Taking the Risk [by James Wenley]
“…It was this lack of “weight” (a not too easily defined term which an actor, if not a member of the audience, would understand) that Mr George Henare needs to work on if he wishes to pursue the acting profession. His is a good, powerful voice, he has strong features… yet a lot of these advantages are dissipated by his unsureness in terms of movement, distribution of body-emphasis, and… style.” – Review of Awatea
It would be a brave reviewer indeed who would dare to write such sacrilegious words about Mr George Henare today. That was George Webby, in 1968, in an across-the-board withering attack on the original stage production of Bruce Mason’s Awatea. For Auckland Theatre Company’s 2012 revival, Sharu Delikan called Henare’s acting “flawless” and “truly inspired”, with Henare coming full circle to play blind patriarch Werihe Paku, whose son Matt Henare performed as in 1968. 2012 was a year that in many ways belonged to Henare, with headline performances in Awatea, Peach Theatre Company’s Death of a Salesman, and Educating Rita for the new Newmarket Theatre Company. Henare stocked up on the actor carbs to deliver three weighty performances indeed, along with a lightness of touch and twinkle in the eye, it was breathtaking to see Henare at work.
As I embarked this year on a Masters project looking at forgotten ‘landmark’ New Zealand plays from the 40-70s, Awatea defined my year. I went ‘behind enemy lines’ to see a little of that production come together. 2012 was a year I had one foot in the past, and one in the present. What would 2012 look like, in several decades time?
Playing it (un)safe
It was a conversation with Ben Anderson following his show Like Smoke in Here which got me thinking about the level of experimentation going on in Auckland theatre. I interviewed him upon the publishing of “New Zealand’s first graphic play” The Suicidal Airplane. His work tends to play within a ‘visual’ and absurd world: Smoke is set in a house with a ‘slow-burning’ fire, and as the water has stopped working, a woman makes lemon juice to daub the furniture. The slow spread of the fire is conveyed by ripping large sheets of paper, which Anderson says took hours to put up each night. His This Kitchen is Not Imaginary earlier in the year contained “tenderness, shadow puppetry, self doubt, paper airplanes, strength, sharks, determination, boats, seduction, triffid-sirens and eventual normalcy”. I found things I loved – and hated – about both plays. You know going in you will walk out with a strong reaction after seeing an Anderson work. Sharu, on This Kitchen writes:
“I found my brain racing trying to make sense of it all – like those early moon-gazers that saw a man’s face in the moon I tried to construct intelligent themes of self doubt, isolation, fighting over demons, homosexuality and fear of rejection. Just like in the last century when everyone was convinced they saw canals on Mars, it was so easy to try to interpret and pretend to know. But to be honest in the end I realised it was okay that I really didn’t know.” (This Kitchen Is Not Imaginary)
Anderson pushes against and challenges an Auckland theatre scene he sees as safe, conventional, comfortable.
The first place to look for theatre of this kind would be Auckland Theatre Company, still relatively young in their 20th year, who cater for a broad and mainstream audience. Roger Hall has become part of New Zealand’s theatre DNA, and a Roger Hall at Sky City Theatre has been a conventional fall-back for ATC. Watching A Shortcut to Happiness, as I expressed in my review (No Shortcuts here), I felt more acutely than ever that I wasn’t the demographic for the play, Hall’s audience had aged along with him and still enjoy his output.. Dave Armstrong has often been compared to Hall, but his humour has a nastier streak. The Motor Camp (Bringing back the cultural cringe) seemed to play everywhere in New Zealand last year, and made its Auckland stop at the top of ATC’s program. They then got a little risqué with Sarah Ruhl’s international hit In the Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play) (A Play In Need of Its Own Treatment). Classic Shakespeare A Midsummer Night’s Dream, had the unconventional casting of Raymond Hawthorne as Puck, but the production became as confused as the lovers (Fancy a Puck?). The Gift by Australian Joanna Murray-Smith had a big (secret) reveal (The Gift of the gab).
