REVIEW: Here & Now 2018: Tender, You First & Alice (Auckland Theatre Company)

Review by James Wenley

Tender, dir Benjamin Henson; an Auckland Theatre Company production and part of the Here and Now festival. Production photography: Michael Smith

[All-Stars]

Is the original Shrek (2001) film the ideal model of romance for our times?

That’s the theory espoused by Murdoch Keane in Tender, the first of three plays in ATC’s Here & Now Festival playing until Monday.

Shrek doesn’t go out looking for love. As an Ogre, it’s not something he ever thought he’d find, never thought he’d be worthy of. Meanwhile, Princess Fiona is full of anxiety: by day, she feels like an imposter, by night, when she assumes her Ogre form, she feels like a monster. But love was out to get them. For Shrek and Fiona, appearance doesn’t matter. They fall for the person, able to share their pain and vulnerabilities. Keane should have you convinced that out of all the great movie romances, Shrek and Fiona’s is the one we should invest in (but don’t bother with the sequels). It’s a balm against the self-limiting beliefs that people who are different and unconventional will end up alone. And you thought love was only true in fairytales?

If there’s a thread running through the 2018 Here & Now plays, it is the messy pursuit of romantic love – unrequited, desperate, redemptive, affirming. The lengths you will go to gain it, the risks you will take to retain it.

Tender, devised by the cast and director Benjamin Henson, is all about love. And sex. How confusing it can all be. What it all means in the age of Tinder from the perspective of the 9 strong cast. If you’re not convinced by Shrek, you’ll also learn in this show why love is like a Pokemon.

You First is about love in desperate circumstances. Written by Billie Staples and directed by Lynne Cardy, love is tested in a post-apocalyptic society which revels in making people suffer through dehumanising dares. While posters warn there is to be no “PDA”, romance is inevitable, but can it survive when your own survival is uncertain?

In Alice, devised by the cast with director Leo Gene Peters, chance eye contact on a bus leads to a fledging romance that is cut off too soon, and the protagonist has to journey into the “doom” to find their lover. A metaphor? No, the cast will tell you: “the doom is the doom”.

Another thread binding the three plays are queer narratives, notable mostly for how little a deal is made out of this, despite forming some of the central relationships of each play. It’s an unshowy inclusion, a normal aspect of the Here & Now’s generation social landscape, a repudiation of recent homophobia in the news.

The Here & Now cast sit either side of the blurry demographic dividing line between Gen Y (aka Millennials) and Gen Z. ATC make a powerful statement by giving space for the youth artists to perform on the Waterfront theatre stage: you matter, and what you have to say matters. These are not plays written for them. They are written and made by them, in collaboration with some of New Zealand’s best theatre makers.

Tender. Production photography: Michael Smith

In Tender, the cast introduce themselves with a list of their Google search history. That’s the world we’re living now – our data is destiny. This creates early vulnerability; the triviality of the searches give us a revealing sketch of each individual in the ensemble.

Tender comes across as a show that, like its actors, is still finding its way through what it wants to be. There’s a tedious framing device of practicing lines for Romeo and Juliet (yes, a devised play about love – R&J has got to be somewhere in the mix right) that doesn’t go anywhere. The pace is languid in the first half, sequences overstay their welcome. An ‘overheard conversation’, in which a phone on a comically long selfie stick is shoved into their faces, feels forced. The cast walk around the stage a number of times repeating “love is…”, “love is…”, like a hangover from a NCEA drama devising assessment. There are some points of interest – a science lecture on love as an addiction (“nobody told me about the cuddle hormone”), a spoken word poem on an early morning hookup, a ballet sequence – but the show’s main mode of delivery is overly contrived, preventing the performers from making a genuine connection with the audience.

Perhaps there needed to be clearer decisions about what exactly to focus on (the topic of love, let alone sex, is huge!). The level of discourse was often quite surface, belying the intelligence, activism, and fierce conversations of this age group. “Aziz type stuff” and “Weinstein type stuff” are brought up but not taken further. In a climate where we are critiquing just how bankrupt many of our courtship and relationship models are, and the upcoming generation are grappling with how they want to do things, Tender does not feel as urgent or as necessary as its provocations might suggest.

A turning point comes when alarms blare and giant words flash on the screen: Porn! In a wordless agitprop sequence, the cast cycle through signs that lay out the stats in porn (its very stark when laid out with stats like 88% of scenes depict physical aggression) and make the case that instead of pretending that we’re not watching it, we must engaged with the expectations its creating. From there, Tender picks up through to the end. Tender is strongest when it embraces theatrical surrealism, such as Zoe Wong confronting multiple versions of author Jacqueline Wilson about the messages of books series, or when the life cycle of a relationship is narrated in the style of sports commentators.

Each cast member ably takes their turn at having the focus. The final moment is given to the youngest cast member, Emily Smith (15). Sitting on a now empty stage, she gives us the realest talk of all, opening up about her reservations about the show and how little she might potentially be able to offer to the topic. With the help of the audience, she guides us towards some warm fuzzy moments and the value of small, non-romantic acts of love. It’s a wonderfully gentle, loving, and yes, tender note to finish on. The cast’s curtain call and bow turns into a group hug; their genuine comradery and care for each other shines through from the stage. In a nice design nod to their togetherness, all of them wear the same style of yellow sneakers.

