I have never seen an Auckland audience react in quite the way they responded to Richard O’Brien’s entrance in the recent season of Rocky Horror Show at the Civic. Richard strides on, dazzling in a Gaultier denim coat tails, opens his mouth to utter the Narrator’s immortal line “I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey...", but the audience wouldn't let him speak!
We clapped, cheered and hollered, on end… here was the Richard O’Brien, a kiwi made good, (damn what immigration say), finally bringing his world-famous cult show home. The man who wrote ‘The Time Warp’ and originated the role of Riff Raff, had to raise his hands and settle the audience down. He seemed overwhelmed, his “Thankyou”, genuine. Richard was home.
Rocky Horror was the audience experience of last year. The audience was filled with Riff Raffs, Frank-N-Furters, Columbias, Magentas and Transylvanians of all kinds. Everyone was ready to party. Some came ready for audience participation, made famous by the late night Rocky Horror film screenings. Newspapers were lifted over heads when Brad and Janet got out of the car in ‘There’s a light’, and flashlights were at a ready when the song hit the chorus. Rice was thrown repeatedly throughout the show, often landing in my shirt!
Rocky Horror virgins would have been forgiven for wondering what strange disease had taken over the Civic… we were acting so unlike normal Auckland theatre audiences and actually having fun! By the end of Opening Night the entire audience was doing up doing the Time Warp with Richard and cast. The second time I ventured to the show, a late night Friday performance, made opening night look like we were under sedation. There were even more whacky costumes, even more participators, and it only took as long as the first few lines of the first Time Warp before all of us were jumping to the left in the aisles.
Juan Jackson, an operatically trained African American, was not a typical choice for Frank-N-Furter – there was little trace of Curry Camp, and his muscle tones made Rocky look rather puny in comparison - but he was a bold and original take that grew on me substantially. New Zealand’s own Kristian Lavercombe more than rose to the challenge of performing a very droll Riff Raff alongside the show’s creator. And Richard was… Richard. Delivering it straight, he revelled in being onstage, and rocked out with an electric guitar for the finale.
There was something delightful too about how simple the staging was – levels were achieved by ladders that moved across the stage, Brad and Janet’s car were pushed by the ‘Phantoms’ and different sized models of Frank-N-Furter’s house showed us we were getting closer to the debauchery. The producers of this version of Rocky wanted to get closer to the original production, without the bells and whistles and extra jokes that had been added over the years, where it debuted at the Royal Court’s ‘Theatre Upstairs’ to an audience of 62 in 1973.
Rocky Horror, of course, should never have worked on paper. The narrative – about a newly engaged couple getting trapped in the house of a sexually liberated alien –is admittedly bizarre. The show isn’t very long. Just as it gets itself going, interval hits. But the stage show, and the film, tapped into something that saw it running and running. It seemed to offer outsiders, with the message ‘Don’t Dream it, be it’, a place and community to belong to and be themselves. Richard theorises it’s about the show’s root mythologies. Certainly for me, I always saw it as being something very special, and while it may not be the best… it is hands down my favourite musical. Kristian Lavercombe, when I interviewed him, reckoned “ It teaches you basically to be yourself no matter what other people think, and I think that’s why it has been so popular over the years because it challenges you to stand up for who you are and be different, and to be proud to be different.”. Rocky Horror is of course so utterly mainstream these days years that a whole episode of TV’s megasmash Glee was devoted to it, and they even released their own (censored) album of the show’s songs.
I had the fortune of meeting Richard at the show’s afterparty. Everyone wanted a piece of him. A lady was trying to sell him on the merits of the electronic cigarette. Rocky’s brilliant publicist and Magenta look-alike Sandra Roberts gave me an introduction. Richard self-deprecating played down the experience. He thought Opening Night had gone well, but his role hadn’t been much – he just stood where the director told him to stand. He signed my programme, with a devilish look in his he defaced the cover like a naughty school, making Janet an Angel and Brad a devil. I asked if it would be kosher to give him a hug, he was amused. I did so, and couldn’t help myself giving him a quick kiss on his wonderfully shiny head as I thanked him one last time. In that moment my professionalism had all but given out to fan boyism, but how else can you thank the original creator of the Rocky Horror show? I wasn’t about to break into the Time Warp in front of him that’s for sure!
A month before I met him in person, I rang Richard in his house in London and had a very in-depth interview with him. It was late for me, early in the morning for him. He had just finished looking over last night’s crossword, trying to solve the last clues. He hoped that his interview wouldn’t send me to sleep. There was no danger to that.
Just quietly, I’m really rather excited about 2011 in theatre. Its early days, sure, but there are a heck of a lot of upcoming shows that are definitely on my theatrical radar. My theadar if you will. Here’s what is making it go ping!
Auckland Fringe is starting in a month. This upstart alternative festival launched in 2009 with 75 shows after the theatrical community realized that since Wellington’s had one for ages, there is no excuse for Auckland to not have one for themselves , and, while we were at it, to do it better. Fringe 2011 is out, and boasts quite the smorgasbord with over 100 arts events this time around. Tickets are cheap, and there is much to taste.