It is these shows that allow ATC to make riskier programming choices. In 2012, that show was Eli Kent’s Black Confetti. Kent’s Thinning had been produced for ATC’s Young & Hungry program, and his excellent The Intricate Art of Actually Caring had toured New Zealand. But here was Kent, rocking the show poster, the ‘hot new thing’, the ‘voice of a generation’ in ATC’s mainbill program. Kent’s nihilistic play of drug use, daddy issues, 20-something coasting, and a large hole in the stage , had some audience members failing to return after the interval (no bad thing!).
Rosabel wrote that the play had:
“..imagery so startling or beautiful that it tugs at you long after you’ve seen it. And the quality of the writing is something worth noticing… which give credence to ATC’s bold claim that Kent is the voice of a generation. There is the odd occasion when the writing feels like it wants too badly to be quoted on some dude’s Facebook page. I suspect this is, at least in part, because the play experiments so ambitiously with genre, scratching so many surfaces at once.” (Shivering and Shaking; The Glittery Black)
Out of all the plays to debut this year, I would venture Kent’s will be deemed the most significant in years to come when his oeuvre is studied. I felt like I was watching a very important ‘early work’, still finding his voice, and an audience still finding him. I also believe the definitive production is yet to come; the casting and direction was off-kilter, and the ending striking a discordant tone. I look forward to seeing where this one goes next.
Awatea was not necessarily a sure thing either. Though ATC had enjoyed the kudos and box office success of Bruce Mason revivals The Pohutakawa Tree and The End of the Golden Weather, Awatea, which was accused of being patronising in its day, remains a problematic play, putting the brunt of the Act Three revelation and reversal on the shoulders of Henare and Geraldine Brophy. While the play has the hallmarks of tragedy, Mason leaves the audience with a hopeful ending akin to wish-fulfilment, seeing a possible future for Matt as a Maori writer. John Gibson composed a new waiata to end the production, using text from Mason translated into Te Reo by Te Kohe Tuhaka. Awatea is about truth, and two worlds trying to understand one another. The curtain call on opening night was special: greeted by both a standing ovation, and an emotional and spontaneous waiata. Sharu writes: “The Ngati Porou anthem Paikea was indeed an apt response to the amazing performance, which needless to say left ne’er a dry eye” (Awatea Shines Brightly). With Awatea in 2012, we are invited to question the extent our understandings have changed since Awatea’s pre-Maori renaissance day, and the extent that Mason’s hopeful ending was realised.
ATC also continue to do good work with their youth orientated programs, mixing it up with the Next Big Thing Festival which included well-acted Tusk Tusk, and supremely silly Checkout Checks (Meaty Drama, Sweet Musical). AND, in what in the final reflection is my most cherished theatre memory of the year, getting to sleep overnight at The Basement. That show was Sleepover, which had space for only 40 audience members over two nights, and I was the sole reviewer.
This has to be the one of the strangest shows I have had to review; as the night went on the small audience became an important performer in the show itself. And it was the longest – we were there from 10:30 to collect our Sleepover Lanyards and meet our fellow audience members, the ‘show’ started at 11pm, and we went to bed around 3am, struggled to sleep, then awakening circa 7am and getting kicked out of the venue at 8:30am. (The show that sent me to Sleep)
Sleepover was conceived by writer/actor/director Chris Neels, who also delivered with The Seven Funerals of Charlie Morris (Dying of Laughter). Neels is currently training in London, and Auckland will be poorer for his absence in the short term.
Silo did not play it safe this year. For one, it was hard to tell their shows apart with their posters a jumble of body parts (nipple!) and pink wash. Even their show titles had a minimalist conformity: Top Girls, The Pride, Private Lives, Tribes, Brel… If that wasn’t enough, there was a shared thematic concern as well; as Janet McAllistar observes her in her round-up Bouquets and Brickbats, Silo’s 1-2-3 punch Girls, Tribe, and Pride put minorities centre-stage – a “bold piece of programming”. Girls “wasn’t just thought-provoking, it’s brilliantly realised and a hell of a lot of fun” and Rosabel enjoyed the “great eighties soundtrack” (You Can Be a Successful Woman, Too! (Terms and Conditions Apply)). That play opened with a revolving table dinner scene with woman from history, but Silo did one better in Tribes with a short, sharp jolt into a noisy family dinner, everyone speaking over the top of everyone, “a revealing mixture of affection, annoyance and mocking that close familiarity breeds… But everyone? Billy, watching, processing, becomes my figure of attention, for the family are all but ignoring him. He says little, save for an odd “What are you talking about?”. Leon Wadham’s deaf Billy was one of the stand-out performances of the year in a play, that while perhaps too thematically earnest at times, was a rewarding and powerfully moving production:
“The play’s clever masterstroke is surtitles projecting large on the stage’s back wall. Initially for the translation of sign, its use expands to take in subtext – what is really meant – as well as body language – what is unsaid, but definitely expressed. We are reminded to watch for the totality of expression – sign and language are never enough in themselves.” (Now how to express my experience?)
