Pasefika (As you like it) [by James Wenley]
Wellington is Festival City. You can tell because every street poster seems to be advertising an arts event. And there are heaps of them. No excuses for not knowing something is going down. Last week not only was the NZ Festival well into its mix, but the famous Wellington Fringe (per capita, the largest Fringe Fest) was entering its final week. For my first time visiting Wellington during Festival season, this was Mecca.
Being an Aucklander, I couldn’t help but compare. The NZ Festival “welcomes the world” and for international acts is impeccable (Robert Le Page’s Needles and Opium is one I rather mourn missing), but it’s good to see Auckland companies representing the local so well, with both ATC and Silo having a presence with Paniora! And Brel. As much as the pre-recorded announcement forlornly suggested we go to the “Festival Hub” at the St James post-show, the Festival does lack a beating heart in the way that Auckland’s takes over Aotea Square. For Fringe, a dedicated funky ticketing caravan (with just one ticketing system thanks to Eventfinda) is one innovation I wouldn’t mind seeing here.
I had review tickets to Pasefeka by Stuart Hoar, and A Midsummer Nights Dream (As You Like it), a pairing which provided a good cross-section of what the Festival can be. At first they seem widely different: Pasefeka, a story about both French settlement Akaroa in the 1840s, and world of poet Charles Baudelaire’s 1860s Paris, linked by artist Charles Meryon. A Midsummer Night's Dream (As You Like it), a version of Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play Pyramus and Thisbe performed by a Russian company with the help of two giant puppets cast as the leads. Local vs International. Imagined History vs imagined Myth. Both delivered with a striking theatrical energy, a interest in the deconstruction of storytelling, and a stylish wink and nod to their audiences. Although only one of these plays had a scene stealing dog.
Here I go again [by James Wenley]
You should have a fairly good idea by now if you are inclined to enjoy Mamma Mia!
Here’s a simple test: Do you like Musicals? Do you sing along every time ABBA comes on The Breeze? Do you have your own flared lycra jumpsuit in your wardrobe? If you answered yes to either of these questions, you probably have already booked your tickets.
Just as Donna might have felt when seeing three of her former flames turn up on her Greek island all at once, it’s a case of triple déjà vu for its Auckland audience. This is the third time Mamma Mia! has played at The Civic in a decade. A show that is already fifteen years old (it opened at London’s West End in 1999 and hasn’t been stopped since), I first fell in musical love with it as a fifteen year old when the Australian tour reached the Civic in 2004. The international British tour then came here in 2009 though weren’t quite as fun as the Aussies, a fact that was confirmed to me when I saw some of the original Aussie cast reunite for their 10th Anniversary production in Sydney that same year.
Throw in the ABBA mania of the 2008 Meryl Streep and… er… Pierce Brosnan led Mamma Mia! film, and the ABBA estates have secured their ascendency for decades to come as a new generation of young girls have succumbed to the musical charms of Sweden’s most famous pop group. ABBA’s songs are ear-worms like no other: catchy, infinitely sing-a-longable, and, as Mamma Mia producer Julie Craymer cleverly realised, emotionally dramatic.
Killer Father Ted [by Andrew Parker]
If you knew nothing at all about Ireland or its people then chances are a trip to see Mark Power’s play The Slapdash Assassin would get you up to speed, or at the very least deter you from visiting anytime in the immediate future. One half of the Basement’s ‘Murder Season’, Assassin is a blackly comic microcosm of the country’s sociological make-up, tackling religion, terrorism and politics in a fashion which is half-way between Father Ted and Reservoir Dogs. It’s a play where the humour is used to excoriate, cutting to the heart of modern Ireland and laughing, perhaps a little ruefully, at the darkness within.
The titular assassin is Jeremy Elwood’s Jerome, to whom we’re first introduced covered in the shit of man he’s just messily killed. This is dealt with so matter-of-factly it takes a couple of minutes to fully grasp what’s happening; his grandfather’s first reaction is to tell him to stay outside until he can lay down a tarp. Violence is clearly as much a part of the texture of this household as the somewhat dated furniture and faded photographs. Sex, though, is a bit more eyebrow raising. This is shown when Jerome’s cousin Vincent returns home from Las Vegas with that most awkward accessory for a Catholic priest, a new wife. The fact that this causes more consternation than Jerome’s habit of murdering people proves the blunt end of a sophisticated argument about the relative comfort we take in brutality as opposed to sexuality. Vincent agonises over his decision. Jerome appears decidedly relaxed about his chosen career - even when it turns out that his decision to execute some IRA lackeys a year earlier has had some unexpected repercussions.