Shows that have caught my eye:
Deep in the Forest: A Cautionary Cabaret gets points for the most provocative poster… Nic Sampson is a funny guy and has two shows None Tree Hill and Feel Felt Found… international comedy show The Hermitude of Angus, Ecstatic is a ‘read-along’ comedy… The team behind the excellent Kafka’s The Trial in the lower levels of the Aotea a few years back have come up with When Animals dream of sheep – ‘an outdoor spectacle in an inner city park’… Isla and Josephine, who skewed high school culture in Fringe 09’s Ruby Tuesday, return with Chalk, promising to skewer retirement home culture!... Playwright Thomas Sainsbury acts in his own play Joseph and Mahina… Man Bits will teach you how to do knitting at the end of the show, Motherlock is a fascinating one-woman show… The Sex Show is a show about… sex, evidently... Rebel Alliance throw out a challenge with Standstill, telling us nothing about the show and asking us to 'take a chance'... and Opera and Theatre are set for an epic showdown as two competing versions of ‘The Turn of the Screw’ go head to head (or stay home and read the novella?)
Auckland Festival has been growing, and growing, and growing and now have a fancy added ‘Arts’ in between ‘Auckland’ and ‘Festival’ this year (So Auckland Arts Festival if that’s not clear). This year I am especially pleased to see such a big emphasis on original New Zealand work, as well as the amazing array of international works that we wouldn’t normally see otherwise.
Festival gives Red Leap Theatre Company something many others don’t get – the investment in time and resources to create stunningly original theatre works. After their international success with the Festival 09 hit The Arrival, they are back with Paper Sky A love story… Massive, an increasing force with their awesome ensemble work have Havoc in the Garden… Oliver Driver gets to go crazy with local artists in Live Live Cinema: Carnival of Souls , making up a live soundtrack from an old black and white film… If you ever wanted to see Bolivian theatre, now you can with La Odisea… the Manganiyars traditionally play for Kings, now they are playing for you in The Manganiyar Seduction… The Interminable suicide of Gregory Church has quite the intriguing title… If Beckett is your thing there are two stage adaptations of his stories First Love and The End with from an authentic Irish company!...Vietnamese Water Puppets (!) take over Aotea Square… I stupidly missed out on the team behind Smoke&Mirrors last time due to their sold out season in the Speigeltent but cannot let his happen this time… and in a personal plug, The Show Must Go On is an unconventional dance show with a soundtrack of classic pop hits.
Auckland Theatre Company has a very strong, kiwi dominated season this year. First up they resurrect a classic New Zealand play Well Hung and are certainly pushing the innuendo… Raymond Hawthorne directs Poor Boy, with music by Tim Finn... Theatre Queens Robyn Malcom and Elizabeth Hawthorne promise the smack down of the year in Mary Stuart… RED has had an amazing critical response overseas, and I’m looking forward to seeing Outrageous Fortune’s Grant Bowler onstage… On the upside down of the world re-examines the Pakeha colonial existence… older ladies get their kit off in Calendar Girls – hot!... and Bruce Mason’s masterpiece The End of the Golden Weather is performed in a company version with Nic Sampson and Keisha Castle-Hughes.
No big international Musicals have been announced yet, but I’ll be keeping a watching eye on that. Wicked is overdue to come here of course…
Looking back at all the theatre I saw in 2010, some very palpable images linger in my mind. Jennifer Ward-Lealand in a bed. Jennifer Ludlam on the floor. Robyn Malcom in a mound of dirt. A horse’s arse in a doorway. Edward Newborn eating a banana. Richard O’Brien up a ladder with a crown on his head.
Some of course I’d like to forget. Michael Hurst under strobe light wearing a phallus. The image still burns.
2010 began with the Arts Community getting behind Australian import The Short+Sweet festival and a month of short 10minute plays. It was a mixed bag for sure, but introduced many talented and emerging people to the scene, as did The Young & Hungry Festival.
It must be said that Jennifer Ward-Lealand (whose legs I have forever admired) had a very good year in theatre (but don’t mention the war...!), memorably bringing life three different characters throughout the year. She dobbed a French accent for Dave Armstrong’s brilliant farce Le Sud.
“New Zealand dodged a bullet in 1838. A French-speaking, garlic-smelling, beret-wearing bullet to be precise. If it wasn’t for a quirk of history, this review might be written in French, talking about a brilliant satiric play about what Nouvelle-Zélande would have been like if it had been colonized by the English…” ( Le Sud Craccum Review)
Jennifer then shone in the meaty role of the mother in Silo Theatre’s That Face, in which the Oedipal complex was played out it reverse.