At the end of my 2011 Theatrical Year in Review, I noted the phasing out of the term ‘theatre’ and the perceived constrictions of its term. ‘Performance’, equally loaded, seems to be its replacement judging by The New Performance Festival. Supported by The Edge, and curated by Stephen Bain, there was an attempt to make it a true event in an off-festival year with a bar and festival hub within the Aotea Centre, but Aucklanders perhaps weren’t ready for it, and it went off like a damp squib. Another problem that in placing the best of experimental performance within the behemoth bowels of the Aotea Centre, the space itself destroyed some of what made those shows special. Dance Like a Butterfly Dreamboy was incredible though on the roof of the Aotea Centre, and the Festival did treat me to my second-favourite theatrical experience of the year, Call Cutta in a Box:
“…I enter a small room containing a desk, computer, pot plant, and couch. A phone rings. I pick it up. A voice says “Kiora”. The play begins… The voice on the other end introduces himself as Suman. He says he’s calling from Kolkata. He knows my name. He begins to strike up a conversation. He asks me if I’m nervous. I say I’m not. He said that my voice sounds like I’m not. He asks if I’d like any tea. He says he can make some for me. A kettle starts to boil as if by magic…” (Pick Up the Phone)
Bathing with Elephants and other Exotic Reveries, a “cross-bred exotic performance” was created especially for spaces within Auckland’s mighty Civic Theatre, which was ‘dark’ in January, and the audience were taken on a unique, and bizarre, tour of the Civic. Memorable sights included peeping into the backstage preperations of Vaudeville chorus girls from Civic’s past, and a deep sea encounter between a Whale and a Giant Squid. This was a treat.
Nisha Madhan, who was involved with the New Performance Festival and Elephants, performed a mash up of Sam Shepherd’s Cowboy Mouth and her own Love it Up. Matt Baker observes:
“It is not traditional theatre, but, with this team of traditionally trained artists, it gives experimental theatre a strong and justified foothold.” (A Bittersweet Mouthful)
These all blurred the lines between different art forms, proving audiences had many avenues for alternative fare if they were prepared to take a risk.
After tours overseas (and more to come), Auckland hosted welcome return seasons of Red Leap’s The Arrival (Astounding Journey Continues), and Indian Ink’s Guru of Chai (Perfect Theatrical Blend), and Krishnan’s Dairy, still remarkable after 15 years.
Sharu had a personal connection with Dairy:
When my husband Tim and I moved here almost 10 years ago Krishnan’s Dairy was the first live theatre show we saw. It not only left an indelible memory of theatre at its best but it was one of the key motivations why we decided to stay in New Zealand. Having come from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong we did not know whether there would be enough around to satisfy us as culture vultures. Indian Ink Theatre Company’s original ingenious production allayed those fears and made us feel we could live here and make a go of it. (Indian ‘Ink’redible)
These are world-class works, telling their (brilliant) stories with ingenuity, and the magic ingredient: love.
2012 also saw the massive achievement of the Maori Troilus and Cressida being performed at London’s Globe Theatre for The Globe to Globe Olympic Festival. We were lucky enough to see it here at the Town Hall before seeing it off, and it was some of the best Shakespeare in years. Translated to classical Maori and set sometime in Aotearoa’s past, I couldn’t understand a word of it, but I understood it, communicated through passionate performance, haka, and a mincing Rawiri Patene, it was a stunning achievement by director Rachel House and cast (Sharu interviewed Rachel House before she left).
