Havoc on the Stage! [by James Wenley]
From the outside looking in, our lives must seem bizarre, rushed, and incomprehensible. Havoc in the Garden cuts open houses and allows us to peek into other people’s lives. A brilliant scene shows people living their lives in parallel, unaware of each other, all talking and behaving in their own little bubbles. It’s chaotic and fascinating. At other times the play necessarily blocks out the rest of the noise, focusing in on different family groups and their lives and dramas. Out of this intense focus, emerges some sort of meaning and insight into the human condition. And it’s not pretty. That’s damn good theatre.
Sean Coyle’s set is some achievement, squashing a number of living spaces from different houses on the ‘hills’ onto the smallish Herald Theatre stage (the show is travelling to and ), and the play follows a number of different characters and storylines. What connects all the characters is an event that shatters their neighborhood – a woman screaming, a series of gunshots, and the order by the police to stay in their houses.
It’s a pressure cooker of a situation, and a very clever narrative device to force who don’t necessarily want to be stuck in a house together, to stay together, and to prevent outsiders from entering the action. There’s fear and uncertainty from the neighborhood, but the play isn’t actually about what happens to people in this sort of situation, not really. Teen Sina (played with great sensitivity by Loretta Aukuso), who seeks comfort from her friends Eva (Olive Asi) and Mai (Tuyet Nguyen) has the highest stakes involved – it is her father that fired the shots, and the fate of her mother is unknown. For the rest of the characters, they get on with their own squabbles and preoccupations, not troubled for too long about what’s happening outside. Good commentary on what it is to be human, I thought.
The play, in essence, is a series of mysteries. I have a lot of praise for the script by Lennie James in collaboration with Massive Company, which keeps me on the edge of my seat guessing about what is happening. There are heavy debates during interval about what is really going on.
Each ‘family’ group has their own sort of mystery set up at the beginning of the play that is (mostly) revealed by play’s end. A pregnant Hinemoa (Miriama McDowell) turns up with her partner Brady (Wesley Dowdell) at siblings Connie (Kura Forrester) and Pippa’s (Nicole Thomson) house, claiming to be their sister and wanting to see her mother to break a curse against her unborn son. What is Hinemoa’s agenda and is she to be trusted? What went down all those years ago that saw Connie and Pippa’s father go to prison for three years?
A Samoan group of uncles and nephews renovate a nearby house. Meleki (Beulah Koale) keeps going into trances and speaking in Samoan, seemingly haunted by his deceased great-grandfather. What is the unsaid thing that must be said?
Jani’s (Bree Peters) famous rock star brother Dyl (Ash Jones) disappeared without a word five years, but now he is back. What happened to him?
And of course, what is happening with Eva’s mum and dad, and what caused him to reach for the shotgun?
There is a fifth storyline without a strong mystery, yet still highly compelling. (Scott Cotter) exists very much on his own in his raised bedroom centre-stage. He talks to himself, and to the world in a live video-blog. He’s shut off from all real human contact and hasn’t been out of his room in 166. He’s something of a philosopher, and James’s both poetical and humorous writing is superbly vivid on topics mundane and profound (“We are all one people in the nothingness, right?”). Scott Cotter wins our hearts and minds.
The acting in fact is uniformly excellent, and the ensemble mightily strong. A few highlights: Beulah is very convincing in his trances, displaying real fear in his eyes. Fasitua Amosa is fun as a Samoan who doesn’t know much about being Somoan, but can be counted on when shit goes down, and Joe Folau is equally charming and detestable as Uncle Tyler. Miriama McDowell’s performance is devastating, and her scene shared with Nicole Thompson where the truth is revealed shows masterful and moving work from both actresses.
The script mostly achieves the difficult job of satisfyingly resolving all the storylines; by having so many storylines at play, the structural danger is that all the narrative climaxes come one after the other, lessening their individual effect. This is mostly negotiated, with the storylines being nicely paced throughout, though I felt the show peeked with Hinemoa’s revelation. Bree Peter and Ash Jones show great chemistry as siblings (and Bree has a beautiful singing voice), but out of all them, I was less engaged by this particular strand; the resolution felt a little too much of retread of Massive’s previous major work Whero’s New Net.
The police voice call what happened that day a “troubling incident”, but these people’s lives will never be the same. Massive Company’s Havoc in the Garden is a powerful work that explores what people can do to each other, both good and bad. Lennie James in the program writes it is a “look at what is great and what sucks about families”. For much of the second half, my stomach was in knots, as each revelation is told. I am so pleased to see such an excellent and confident major new New Zealand work on our stages. Go hard guys!
Havoc in the Garden is presented by Massive Company and plays as part of the Auckland Arts Festival at the Mangere Arts Centre until 12th March then the Pumphouse Theatre 16-26th March.
More information on the Auckland Arts Festival Website.