“But it is Jennifer’s mother that dominates – a truly disturbing creation. Manipulative, battling mental illness, she tries to exert control of her son’s life… She gets drunk, talks to herself, rips up a bouquet of flowers like a toddler, and even perversely encourages her son to dress up in her clothes…. There is a creepy undercurrent of attraction directed towards her son…If all this sounds considerably over-the-top, it isn’t onstage; Jennifer’s matriarchal monster is all too real.” (That Face Craccum Review)
And in August: Osage County she bought great life to the harassed older sister Barbara. But it was another Jennifer – Jennifer Ludlam who stole the show, in her stand out role as the matriarch of the Weston family (“a world-class performance completely in her own league”) in what really was a stand-out and world class production from ATC and director Colin McColl.
“You’d be forgiven in thinking the playwright Tracy Letts must have done something revolutionary. He hasn’t. What he has done is created some very compelling characters, placed them in a boiler room of a situation and told a damn good story…. It goes to show how rare it is for the elements to come together and to see a play on stage that thrills, moves you, and catches you entirely…” (August: Osage County Craccum Review)
Other favorites include Charlie Brown going to the dark side in Dog Sees God, Baxter vs Morrieson in Horseplay, Thomas Sainsbury's crazy Britney dancing in Dance Troupe Supreme, the brilliantly told The Intricate Art of Actually Caring, Bruce Phillips in A View from the Bridge, and Edward Newborn revisiting a role 25 years later in the haunting Krapp’s Last Tape.
ATC offered a new spin on The Importance of Being Earnest, absurdism divided audiences in Happy Days, and Oliver Driver in Thom Pain offered “one of the most intensely frustrating theatrical experiences of my year.” (Craccum Review not online)
As an unashamed lover of the Musical Theatre razzmatazz, 2010 was heaven. We were treated to naughty puppets in the Australian company tour of Avenue Q:
“I’m always surprised about how real puppets can seem sometimes… there is something charming about the art form and I think audiences kind of do want to believe. You know it’s working when your heart strings are being tugged by a puppet with a human hand up its ass…” (Avenue Q Craccum Review)
Soundheim featured twice, Jesse Peach’s Sweeney Todd played at the Maidment, and Silo Theatre utterly transformed the Town Hall Concert Chamber and pointed guns into audience members’ faces for the Driver directed Assassins.
"The values of the American Dream are slaughtered, and when the Dream is shown to be baseless, what is left for those left behind? The answer is painted on big letters at the back of the stage: Shoot a Prez.... The play then is incredibly subversive and audiences will delight in these entertaining assassins. The play’s masterstroke is to get us to clap each time an American President is shot as the production numbers climax" (Assassins Craccum Theatre)
Auckland Music Theatre produced a spirited production of RENT that was ultimately not Civic Theatre ready, and I found 42nd Street derivative. The South African production of Grease relied too heavily on nostalgia.
In Michael Hurst’s Cabaret we crossed the threshold of the Spiegeltent to enter a completely new world where the men are built like Atlas, the women wear next to nothing, and the insidious Nazi philosophy grows in the background. It was a wholely new and theatrically enthralling take on Cabaret, and well deserved its extended and extended season.
And Richard O’Brien returned to New Zealand in his Rocky Horror Show, the audience’s approval halting the show whenever he came on. Normally reticent Auckland audiences were dressed up and ready to party and participate. The most fun I have ever had as an audience member.
2011: You have a lot to live up to.
Tommorow I will preview what is on my radar for upcoming theatre this year.
The Polish Theatre Director Grotowski reckoned that all you need to create theatre is one spectator, and one performer. That’s theatre. Simple.
Theatre is a survivor. Overcoming radical cultural change, political censorship, mangled Shakespeare productions and the rise and rise of film media, something about the art sees it arriving - still fighting - in Auckland, NZ in 2011.
And fight it does. Theatre has to continually reinvent itself and demand its relevance. Ancient Athens stopped for days to attend the theatre. The only ‘theatre’ that can stop New Zealand is the Rugby World Cup. It used to be your duty to attend the theatre. Now it’s a luxury. It is just one option in an ever expanding range of choices in how we can spend our precious time and money. Financially successful shows depend on subsidies to top up the box office; truly commercial theatre is a rarity.
So why theatre? Why Now? What can theatre do that other things can’t?
I am starting this blog – Theatre Scenes - to find out.
Auckland theatre is in exciting times. Grounded by the dependable Auckland Theatre Company, a host of independent theatre companies have sprung up offering risky and original theatre. The year is kicking off with a bang with both the Auckland Festival and the Auckland Fringe Festival. This is the time to see live theatre in Auckland.
This blog will offer alternative, independent reviews and commentary of Auckland’s theatre scenes – be it professional, independent, traditional, or completely unconventional, as well as in-depth interviews with theatre practitioners. I want to know how different artists work and why they choose theatre.
Theatre cannot exist without an audience. Neither can this blog. Please join me on this journey.
If you have a production you would like to be reviewed, or would like to suggest something to be featured on Theatre Scenes, please email firstname.lastname@example.org