REVIEW: 360 A Theatre of Recollections (The Civic)

Coming full circle [by James Wenley]

A girl and her seal
Seal!

I’ll begin in a round-about way. If you’ve heard anything about 360, you’ve likely heard about the unusual stage and seating: we are enclosed in a pit bordered by a circular stage, seated on swivel chairs bolted to the ground.  We 80 privileged few are on the stage of The Civic itself, but we could be anywhere, so enclosed are we by the globe of 360. It’s not unlike feeling you are in a planetarium, though the projections of these earthbound bodies – blazing too brightly – are only just beyond us.

It’s potentially gimmicky, but the creators of 360 – Carl Bland, Peta Rutter and Ben Crowder – have far greater designs for the audience. There’s a definite novelty factor as we begin the show, spinning this way and that, but soon I feel integrated in the world around me. It’s a great hook to get bums on bolted-swivel seats, and I have never experienced a theatre show quite like this before.

If you’ve heard anything else about 360, you may have also heard that this was a long time coming here. Debuting at the NZ Festival in Wellington in 2010, the subsequent Auckland Festival production fell through, and the essential gear (not least a stunningly realised Seal costume), has remained in storage until now, with some of the original cast (Milo Cawthorne, Olivia Tennant, Bruce Phillips and Rosalie Van Horik) returning for this Auckland season. I venture this is, on paper, a rather uneconomic show, requiring that huge Civic space, days of pack-in, and a large cast and crew, but my is it worth it.

But what supersedes the incredible technical and production accomplishments is the storytelling, and this is what I want to let you know about: circular narratives and circus tricks.

Gee feels as if he is limited by his odd-ball family of circus performers; his boisterous show man Father (Andrew Grainger), his awkwardly cerebral brother (Adam Gardiner), and his curious Sister (Olivia Tennet), who confides her thoughts to a delightfully cute Seal (Rosalie Van Horik). Gee is called to seek his fame and fortune, and vows he will return only once he has made his millions. We meet Gee on three stages of his journey: young rebel idealist (Milo Cawthorne), jaded middle-man (Gareth Reeves – making a welcome return to the Auckland stage), and a reflective and wise-in-hindsight senior (Bruce Phillips).

Writers Bland and Rutter spin off the monomyth of the hero’s journey (which happily is often explained in a circular diagram), which has repeated countless times in myth, literature, and life. And so it is a familiar and identifiable story of the life-cycle, the personal odyssey, of leaving and returning someone different. Of course this journey is not a straight one, but curves around in on itself; Bland and Rutter particularly interested in existential diversions (loops?) and the metatheatricality of life. “Remember” is a lyric that seems to come up in almost all the songs within the show, and images and events tumble out un-sequenced from the memory of the Senior Gee.

Gee remains the archetype, his younger version listing off empty dreams of what he wants to achieve, and Reeve’s version the washed up figure desperately clinging onto them, and the older Gee trying to make sense of his life’s legacy and learnings. It is the other characters that receive more individual attention and colour, leaving us, on our own life journeys, to project more of ourselves onto Gee.

John Verryt’s remarkable stage form then is the perfect conduit to the content (inseparable even), a way of both seeing, and understanding the work.  It certainly creates some remarkable theatrical images. The simple: Bruce Phillips pops up from the trench below the raised stage immediately in front of me and I look into his eyes, seconds later he has walked around to the other side, and I feel an intractable distance. The stunning: river reeds pop up around us and a swan circles us; a cannon illusion shoots Tennet with a mighty boom over our heads to appear on the other side of the stage. There’s a lot of walking around us in circles, but the use of the stage always feels necessary to the design of the form, and the design of the plot.

It can be dizzying at times as actors speed around us, but the pace of the show is very expertly controlled by lighting (Nik Janiurek – not an easy show to rig!) and sound cues that guide the audience’s gaze to specific portions of the stage, but for the subversives, you can spin your chair to observe the less showy sights.

Crowder and Brand’s direction employ tricks of illusion and spectacle, but shy away from performance tricks of emotion, the actors maintaining a cool distance. The family merely stare at Young Gee when he announces his intention to leave, no trace of melodramatic trickery. Instead, it is John Gibson’s compositions and sound design that penetrates our hearts and evokes deep feeling. His is a wondrous aural journey that strikes the right tone for every moment.

While the directors trust in the music for emotionality, the dialogue, including repeated character monologues, is at times cloyingly over-written, betraying an anxiousness of meaning. Perhaps to justify the staging as much more than gimmickry, there is a tendency to over-explain for the audience’s benefit of understanding but instead threatens to undo the good work of the production.

The show succeeds in moments of little visual profundities, like a jug slowly levitating from the table of Old Gee to the table of Mid Gee half a circle away.

Profounder still is the life-time etched on Bruce Phillips’ face and buried deep into his eyes, revealing all we need to know in one look.

A theatre of recollections, and a show of soul, it is appropriately the audience’s own lives that complete the 360 circle.

Get yourself in that swivel chair.

360 is presented by Nightsong Productions, Theatre Stampede, and The EDGE and plays at The Civic until 25 January. Details see The EDGE.

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Nik Smythe

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