They also came and conquered [by Matt Baker]
Completing the New Zealand tour of their award-winning fringe show, writers and performers Justine Campbell and Sarah Hamilton have brought a unique play based on fundamental storytelling to Auckland’s Basement Theatre. The disconsolation of extinction and the mystery of its validity is a major part of the interest in the Tasmanian Tiger, and is aptly utilised as the context of this authentically Australian story.
The text is essentially an epic poem and could easily sit on its own as a published work, at home in a museum or art library. Couplets followed by poignant one-liners prevent any sense of boredom through repetition and give the performers plenty of dexterity for their delivery. The pace is set at a breakneck speed and never relents. It takes a moment to make the aural adjustment and can be easy to lose, but this drive is inherent in the gritty realism of the play’s nature. It is not a passive experience for the audience and requires devoted attention, but is by no means an exhaustive one.
Caged in Evan Thomas’ simple yet symbolic set, Campbell and Hamilton sit poised throughout, ready to pounce on each and every word. Supporting characters both inhabit and affect the world in which each of the women live, creating a complete universe in which the play exists, and are instantly recognisable due to both Campbell and Hamilton’s vocal characterisations. The dichotomy of the parallel storylines allow for the juxtaposition between the outback lifestyle and the Great Depression, and the habitats of the last two recorded thylacines, to each have their own individual sense of struggle.
The negative space of the side on staging, often purposefully neglected in the Basement main stage, ethereally encompasses the isolated performance space, echoing the haunting memory-like essence of the play. Nick Merrylees lighting design offers dramatically stylised transitions, breaking the warm footlights that sustain the recollective style of the text. The odd moment of stylised performance elements are nicely accentuated throughout the script, but I wondered how much further they could be taken before becoming gaudy. The smeared mud seems an especially satisfyingly indulgent moment that is not entirely fulfilled.
While the play is given humanity by the characters, the events they circumnavigate surrounding the thylacine are not misused or forgotten, with programmes notes bringing attention to 30 species on the brink of their own extinction. They Saw A Thylacine sheds light on a species that was unjustifiably culled, and it would be another crime for this play not to have a long life in the general public’s eye.
They Saw A Thylacine plays at The Basement until Feb 22. For details see The Basement.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview review by Heidi North-Bailey
Stuck on you [by James Wenley]
Eli Matthewson and Hamish Parkinson are endearing performers, and also rather talented doodlers.
In two hander shows where actors play multiple characters, some shows will trust the actors to indicate character changes through physicality and voice, others might make a comic virtue out of rapid costume changes. These guys go one step better. The main charm of Velcro City is the assortment of low budget costumes and accessories they have created out of paper, felts, and of course velcro. As we enter The Basement they stand drinking Pepsi and smile warmly at us, and I smile warmly back on account of the ridiculous black sacks they are wearing. During the course of the show they velcro on delightfully drawn ponytails, school uniforms, bald heads, old-person’s glasses to bring to life the citizens of Velcro City.
Velcro City itself is a fantasy microcosm of parochial New Zealand: the mayor wants to encourage community spirit, early 2000s band Rubicon is headlining the music festival, there’s an organic coffee shop run by lesbians, and the pride of the city is their lavender field.
Divine Inspiration [by James Wenley]
Credit to the publicist who angled a ninety year old play into the Herald on Sunday Gossip pages. “Are age-defying celebrities Nicky Watson and Sally Ridge the inspiration for Fallen Angels...?” the paper breathlessly asks. It explains that the play “tells the story of two former BFFs who shared a lover when they were younger... Sound familiar?”, then replays the “Matthewgate” scandal. What is most scandalous about the fluff is that nowhere is the name of playwright Noël Coward mentioned, and if one didn’t know better, you’d put the paper down thinking the play really was based on the lives of Auckland socialites. Maybe this is why Auckland Theatre Company were able to extend the play for a week before it opened?
Auckland audiences have been slowly rediscovering the Cowardian comedy over the last few years: ATC last presented ‘The Master’ in 2008 with Design for Living (also starring Lisa Chappell), and Silo did their hipster version of Private Lives in 2012. In Fallen Angels, once again Coward’s genius shines through: supreme honey dipped-wit, absurd social situations, and a revealing eye on sexual politics and human hypocrisy. Fallen Angels concerns itself with Julia (Lisa Chappell) and Jane (Claire Dougan), best friends in the throes of conventionalised and predictable married life, and as Julia explains to her hapless husband, she loves him, but is no longer “in love” with him. When the women get a message from Maurice, a frenchman they both had separate flings with seven years prior, they agonise over the prospect of marital infidelity. Or rather, I should say, they agonise over how to get one past their friend; their husbands barely come into their thinking. Risqué stuff for 1925, and it invited the full force of moral rectitude.
