Sometimes, not always [by Matt Baker]
Michelanne Forster has a penchant for dramatising historical New Zealand murders, from the highly acclaimed Daughters of Heaven, based on the infamous Parker/Hulme murder, to the shooting of John Saunders by Senga Whittingham in My Heart is Bathed in Blood. In her programme notes for Always My Sister, Forster writes that “What interested [her] about the story were the silent women behind the grisly drama…” While this interpretation certainly provides more dramatic fodder than following the sociopathic drunk Joseph Burns, the duration of the play and the pace at which it is performed results in the dramatisation of these women remaining rather under-dramatic.
At under an hour in length, the entire play can afford to slow down. The first half races through, offering short, signposted scenes of the progression of the relationships, while everything post murder, which should drive through as it contains the dramatic dilemma and has the opportunity to provide the pathos of the piece, is ironically dragged out. There are brief moments of the poetry that Forster imbues in her writing, but it is overshadowed with a sense of the practicality of storytelling, which results in a historical play as opposed to a historical drama.
Torum Heng dutifully fulfils her role as narrator, and her admonishment of both Maggie and Joseph, as well as her care for the former, has a solid ring of truth, while Jess Sayer’s bright-eyed wonderment and stoicism makes it easy to accept the situation in which her character eventually finds herself. Both women, however, are very cleanly presented, both physically and motivationally, especially during Sayer’s descent. While the compatibility of casting Heng and Sayer as sisters works, it is only Sayer, due to the naivety she underlays in her performance, who seems to have been cast at the right age, with both Heng and Chris Tempest feeling very young for the roles.
Tempest does well to generate the volatility of Burns,although the sporadic nature of the outbursts and the true psychotic intent, while accurate in regards to the writing of such a character, are in contrast to his sensibilities and rhythms as an actor. Tempest handles the massive shift that occurs in his character well, but doesn’t earn it in his first two scenes, overplaying the charm and directness of an intentioned sociopath. His final words provoke stifled laughter as opposed to dramatically ironic disgust from the audience and their understanding of his true nature.
Costumes by Charlie Baptist are faithful, and Ruby Reihana-Wilson’s lighting design gives a haunting glow to the piece, doing well to provide shape to the scenes in a production that has no apparent set design. While the Basement studio provides the sense of confinement and trapping of domestic abuse, the contrast of the expansive land plots of Auckland in the mid 19th century is lost and consequently the grandeur of the event as a significant crime in history is less resonant.
Musicality is a strong and effective element, but isn’t entirely integrated into the world of the play, serving slightly more as a narrative device. That being said, it does not come across as a gimmick and is never overused, and Tempest’s vigorous folk strumming and the trio’s vocal arrangement work harmoniously. Ultimately, the play lacks variety and a firm hand of resolution in its direction; the result being more of a workshop piece as opposed to a complete play. With a strong director at the helm, and some braver steps in Forster’s writing, which she is more than capable of, there’s no reason this couldn’t become a strong colonial New Zealand play.
Always my Sister plays upstairs at The Basement until 21 June . Details see The Basement.