Bon Mot Attack [by Matt Baker]
At face value, Heroes is not a great play. There is cause for drama, but, like the three characters themselves, it never goes anywhere. There is nothing inherently theatrical about it, its Britishdryness, as implied by the original playwright Gérald Sibleyras himself, being far more suited to a BBC or ITV series. However, three veterans of New Zealand theatre, under the command of director Alison Quigan, firing off bon mots with impeccable precision and timing, is one of the funniest productions this year.
Sibelyras stated that the play is not only about human mortality, but also the universal desire to escape from the confines of your life. This escape never occurs for Henri, Gustave, or Philippe, residents of a home for veterans. Instead, the play follows their forlorn fantasies, delinquent scheming, and even moments of unconsciousness, and while this barely imitates a progression plot, let alone provides character development, George Henare, Ray Henwood, and especially Ken Blackburn play the anarchic action and comical dialogue with great vigour and expert craft.
Both John Parker’s set and Phillip Dexter’s lighting hint towards the potential extent of the play’s completeness, with symbolism and subplots hidden in the trees and shadows, however, the audience is prevented from being led down this garden path, thanks to Gayle Jackson’s costumes and Sean Lynch’s sound providing a grounding in traditional aesthetic realism. This grounding is also guided by Quigan’s subtle hand and pacing, and, in addition to its theatrical origin and French homage, her use of les trois coup [Ed: three knocks to signal the rise of the “curtain”] is also the first time an Auckland Theatre Company show performed at
the Maidment Theatre has repaired the immediate damage done to the theatrical illusion by opening night pre-show on-stage obligatories.
Ignorance and inattention to, and the fear and inevitable acceptance of aging is a universal experience, but the full extent of the available poignancy in the play does feel wasted. Perhaps it was lost in translation like the original title, but, fortunately, the purpose of programming the play has not been lost on artistic director Colin McColl. Heroes may not have initial appeal beyond fans of Tom Stoppard, but it is more than a commemoration, it is a reminder that you’re never too old for a bit of anarchy and laughter
Heroes is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays until September 26. For details see Auckland Theatre Company.