You First. Production photography: Michael Smith

But you won’t stay lulled in Tender’s warm happy feeling for too long, because from tenderness we go to cruelty in You First. Billie Staples imagines a world that has been shaped by our worst impulses. Following a catastrophic climate change disaster, people have been separated and scattered across the country, becoming the “mixed place people”. Young people find themselves in underground holding centres, tasked with sorting through plastics and debris. There are devices around their necks which can paralyse them and keep them in line. The goal is to get out to be reunited with their family. But in a low-rent Hunger Games society, in order to do so, they must complete a dare. In the play it begins with cutting their hair, then escalates to eating shit, and gets worse from there.

It’s a post-Facebook society, isolated from information or any connections beyond their immediate locality. While there’s no FB, they still get the microtargeted propaganda.

So you get a sense of the ideas in play in this story, however, the play’s dystopic world-building and bold thematic ideas become too expansive to be crammed into the show’s one hour slot. With a large cast, most of the characters remain sketches. There’s a religious allegory working away too (dares from an absent leader as a test of faith), but the build up to the idea of humanity rebelling against an authoritarian creator is unsatisfyingly  swift. In the dialogue, nostalgic popular culture references from a dead popular culture swirl within heightened speech – the character’s selected for the dare find particular poetic eloquence as they prepare for it, but the cast at times struggle with the communication of the language.

While the specifics require further work, the theatricality and dark absurdism of Staples’ script is well realised by Cardy and the cast. Its all very unsettling, intensified by the incongruity of elements like Emma Campbell’s flawlessly dressed and relentlessly positive Host mixing with Doug Grant’s brilliant growling and highly physical performance as Dog, a man who has taken on the persona of a dog to survive (all the animals, we presume, having perished).

You First asks if how we treat the world is also how we treat each other, and whether a new generation really can create a better system or will continue to fall into the same patterns of their forebears.

We’re taken backstage for the final play in the evening, to seats at the back of the theatre stage, facing the scaffolding of You First’s set and the darkened auditorium from which we had viewed the first two plays.

Alice. Production photography: Michael Smith

Director Leo Gene Peters of Slightly Isolated Dog has been crafting a trademark style of theatrical storytelling over Don Juan, Jekyll and Hyde, and the most recent Basement Christmas show, Santa Claus. Taking an established narrative, Peters’ actors present themselves as a French theatre troupe and collectively tell the story (with plenty of interactive help from the audience), interrupting and building from each other in scripted content that seems like improv, and improv that is so quick it seems scripted. I rate the shows highly for their frivolity, wit and entertainment, but beyond the themes in their source material, they’re somewhat hollow. If you’ve seen any of them, you’ll have some idea of what to expect in Alice, except for two key differences. The first, is that there are 10 in the cast (majority recent graduates from acting institutions), larger than the usual company, who do not pretend to be a French theatre troupe. The cast manage Peters’ style effortlessly. The second, is that Alice actually means something.

There’s the doom, which I mentioned earlier. It’s coming, we’re told. Maybe it’s already here. There’s milestone anxieties – not achieving what you thought you would when. But anxiety is good, they say, it keeps the doom at bay. It’s the void you need to watch out for.

We’re introduced to Abigail (Ava Diakhaby), who is two years past graduation and in a bit of a funk. She meets Lydia (Tamara Gussy), and they hit it off, until Lydia breaks contact and appears to be ghosting Abigail. Their story is contrasted with Abigail’s sister Bailey (Phoebe McKellar) who finds herself getting deeper into a relationship she never really chose, because she could never find the right moment to break up.

The team started with Alice in Wonderland as their source inspiration but fell down a narrative rabbit hole all of their own. They became interested in questions around our authentic selves, and how we might meet people in a meaningful way. Thus, it gets into minefields of relationship, while presenting surreal refractions of Auckland life from the vantage of early twenty-somethings.

Towards the end, Alice does something remarkable. In a move that owes more to Orpheus than Lewis Carroll, Abigail begins the journey into the doom. In a coup de théâtre, we are transported there too. Huge plastic sheets drop from the flies. Peters does magic stuff with the lights. The auditorium is used in a breath-taking way. Our perception is transformed. What had been a company of actors telling their story in front of scaffolding becomes a magic realist mind-explosion.

The best testament for all three shows is you wish they had more stage time – for Tender to be able to explore more deeply, for You First to build its world more completely, and for Alice – well, I could have sat in this storytelling wonderland for a long time. It’s the trade-off for a festival like this, that the shows have to be shaped to fit the time slots (the creative limitation of each show following one after the other has led to truly incredibly innovative and complimentary set designs). Alice ends on a massive cliff-hanger. Yes, you wish they could have explored it further, but you also appreciate them putting it back on the audience to decide.

So, if you come out of Here & Now feeling hopeful or despondent about love, that’s all on you.

But will you leave feeling hopeful about the next generation of theatremakers? Absolutely.

Here & Now plays at the ASB Waterfront Theatre until 23 April. Details see ATC

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