Present Future-gazing [by James Wenley]
There seems to be a bit of a future-casting trend in recent New Zealand drama. In Shepherd (2015) Gary Henderson painted a disturbing sci-fi vision of a Fiordland farm feeding a hungry world. In Aroha White’s 2080 (2014), New Zealand’s population had exploded by resettling economic refugees in the South Island, and Pacific refugees from climate change in the lower North Island.
2063, devised by the graduating 2015 Unitec actors and directed by Pedro Ilgenfritz, has a very similar premise to White’s play. There must be something in the water. With rising sea levels displacing global populations, New Zealand was a haven that opens it borders to an extra 8 million people. By 2063 there has been a push back against these policies, and the diverse communities that live in the “Southern Lands” are viewed by the New Zealand elites with distrust.
It is encouraging to see a show engaging the refugee crisis, showcasing the power of a devised work to respond rapidly to events that define our epoch. Making a break from Unitec’s graduating productions of recent years, 2063 is presented at Q Theatre, a canny move to have these industry-ready actors seen by a larger audience. The class of the 2015 were the same group that bolstered the ensemble of Jesus Christ Superstar. Earlier this year they performed strong productions of Antony and Cleopatra and The Taming of the Shrew at their home at Unitec.
We begin with Sebastian (Blaise Clotworthy) in 2015, preparing for a reading from Esme (Ava Diakhaby), a psychic. The dialogue between Sebastian and assistant Sacha is perfunctory, but with an air of unease. Esme calls on the spirits not only of Sebastian’s ancestors, but in order to get their plot in motion, also the spirit of his descendants. She begins to reveal the story of Lou (a sparkling Sadia Gordon), his future granddaughter.
Now the ensemble enter, holding garments before them. There’s a song, via the smoky vocals of Diakhaby. “All we do is move” the chorus sing. And now in 2063 we’re into a completely different world to before, both in tone, and acting style. Lou and Frankie (Rhian Firmin), maids from the Southern land in the employ of the Prime Minister of New Zealand, spin and dance as if they are part of a vaudeville routine.
In the City (Auckland, minus areas lost to rising sea levels – sorry Point Chev) we meet outgoing PM Thomas Mackenzie (James Corcoran), a good-natured tosser with a firmly clenched jaw. He’s been replaced through a decision by dark-suited business interests led by a slimy double-act played by Amber Liberte and Grace Augustine. The new Prime Minister Grant Bishop (Tyler Brailey), who wears a well-positioned silver fern on the lapel of his sleek silver jacket, talks proudly of New Zealand having dealt with its colonial past and needing to protect their society. The sense of Bishop as an authoritarian bully is wonderfully undercut by the physical game that Tyler plays, walking rapidly around the stage like a headless chicken, his advisors struggling to keep up, accompanied by a silent-movie tune from the band. It’s totally absurd and brilliant.
The Southern Lands have elected a new leader, Luna (Brianna Smith), a blind visionary given prophet-like status by the people. She’s flanked by an array of her own advisors.
There’s many more characters to explore along the way (I love Trinity Whyte’s no-nonsense customs official Pam), all performed with excellence and with particular physical flourish by the Unitec 3rd years. While the show suffers to an extent in that the characters are made to serve the number of actors, rather than the demands of the story they have to tell, it is off-set by the total ownership the actors have of their work.
The costumes, by Mary Poor and Anna Tarr, are really something to behold: they speak to class, culture, nationalism, and ably capture a retro-futurism. Music, composed by Sarah Nessia, gives the production a unique and eclectic sound style.
The future scenes are an entertaining and epic exercise in world-building. The present day scenes are a chore. The actors, particularly Diakhaby who radiates presence, outshine their material. Too often the interspersed 2015 segments play as expository catch-ups, beating us over the head with 2063 plot points we have already witnessed. As much as Clotworthy tried to weightily tell us that “I can see myself in the story”, the material just doesn’t connect. The continuing presence of Nessia’s character was justified by the claim that she was Sebastian’s “guardian angel”, a revelation that was dropped just as quickly as it arrived. These scenes were laboured with a lack of purpose, a framework that could entirely be jettisoned, at least as they are currently presented to us.
Some of this could be solved with a simple dramaturgical fix. Sebastian has come to the reading because he wants to know if he should stay in Auckland, or leave for an even bigger city (a motivating question only explored on a surface level). While it seems to be there in the subtext, it needs to be made explicit that by moving out of Auckland, Sebastian will set in motion some of the events that will impact his descendent and other people in the future. Or at least, it needs to be made clearer that Sebastian understands the implications of his choice, because at the moment his storyline is not made to count.
There’s a deeper frustration with the show though. The conflict, and those resonate themes and metaphors which underlie it, are represented mostly on a black and white level. There are big, complex, urgent, and troubling discourses around how New Zealand – and the globe – should deal with displaced people. PM Bishop is flippantly prepared to go to war and attempt to wipe out the Southlands. Luna and her people are the good guy underdogs. But just because the physical style is cartoonish doesn’t mean the debate has to be as well. Let the Prime Minister lay out the moral case for action: we let them in with open hearts, now they threaten our livelihoods. Follow the logic of the ideology, look at the arguments happening in Europe, look at how Australia justifies its treatment of “boat people” (and New Zealanders citizens)…. then the production might have something really powerful to say. This is an outstanding graduating class – the potential is there.
2063 is presented by Unitec and plays at Q until 20 November. Details see Q.