Seven Deadly Narrative Sins [by James Wenley]
In a secular society, what does it mean to sin? When you are encouraged to take whatever you want, who decides mortal morality? If there’s no-one there to judge you, who is there to stop you? In Outfit Theatre Company’s devised show around the seven deadly sins, what is striking is that religion plays no part in the lives of the contemporary Aucklanders that make up the characters. Sure, Ryan Dulieu stalks the stage, clutching an apple, like some sort of tempter-serpent figure, but at rarely do the characters stop and think about any of the big questions of right and wrong. If these are sins, who is counting?
Outfit Theatre Company have been absent from Auckland’s stage since a massive year in 2012 (with just one kids show in 2013), as the company took stock and worked on that most vexing of questions: how to make their ensemble model sustainable? Sin returns the company to what they are most well-known for, like The Sex Show, a large ensemble cast, contemporary (mostly) 20-30 something characters, and a show devised around a sexy topic. This time it is the seven deadly sins, devised by directors Sarah Graham and assistant Andrew Ford and the cast using material through both anonymous surveys and face to face interviews. It’s a well-trodden theme (Vice in April played in similar territory), but while Aucklanders flirting with their dark sides holds much fascination, Outfit bring little new to the table.
Outfit’s show goes for a contemporary edge of what’s hot right now. The burning topics round a dinner table include TEDx talks and social media trolling. Characters swipe on tinder, and an academic Virgil (Arlo MacDiarmid) threatens Game of Thrones spoilers to get his partner Izzy (Ema Barton) to make her listen to his work. The show opens with a high-energy animalistic physical theatre introduction of the ensemble characters, however once the actual storylines begin they are for the most part fairly pedestrian. These include a dodgy entrepreneur Martin Reid (Chris Tempest) hooking up with ditsy beautician Bella (a memorably vapid Nicole Jorgensen), a status-driven couple (Paul Lewis and Gypsy Kauta) preparing for their child’s 5th birthday party, and a Breakfast TV presenter (Kate Vox) reluctant for her private life to be revealed to the nation, as much as her girlfriend Mo (Amanda Tito) wants to make their relationship public. There’s a week-long heatwave in Auckland, though only Vox’s Evelyn Pope seems to notice. Three of the characters are street charity advocates, and Manny’s (Mel Bailey) dialogue is a very convincing match as to how such exchanges play out on Queen St.
We’re seated in the round, and the actors perform on a bare stage, a specially laid blue floor already showing many scuff marks. The characters intersect in various clever ways, and snatches of storylines even continue in set changes as they bring on and off beds, tables and other set-pieces.
There’s an obvious temptation in writing this review, and I’m going to indulge: the Outfit have committed a fair number of theatrical sins of their own. Ryan Dulieu’s character Damien is haphazardly integrated, and his cooly detached characterisation sucks out energy rather than feeds it in. The ensemble format is a tricky one to balance, and there are characters that remain one-dimensional and poorly fleshed out. Tempest the businessman is an out and out repulsive villain, a re-hash of the All Black in Outfit’s Sex Show. On the other extreme angelic charity worker Manny seems to have no flaws at all, I’m none the wiser as to what makes a character like him tick. The characters focus on the trivial and small stuff of life for most of the play means that a swing towards pathos and a profound meditation on the nature of humanity feels unearned in the extreme at the end. There’s a questionable portrayal of mental illness, symptomatic of many characters stories being treated with a lack of depth by the company, which results in a lack of insight for the audience.
But the worst sins of all are the wild, unmotivated decisions that certain characters make in the play. I missed why Eamon (Andrew Ford) wants to work as a clown, a role that does not come naturally to him. Mo (Amanda Tito) has a liaison that is inexplicable to us; it seems they’re going for shock value to end Act One on a note of intrigue, but without understanding the lead-up, we’re left instead with unresolved confusion. Leyton (Cole Jenkins), who is symbolically shown with a green computer screen, hardly appears in the play but embarks on a baffling course of envy. The deadly sins can’t explain away everything. Most outrageous is a shocking comment from real estate agent and mother Lucille (Gypsy Kauta) that comes out of nowhere. The sins provide some potentially potent themes, but there’s a lack of clarity as to what the company is trying to reveal about their material, and I am instead left feeling aggravated by their perplexing narrative and character choices.
While Outfit is to be applauded for moving up to Q’s largest theatre, and their ensemble work displays an energy unique to the company, their product needs to move on up too. There’s no mention of a dramaturge on the company’s credit list, perhaps it is time to invest in one as the company continues to mature?
Sin is presented by Outfit Theatre Company and plays at Q until 18 July. Details see Q.