REVIEW: Rent (The Court Theatre)

Review by Josiah Morgan

The Court Theatre’s production of Rent by Jonathan Larson is an all-star affair both behind the curtain and on the stage. But by the time the curtain call comes, it’s clear that it’s the season of Monique Clementson & James Bell in Ōtautahi. More on them, later. 

Director Lara MacGregor has her work cut out for her with Rent: though the musical is now a modern classic, the material is complex, wordy, and a little unwieldy: the book is a little unfocused and it’s difficult to escape the feeling that both too little and too much is happening in Larson’s text at any one time. The AIDS crisis and the New York setting function in Rent as an almost general milieu that the characters reside inside. McGregor does an admirable job of articulating the show’s concerns by focusing on individual character responses to a broad sociopolitical and historical context. Perhaps the most satisfying element of this production is its sense of specificity in the face of a self-consciously large storytelling task. The production’s sense of place is broad, but the sense of character is minute, detailed, and deeply empathetic. Particular ensemble members deserve credit (Kathleen Burns, Nomi Cohen & Brady Peeti) for emerging in cameo roles as complete human beings with their own interior lives and exterior behavioral traits. The entire world of this production is fully formed, and one easily believes that the New York one sees onstage extends offstage, too. 

One aspect of the production that feels under-formed is the treatment of the homeless characters that are peppered throughout, more so in the first act than the second. The homeless ensemble are a homogeneous entity, an ‘Othered’ group that pop up whenever the show demands that we see a world bigger than that of Mimi, Roger, Collins, Angel, and Mark. The burden of this issue is one shared equally between Larson and this production. Whilst Rent itself inherently demands the homeless characters operate homogeneously, all of the other characters in this production are so lived-in, and so specific that one can’t help but want more from these moments. This is nevertheless a minor issue in the context of a musical much bigger than that.

It is joyous to see this cast (so many of whom are queer themselves) perform this work with its AIDS focus in 2022, with HIV no longer such an immediate issue. Contemporary understandings of queerness are now so extraordinarily different to those in 1996. With that in mind, so much of Rent now plays like a period piece, a blatant fact that The Court’s production has to fight in order to achieve resonance. The highlight of the production from a directorial standpoint is MacGregor’s handling of Angel’s final scene, in which the character is positioned as a capital-I ‘Icon’ rather than being viewed through the heightened realist lens of the rest of the production. It is a moment which still makes queerness feel radical. In moments like these, the production does an extraordinary job, and there are many peppered throughout. Ultimately the musical is what the musical is, and it’s so very 1996. Nevertheless, I betray my age in writing this, and older audience members may very well have a different – and more emotionally resonant – experience with the material.

The lead cast are generally wonderful, with Ben Freeth better than he’s ever been on The Court Theatre stage as Mark. Portraying two of the three central couples, Bailey Dunnage, Cameron Clayton, Jane Leonard & Anna Francesca Armenia all hold their own. But the heartbeats of this particular production are Monique Clementson and James Bell as Mimi and Roger. The characters function as foils to each other, something that the performers highlight, playing off each other with serious presence and focus. Bell is utterly believable as the depressed shut-in Roger, and it is this state of real pain that allows Clementson’s performance as the ever-optimistic chance-taking Mimi to stand out. The music is complex, and the book demands acting range from the performers (especially Clementson). Clementson and Bell are not just up for the task. They exceed the par. They might just be the best performances on the Christchurch stage this year. 

Larson’s Rent is punk, optimistic, unwieldy, scattered. MacGregor’s Rent is punk, optimistic, unwieldy, specific. When assessing all elements of Rent in balance, this production is greater than the sum of its parts. If the standing ovation on opening night is anything to go by, the rest of the audience thought so too.

Rent plays Christchurch’s The Court Theatre 19th November 2022 till 21st January 2023. 

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