Gay outing [by Sharu Delilkan]
Queen is a scream, a sass, a laugh, a cry, a voice. The publicity material’s description of Queen is spot on.
Although a re-staging of the show, Sam Brooks’ Queen is still unique in nature because unlike most coming out gay stories the focus is the emotional roller coaster of under 18-year olds. Despite its sometimes graphic nature, complemented by the subtle themes and messages being conveyed, I couldn’t help notice that the show has been given an R13 rating. Which in a way makes sense because it is important for young teenagers to be able to come and see this show, which provides great insight into this world that has not been explored as much on stage before.
Brooks’ writing in general shows a great deal of maturity not only in terms of language but his insightfulness is something that should be commended. He has the uncanny knack of talking about gay issues with such candor and honesty that it endears not only the gay community but also us heterosexuals because for the most part a lot of the themes are universal. Growing pains, identity crises, sexual exploration and the overall journey from teenage years to ‘becoming a full-fledged adult’ are all themes that everyone has in common. These are not emotional journeys that are exclusive to the gay community.
Passionate Acts Shake It Up [by Sharu Delilkan]
“Not Shakespeare again” I thought en-route to the preview of Passionate Acts, Grae Burton’s and Alistair Browning’s scenes of passion from Shakespeare’s most popular plays. Driving up the entrance to the magnificent Pa Homestead I lamented how and why Shakespeare persists when there is so much modern and contemporary excellence around, some of which hardly gets a look in by the crowds that William himself can pull in [grouch].
On entering the hallway I realised what a total Richard III I was being, as Grae Burton (the producer) and Maxine Cunliffe (front of house manager) welcomed us, explained the order of the day and deftly directed us to the drinks table. After some chatter in the foyer and a look around at the amazing Ian Scott’s paintings on show in the adjacent gallery, we soon settled in and took our seats on the covered back terrace with our food hampers to begin the show.
Featuring an ensemble cast of truly established and emerging actors, I have to say the choice of snippets from Shakespeare lightened my anxiety and utterly engaged me throughout.
It was obvious from the get-go that all the actors would have been challenged throughout the rehearsal process given the multiple roles they had to take on – but take it on they did with gusto, professionalism, humour and the occasional use of brand new technology.
At no point did I feel excluded or overwhelmed by the language due to the astute and well-timed delivery and seeming comfort of the actors with each other, and the varied material.
The six strong cast led by actor, creator Burton and actor director Browning kept us audience members on our toes throughout the evening. They darted in and out of view from all directions as we sat on the balcony in the sculpture garden in the first half and then did the same again with a little bit of variation in the second half. The setting of Pah Homestead was given great prominence as we watched the actors spout their Shakespeare with utter dramatic and comedic precision.
I'm a big fan of site-specific theatre and using Pah Homestead in an innovative way did that in spades. I’m glad to hear that Sir James Wallace wants this to be the first of many live performances at this amazing location – if only there were more places in Auckland that opened their doors to us theatre practitioners it could well be a solution to the age old problem of limited venues to stage theatre!
There was no doubt that SHAKEITUP! comprised a great ensemble of both seasoned and emerging actors that provided the audience with a range of acting talent at its best. To be honest I started off thinking that some of the actors were far superior to others, given their previous experience, but ended up feeling that there was an element of levelling when the younger actors were given their chance to shine in the more forgiving of Shakespearean pieces such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Passionate Acts does exactly what it says on the tin. It features accessible bite-sized scenes from some of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. These include Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Richard III, Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It, Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It was a treat to see actress Donogh Rees and Browning jousting with one another on stage. I could hear a little voice inside my head saying “that’s how you play Shakespeare!” and Burton’s serious as well as comedic dramatisations were equally impressive, making the whole experience extremely entertaining. The other three actors Katherine Kennard, Jason Hodzelmans and recent Auckland Actors Program graduate Moana McArtney all distinguished themselves in equal measure throughout the evening with the various roles their played. Acting-wise the bar was set very high by the dependability and excellence of Browning and Rees – the latter especially oozing sex appeal as Cleopatra and the former excelling in all sorts of roles from Princely Kings to lowly shepherds. Burton never failed to astound with some hilarious roles as Petruchio and Malvolio but instantly transformed into Benedick and the malevolent and seductive Richard III (the King I mean). Both Kennard and McArtney sparked off each other beautifully in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hodzelmans as Lysander was awesomely confused and conflicted as well as being playful in all his other roles.