In a cultural exchange of another sort, Sir Ian McKellan bought his solo show to Auckland to raise money for Christchurch’s Theatre. Beginning by reading the Balrog sequence from Tolkien (“You shall not pass”, in person!) he took audience questions and dedicated the second half of the show entirely to Shakespeare. I can now say I’ve acted with Sir Ian too, joining other audience members onstage to perform a scene as dead soldiers.
Auckland theatre makers held their breath when it was announced Jersey Boys was hitting The Civic in April, then asked for oxygen when they heard Mary Poppins was flying into town in October. After no mega-musicals in 2011, Auckland got two of them.
A staggering 100,000+ Aucklanders saw Jersey Boys (The Good kind of Jersey) and it was the largest grossing Musical in a decade, and a Poppins press release screamed opening ticket sales had broken The Edge records. But were Aucklanders also seeing local work? It seems every year more and more shows are being put on this city. This was the first full year Q was in operation, and that space was hungry for shows. The Basement were programming shows upstairs and downstairs. Short+Sweet ran for three weeks for the first time. From the second-half of the year especially, there was a feeling that audiences – and wallets – were being spread too thin.
While Q as a venue still seems to be defining its purpose, as a hub it is the place to be before or after a show, and the Q bar is buzzing each night during peak time. As well as playing host to some of Auckland’s established companies, they presented with Taki Rua the revival of John Broughton’s Michael James Manaia about a Maori man’s journey to, and from, the Vietnam War. It’s still as bold, and challenging, as it must have been at its debut, and the ending left me reeling, as it did Sharu:
Our friends at Q had warned us that the show had had a profound effect on audiences. To which we replied arrogantly “We’re hardened theatregoers” – and boy were we wrong and we now can confess that we’re not as hardened as we thought. (Raw, real and rewarding).
In Q’s Rangatira, Massive Company had eight men bare their souls onstage in the deeply personal The Brave:
The show is much more about these eight men, or men in general. In opening up themselves, they challenge and inspire us in turn to consider how we define ourselves, what we hold dear, who we respect, how we live our lives, and just what we might say if we were the ones up there onstage. (Bravery the Massive Way)
Q’s best treat was The Triumphants, a double bill of …And Then You Die by Thomas Sainsbury performed by Aidee Walker, and Renee Lyon’s one-woman show Nick. Die is standard fare, but Lyons’ Nick is a moving true story about Dunedin’s Nick Chisholm, a sportsman and adrenalin junkie who suffered a major stroke during a Rugby match in 2000 which left in a condition called ‘locked in syndrome’ – unable to move or speak, it was believed he was brain dead. Lyons delivered his story of adversity with sensitivity, cheek, charm and theatrical flair, and I hope we haven’t seen the last of it (I interviewed Renee about her journey making the show).
The Basement did well with touring productions of verbatim theatre The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later (Aged Perfectly), and the brilliant Manawa (Do the Time), which waits until the end to sucker-punch its audience. Michael Hurst packed The Basement with his existential solo-Shakespeare Bard’s Day Night which packed Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear AND Michael Hurst into one show:
We already know that Hurst is one of our best, but just to prove it again, he gives us this performance. It’s his skill that makes this fly, swapping between character, bawdy and pathos with swiftness and ease. There’s something really kiwi too, for our pre-eminent Shakespeare actor, to dress up in tights and perform at The Basement. Hurrah (Shakespeare Nerd’s Dream).
Stephen Papps also bought a meta-theatrical ‘solo+1’ show Third Person Tense, which was “not to be missed” (First person pro).
I’ve been wanting to see Joseph Harper’s work for a long time, and happily he put two of his works together in one evening at The Basement Studio in Tiny Spectacle /Shitty Lyricism. Honey saw Harper and Virginia Frankovich dripping with honey, The Boy and the Bicycle had Harper up a ladder a tale of depression mundane and tragic. Harper has a style – acting, writing, visuals – all to his own and worth seeking out.
Also at The Basement: Lumiere Reviewer Sam Brooks is a playwright with a distinct voice in the double bill of Goddess and Mab’s Room (New Voice, Amplified), Eigengrau was a show no-one could pronounce but everyone loved, especially Michelle Blundell’s tormented karaoke rendition of Total Eclipse of the Heart (More than black and white), the first class of The Actors Program also made an impact with 13 (Challenge Accepted), and Auckland went Dotcom crazy in the potluck Mega Christmas (The Dotcom Show).
