Romeo & Juliet. Antony & Cleopatra…. Joseph & Mahina?
I’ve written about Thomas Sainsbury plays many times before in Craccum Magazine. He’s something of a modern kiwi Shakespeare type, dominating Auckland over the last several years with a huge output of low budget but manically funny. Like Shakespeare he sometimes acts in his plays too and he directs most of them too. He even now has made his mark on television with Supercity, co-written with Madeline Sami, which I reckon is the first really great scripted NZ comedy show for a long time. Hoorah.
So I always know that I’m going to have fun night when I see a Thomas Sainsbury Show™. In Joseph and Mahina the direction is taken by Hera Dunleavy in her debut, allowing Sainsbury to act alongside Renee Lyons, one of his regular players. It is set in a small rural town in NZ; Sainsbury says it was inspired by growing up in Matamata. In an interesting echo to I won’t be happy until I lose one of limbs which played earlier this month in the Basement and also set in a small town, there’s a real desperation shared by its characters and yearning to leave. Joseph has just arrived, a married 28-year-old Christian, come to lead the church’s Youth Group. Hardly anyone bothers to show. His only regular is 17-year-old high school drop out and supermarket worker Mahina; her family are on the dole and don’t really care about her.
Between them, Tom and Renee play 11 different characters through the show. There’s the disgruntled supermarket supervisor Shane who was made redundant, a town gossip Hillary (Sainsbury camping it up just the right notch), Joseph’s quiet wife, the doddery Reverend (Lyons)…. The actors work off each other energies superbly, and their characterisations are all very distinct. Renee in particular plays Mahina truthfully and with simplicity, and the comedy naturally arrives. Tom impresses with his coming timing and character flairs, and works best playing the broader characters, though Joseph has dramatic moments to shine. Sainsbury is such an exact character writer, with particular skill for idiom and character speech and as usual there are many scriptural gems.
Like many of his other shows, Joseph and Mahina embraces the low budget restrictions: there is little set to speak of and simple props and costumes to identify the characters. There is no need to dress up the space; the focus is firmly on the story, and the wicked characterisations from the actors. I did feel that the play lost momentum each time a scene would end when the actors paused, lights dimmed, and changed character.
When I interviewed Tom in mid 2009 (not online, sadly), he agreed he had a style “Yes I would say theres a Tom Sainsbury style, even though I’ve tried to get away from the style, but it seems I keep going back into it. It seems to be comedic, there have to be high tragic stakes for each of the characters, death and rape and suicide regularly feature. Ludicrous characterisation and black humour.” Since then, he has been exploring more genres (I loved Psychopaths, a slasher play!) and danced with Jacqui Brown (Dance Troupe Supreme) among others. This new play I feel marks a growing maturity, very much within his style, but with a deeper heart and soul.
Joseph and Mahina, as the title suggests, fall in love. It’s wrong, funny, a train wreck… but it’s beautiful to watch. You believe and care for these characters. Under the comedic surface of the play there are some deeper issues – the town has been rocked by redundancies, and there is no future for the young like Mahina. What does this do to people? The supermarket supervisor Shane is the designated villain of the piece, but we know his redundancy from the meat works is demoralising, and Sainsbury cleverly gives us more insight into what could have been a one note character by showing us his wife as the town flirt, hooking up with random guys at the bar right in front of his nose. No wonder he is bitter about life.
It loses its way slightly at the end, and I felt it ignored a natural conclusion and kept going one too many scenes to many, leaving us with an ambiguous ending.
I enjoyed spending time with these characters – Renee and Tom deliver superbly. Joseph and Mahina is a welcome addition to the Sainsbury play canon. May the Bard of Matamata continue to dominate. I’m still holding out for your Hamlet Tom!
Joseph and Mahina plays as part of the Auckland Fringe Festival at the Basement Theatre until 28th February
More information on the Auckland Fringe website.