REVIEW: Heatwave (Basement Theatre)

Review by Erin O'Flaherty

[Take Action]

It’s no coincidence that two works responding to the climate crisis, Heatwave and Our Modern Earth, have been programmed one after the other in Basement’s Reunited season. The effects of human-made climate change are increasingly apparent, and young people are all too aware that we are out of time. It’s election season – and this election feels more important than ever. First up, Heatwave, created by Grace Augustine, takes us to a dystopian Rotorua in 2030 where the climate change action group Kaitiaki Taonga is gathering for its final meeting of the year.

We are introduced to our ensemble of characters, including an ex-miner with a secret drug problem (Shaan Kesha), a mother with a PhD (Bronwyn Ensor), an ex-marine (Georgina Briggs) and a social media influencer (Hakaia Daly/Emily Hurley). We are also introduced to the work’s cacophonous style – conversations break out all across the stage as the characters greet each other. Our focus flits around, trying to soak it all in. It is a tone of naturalism, delivered beautifully by the strong and cohesive cast, yet it also establishes a kind of sensory overwhelm that follows the show to its conclusion.

The group reflect on their achievements over the past year and it strikes me that this version of 2030 feels a lot like 2020 – there are people trying to take action, yes, but they can only do so much. They cling to hope because they have to convince themselves that what they have achieved might just be enough. It is this tenuous sense of hope – one I myself am all too familiar with – that is shattered when Hine (Alex Tunui), a young Māori activist, bursts in with the news that their work has been undone by the government, and she has a plan to get justice.

The question of whether non-violent action will ever be enough is a potent one, particularly in the wake of the protests related to the Black Lives Matter movement in the States. I feel a similar attitude bubbling up in relation to climate change – government action is beginning to feel too little too late, and individuals feel increasingly powerless against massive corporations. All this amounts to an important conversation that I wish was allowed to become the focus of the piece.

However, the conflict introduced by Hine never quite seems to resolve. Instead a new conflict is introduced – an acid trip that itself feels violent and destructive. Here the play begins to melt more into the metaphorical. Our characters crouch on the floor, moaning, crying, laughing. It’s perhaps a horrible premonition of the breakdown of society, with humanity haunted by visions of past sins, finally thrust into a place of absolute lack of control. Control is another theme that hovers around the edges of this piece (again extremely pertinent to our current moment) but never quite manages to be fully explored or integrated into the work as a whole.

Perhaps the main reason for this lack of cohesion is that the narrative lacks a natural development, instead hanging itself around fourth-wall-breaking monologues – one for each character. These offer an array of different perspectives on climate change – the importance of politics, the imminence of ecological disaster, the problem of displaced workers and the intergenerational trauma suffered by tangata whenua. Unfortunately, though, none of these ideas ever get fully developed and, while the fractured nature of these monologues suggests an attempt to mirror the brilliantly cacophonous sound design, it comes across as slightly lacking. The more poetic and abstract nature of these monologues stands too starkly in contrast to the naturalism of the rest of the show without much to integrate them. And, though the show manages to build tension as it goes along, its lack of narrative drive prevented me from becoming emotionally engaged. I didn’t quite feel it earned the emotional level it ended on, despite Bronwyn Ensor’s fantastic performance of the final monologue.

There were a lot of great ideas fighting for expression in Heatwave. It’s certainly a mammoth task to try and capture all angles of such a deeply complex issue, in this case resulting in a somewhat fragmented feel. While the (partially devised) script could use some development, it still offered plenty to wrap my brain around and touched on a number of important issues. The technical elements (Zane Allen’s lighting and Chris Marshall’s music) were strong and the cast was always engaging. If there was one thing that came across, it was mess. The almost incomprehensible mess humanity has made and is struggling to clean up. The mess of feelings – frustration, anguish, hope, despair. The mess of potential answers, potential solutions. The mess of sensory input that dominates our modern lives. It can be extremely difficult to work through our thoughts and feelings surrounding climate change, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the structure of the play was itself a little messy. Regardless, Heatwave offers a thought-provoking night at the theatre and a mirror held up to this critical yet complex moment in time.

Heatwave plays Basement Theatre 13-17 October, 2020. 

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

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