[You Can’t Ignore It]
Director Benjamin Henson has a particular knack for creating worlds. Since co-founding Fractious Tash in 2012, his astute interpretations of classic texts, and dramaturgical practice in company-devised works, have provided New Zealand audiences with ingenious imagery that is as unpredictable, and more often than not shocking, as it is apt. While his work as a director could be considered anarchic, as a playwright, Henson never breaks the rules. Instead, he manipulates and subverts them beyond expectation.
With incredibly precise and delicate layering, the accumulative semiotics of plot, character, and even title cards in Henson’s new play HeadSand, produce an organic script that feeds off itself like the parasitic metaphor within it. His dialogue is imbued with an originality not heard since the debut of Mamet speak, and when applied to the events, reminiscent of the macabre complexity of in-yer-face theatre, Henson’s play burrows deep into the audience’s mind, planting eggs which hatch both during and long after the production.
Evoking recent events, the inciting incident is, sadly, by no means uncommon, and with it, Henson infects his, or should I say our, world with a moral decay that dismantles the lives of those within it and reverts them to their base conditions. While episodic in narrative and meta-theatrical in moments, as characters intertwine, they unknowingly unravel the string that ties them together, from husband and wife, to stranger and neighbour, and through these relationships, the totality of the plot is drawn together, culminating in apocalyptic stakes and absurdist epilogues. It’s the butterfly effect between humans and nature taken to the extreme.
But Henson doesn’t stop there. Collaborating with design team Filament Eleven 11 (Brad Gledhill and Rachel Marlow), Henson immediately places the audience in a position of forced engagement, as they are literally brought to the table. His signature discordant lighting in relation to narrative progression between scenes is not only honoured, but also expanded upon within them, creating an atmosphere that relates to those within it. Sound design by Robin Kelly is equally as evocative, and when operated in tandem with Gledhill and Marlow’s lighting by Amanda Tito, creates a language of its own, the inevitable and primal groan of Mother Nature.
The completeness of this theatrical world, however, requires performances that are as equally layered. Sheena Irving and Saraid Cameron own the stage with relentless pursuit in an overwhelming opening scene, though there is a sense of holding back at times as Irving explores the sense of play throughout, while Cameron lacks flexibility as the play progresses. Johanna Cosgrove is pitch perfect, and Sam Snedden’s monologue is a masterclass in acting, both actors demonstrating a deep understanding and exploration of the text. While Irving, Cosgrove, and Snedden embrace the chaos to its full performative extent, Michele Hine and Mel Odedra process at a more cerebral level, which, while clear in terms of action, is less congruous with the biology of the piece, while Conan Hayes counterintuitively plays moments in either opposition or, ironically, too obvious a parallel, to the text. This is, however, a play which requires a symbiotic relationship with its passively active audience, and the visceral necessity will naturally grow as the season continues.
From The Twilight Zone and Invasion of The Body Snatchers to Cabin Fever and Pontypool, the influences and commonalities in Henson’s work with televisual and cinematic horror, from the psychological to the physical, demonstrates an auteur who not only understands the resonance of fear, but also from whence it comes. Fear, as we have recently seen, is an incredibly destructive force, and HeadSand is a damning commentary on the current state of society from a playwright and director who refuses to sit down or pull his punches. It is a reminder that actions have consequences and that disconnection, and systemic misogyny and racism is a disease that will inevitably end us. Yet, it is also without judgement. There is no moral superiority. No didacticism. No answers. Henson has dug our heads out of the sand and held up a mirror; it’s time to take a long, hard look at it.
HeadSand is presented by Fractious Tash and plays at the Basement Theatre until April 6.