Mangere Arts Centre continues to deliver a strong program of Pasifika Theatre including Birds, His Mother’s Son, Taro King, A Heart’s Path and A Frigate Bird Sings.
TAPAC featured the classy Copenhagen (Physics, History, and the Atomic Bomb) and Beautiful Losers (The Coming and Going of Age). The venue this year was largely community focussed, the best production being Prayas production of contemporary Indian play Rudali the Mourner.
Outfit showcased new talent in Punk Rock (Teen angst on overdrive), new writing in Course Related Costs (Drugs are bad, mmmkay?), new nakedness in their revamped The Sex Show (Pink, Wet, Complicated), but dropped the ball with The Awkward Christmas (The title tells you all).
In November it seemed like every show was a Musical of some description. Poppins was delivering spoonfuls of spectacle in The Civic, ATC’s Little Shop of Horrors was notable for a new design of the famous plant that managed to be both vulvic and testicular, The Likes of a Loveless Dogwasher was the underdog at The Basement, and Matt Baker ravaged Tell me on a Sunday. Then there was not one, but TWO Jacques Brel shows on at the same time: Unitec’s Third Year Actors’ Graduation show Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris, and Silo’s Brel at the Concert Chamber. They were complementary experiences for me.
Only having the vaguest of knowledge of Mr Brel, I came out of Brel intrigued and hungry for more. I was satiated by the Unitec offering, a dark and dirty vision of the ‘desperate ones’, expanded by director Ben Henson (who also impressed with his work with the boys on Titus) to show off the pipes and range of a very talented group of graduating actors. With a richer knowledge of the songs, I went back to Brel for closing night, and it was sublime. Brel is not much different to the original Paris created for four singers, but Michael Hurst and the team curated their own selection of Brel songs to make a beautifully paced theatre-concert, that climaxes in all the right places. Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Tama Waipara were excellent as expected, but how inspired was the casting of the mesmerising Julia Deans and true-rocker Jon Toogood? It was a show that held you by your chest, ripped your heart out, gently kissed it, before placing it back inside and sewing you up. Or at least that’s how I felt.
2012 from a distance
So how will 2012 be judged in years to come? I think it will show a city, increasingly confident in its arts scene, with a wide range of experiences on offer with a band of theatre makers kicking against the conventional. The challenge will be maintaining the momentum and building the theatre-going audience; because Auckland’s theatrical economy can’t sustain lots of shows with empty seats. It’s a challenge for the venues, and the entire industry, and will only increase when Auckland Theatre Company gets their own space.
It will also be interesting to see if another trend in 2012 – crowdfunding theatre- becomes a permanent fixture, audiences taking ownerships of shows by becoming mini-investors. By my count Indian Ink, The Basement, The Laramie Project, Square Eye Pair, The Keepers, Day After Night, I Wish I learned, Munted, Third Person Tense, Douglas Wright’s Rapt and The Maori Troilus and Cressida all benefitted from PledgeMe.co.nz and their ilk, which is a very exciting development.
A final word on Awatea: There’s a fascinating inter-textual collage than can be formed in considering that play, and its ending, to the other Maori themed plays this year: Michael James Manaia, and Manawa, which offer a much more bleak assessment.
Thank you readers for continuing to support Theatre Scenes as we reach our second year anniversary. There’s even more I want to do with this blog next year, including weekly guides with our picks for what’s on, so stay tuned.
This is something we do because we are passionate about theatre in Auckland. Our friends at Theatreview.org.nz (we have been cross-linking our reviews this year) are currently appealing for support to continue the work that they are doing. If you find reviews of New Zealand theatre useful, I urge you to consider donating to Theatreview or joining their Performing Arts Directory.
FOR MORE PERSPECTIVES ON 2012, SEE ALSO: Rosabel Tan’s ‘Ten Things I Enjoyed in Auckland Theatre this Year’ over at the Pantograph Punch
The Lumiere Readers’ ‘The Best of Theatre in 2012‘ (Wellington + Auckland)
NZ Herald’s Bouquets and Brickbats