For me it was the choice of what to show and when to stop that was most inspired, giving us a glimpse of the versatility of the Bard without being flippant and “only doing the best bits”.
Adding to the magical evening were so many factors – the beautiful surroundings; the falling of dusk; the passerby kids peering over the hedge in the background stopping to watch, the automatic lights coming on at just the right time as Anthony dies in Cleopatra’s arms; the sculptures in the background; as well as the sheer grace and enthusiasm of the front of house team – I could go on, but I think I already have.
To be honest before attending I was expecting an adulterated compilation of Shakespeare that had the potential to be less than the sum of its parts. In reality I was being a bit of a ‘Bottom’. For those that love Shakespeare and those that have never seen his work, I recommend you see this fun, poignant production – it may even get you hooked on this genre!
The setting, the talent and the clear passion that has gone into Passionate Acts is obvious for all to see. When I initially thought ‘not another Shakespeare’ I was wrongly correct as this is not just ‘another Shakespeare’. This is Shakespeare I could relax with, enjoy the language and enjoy NZers doing it fabulously in a beautiful NZ setting.
SHAKEITUP! presents Passionate Acts and plays at Pah Homestead, TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre, 72 Hillsborough Rd, Auckland until 22 February. More information at SHAKEITUP!
Lantern truly illuminates [by Sharu Delilkan]
Right from the get-go the acting is ballsy and confident – in yer face and full of pace. Chye-Ling Huang and James Roque play off each other nicely and clearly believe and/or personally identify with the key themes and characters of the play. Coming from Malaysia where Chinese New Year is a big part of my culture, even though I’m of Indian/Sri Lankan descent, I was excited about the premise of this production. Like all festive celebrations Chinese New Year is a time where families get together, there is an attempt to settle old scores and wipe the slate clean. And that is most definitely the underlying storyline that underpins Lantern to its core.
These themes provide amusing and poignant insight into being Chinese and being labelled Chinese in New Zealand – a country that calls itself multi-cultural but often doesn’t measure up in its throwaway comments, assumptions and well meant ignorance. Not that the narrative is whingey or complaining in an way, in fact much to the contrary. A majority of the story comes from simple sibling rivalry and the craziness that all teenagers endure along with growing pains.
Aptly being staged during the Auckland Lantern Festival, this two-hander is delivered intelligently by emerging talents Huang and Roque, under the astute direction of Eli Matthewson and Hamish Parkinson. While the central characters that they play are brother and sister Ken and Jen, they also play a raft of other characters including their senile father Henry and estranged mother Rose. Although both Roque and Huang display great talent in their delivery I must admit at times I found the delineation between characters a little loose – something that can be easily refined with a bit more direction. That being said I must commend the quick character changes, especially during the Chinese New Year's Eve dinner scene, which were impressively slick given that it was the opening night show.
Scot problems [by Matt Baker]
Shakespeare wrote for an aural audience; he doesn’t show, he tells. Accordingly, an actor’s vocal articulation is as an integral element of their performance as much as their understanding of the text. Fortunately, I know Macbeth as a text. I say fortunately, because had I not, I doubt I would have understood much of what was going on in the Young Auckland Shakespeare Company’s production. Take into account the fact that Macbeth is essentially a psychological and political thriller, and my concern is that an audience member of the YASC production without former knowledge of the play would be left equally in the dark in regards to the actual plot.
Oscar Wilson’s decision to play the role with a Scottish accent may certainly have been the key to him finding his performance, however, the degree of accuracy resulted in an incredibly inarticulate one. While the dark Scottish vowels give Wilson access to Macbeth’s emotionality, it unfortunately means nothing if the audience cannot hear the words. The irony of completely missing the last word of the tomorrow soliloquy is not lost.
Sex is awkwardly thrown into the production. Though it is well handled by Wilson and Albertine Jonas, and highlights the unified passion of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the witch’s brief lesbian kiss, and Ross and Lady Macduff’s incomprehensible petting come across as nothing more than inexplicable exploits. This unjustified sexuality is emphasised most in Murdoch Keane’s Porter. While the character is primarily the comic relief in an otherwise haunting thriller, a deadpan stand-up comedian rather than a gaudy comic would be more in keeping with the ethos of the material.