (Lorina Gore) is a bit delicate but fortunately for her Alfredo Germont (Sam Sakker) is head over heels in love with her and is willing to give up everything including his family’s approval to live with her in blissful but destitute circumstances. Clearly this cannot last in a Verdi opera and following a number of twists and turns, the lovers are reunited just before Violetta succumbs to her only certainty in life – surprisingly just before her reconciliation with her true love Alfredo.

However this cynical synopsis of the story belies what makes this Verdi opera great – that being the music, the performances, and the simplicity of the story that allows all these elements to shine through wonderfully.


EDITORIAL: Where’s my Concession?

[by Matt Baker]

In the first half of this year, I saw two plays that had one ticket price: adult – $25.00. It was the maximum ticket price that the venue in which these shows were performed allows, due to their want of maintaining the cost of theatre to their patrons at a reasonable amount, and $25.00 is perfectly reasonable – both were full-length plays, had two acts, were performed in the main stage of the venue, and had casts of 6 and 5 respectively. The issue I had, however, was the lack of concession price tickets.

Commerce concession is defined as being a reduction in the usual price of a ticket granted to a special group of customers, but how do we define these ‘special’ customers? The most common concessions are for students and senior citizens (65+), which makes sense. Student concessions are common for movies tickets, public transport, flights, power bills, clothes, food, stationary, etc., why not for theatre as well?

The justification for senior citizen concessions is also evident. Depending on your circumstances, you’re looking at a current pension maximum of $733.18 fortnightly in New Zealand, which becomes available once you reach the retirement age in New Zealand (65). Even if the individual does continue to work, they have (hopefully/expectedly) ‘paid their debt’ to society in regards to being an active member of both the work force and the economy, and should consequently reap some benefits when it comes to the cost of enjoying their retirement.

Who else should benefit from concession price tickets though? Who could other potential ‘special’ customers be? I would argue that there are three more categories: groups of 6 or more, Community Services Card holders, and members of New Zealand Actors’ Equity.


REVIEW: Once On Chunuk Bair (Auckland Theatre Company)

Once was Enough  [by Matt Baker]

Once on Chanuk Bair by Maurice Shadbolt, directed Ian Mune, co-director Cameron Rhodes , Auckland Theatre Company; photographed by Michael Smith

Once on Chunuk Bair by Maurice Shadbolt, directed Ian Mune, co-director Cameron Rhodes , Auckland Theatre Company; photographed by Michael Smith

The fact that the temporary capture of Chunuk Bair was the only success for the Allies in the Gallipoli Campaign at the expense of hundreds of men’s lives is a perfect example of the futility of war. It is a landmark in New Zealand history and requires little reminding: lest we forget, indeed. The opportunity, then, to see life breathed into the men who fought and died is an exciting, if not, macabre, prospect, and one that could result in a truly cathartic experience for Kiwi audiences.

The show starts off promisingly, with Wesley Dowdell and Andrew Grainger establishing an honest and humorous dynamic between two men with little in common other than the situation in which they find themselves. This introductory relationship, however, is then attempted with other pairings and clumsily interjected throughout the play. These unmotivated conversations stick out of the script glaringly, as opposed to the humanity of the play being peppered evenly throughout and eventually culminating into something greater than the sum of its parts.