Presented by Dusty Room Productions, Such Stuff as Dreams, by Camilla Walker, advertises itself as a love story between Claire, a “wanderlusting waitress”, and Alfie, a busker with schizophrenia, played by Catherine Yates and Tyler Wilson Kokiri respectively. Mental health is a common theme in New Zealand theatre, and such theatrical representations require not only a deft hand, but a considerate mind. While Walker has successfully avoided exploiting the issue through either stigmatisation or romanticising, this is mostly due to a lack of depth in the dialogue, as a result of underdeveloped characters lacking a dramatically-driven plot upon which to act.
Walker’s intention with the script is epitomised when Alfie tells Claire that he wants her to see him and not his schizophrenia, but a decision is never made, either in text, performance, or direction, as to whether the piece views his schizophrenia as a component of who he is or not. One could argue that due to the personification of said schizophrenia through Morph, played by Mark Mockeridge, who channels his inner Drop Dead Fred with hilarious results, but loses much of his dialogue through overexertion due to lack of vocal control, indicates the latter, but it never comes through in what the characters say or do, because Walker’s proposition itself is unclear beyond this one sentence. When we see Alfie sans Morph, which happens for no apparent reason, he is gentle, soft-spoken, and shy. Again, this indicates the latter, but the moment, like references to un petit morde or musings on the supermoon, is not given any depth beyond the literal and superficial dialogue, and is dropped all too quickly. Add to this a non-linear structure that doesn’t aid the narrative in any way, a moment of random racism, and an inaudible song in the penultimate vignette, and when considering this production follows apparent development during Te Pou Theatre’s Rangatahi Season, and has an appointed dramaturg(e), (Dan Goodwin), the conclusion, as is more often than not proven, is that New Zealand theatre simply does not understand how to support young playwrights in their actual craft, instead rushing unfinished works to the stage.
The incompleteness of the script leads to direction by Adam Rohe focusing on style over substance, with occasionally aesthetically appealing visuals through use of space and body, but no attempt to control or shape the beats or actions of the scenes. Yates, and indeed the play itself, starts promisingly, but the limitations of the character result in a two-dimensional performance which is underplayed to compensate Kokiri’s character. While equally limited, Kokiri’s natural affability and comedic nonchalance endears him to the audience, although the cathartic climax of his performance is hindered on opening night due to a mismanagement of props.
As with Rohe’s visual direction, Hayley Robertons’s impressive art direction sets the style of the play perfectly, although a lack of stage-depth heavily restricts sightlines, and the pseudo-Brechtian set changes are incredibly jarring. The latter, however, may be a response to the appallingly problematic ending, in which Kokiri breaks the fourth wall to ask the audience if they understood the show, and then goes on to explain it. Not only is the explanation of the armadillo metaphor nonsensical, it illustrates a complete lack of confidence in and undermines every other word Walker has written. If a playwright needs to have the meaning of their work literally explained to their audience, they have completely failed at the point of using theatre in the first place. And while there may be the smallest hint of a successful play in Walker’s script, without the appropriate mentorship or development, it remains as elusive as the Ministry of Health contract for Lifeline.
Such Stuff as Dreams plays Basement Theatre until 10 November.
SEE ALSO: Jonty Crane’s review of Te Pou’s Rangatahi Season production.