We departed That Bloody Woman‘s opening night feeling proud, informed and uplifted by the musical portrayal of this ‘her-storical’ story.
The face of Kate Sheppard that gazes somewhat benevolently from our $10 note belies a passion, a person and a struggle that we think we know, but don’t.
By communicating directly with the audience, the show makes us conspirators in the (then outrageous, but now so obvious) ‘plot’ to give 52% of the human race their vote.
Esther Stephens as Kate Sheppard is flawless – she charms, cajoles, needles, seduces and fights through dialogue, movement and song to the triumphant conclusion we know is coming, but which also brings an unexpected toll of personal sacrifice, loss and finally joy.
Billed as a Punk-Rock Musical, Luke Di Somma and Gregory Cooper’s That Bloody Woman is more reminiscent of an 80s rock concert (think The Damned meets Def Leppard interspersed with a vial of Poison). The rock concert premise is cleverly utilised throughout for props, piss-takes and posturing and Brendan Albrey’s lighting reflects the epic efforts of the day. The supporting Gang Ensemble (Amy Straker, Phoebe Hurst, Cameron Douglas and Kyle Chuen) all play their part excellently – no weak links in the chain here – and have a mammoth task of being ‘roadies’, stage hands and chorus on top of their very physical performances which they execute seamlessly.
The introduction of the ‘evil’ Richard “King Dick” Seddon (Geoffrey Dolan) as a metaphor, and actual, political bad guy generates a multitude of ‘dick’ jokes, which echo the condescension of women and their standing.
The music (and hence the audience’s engagement) gets better and better as the show progresses. The first three rock numbers are good but we were truly wowed by the talented band and performers on stage when they changed the pace. It was from that point that we knew we were in good hands, any initial reticence of the somewhat quiet opening-night audience was well and truly banished.
Delights were delivered thick and fast with full use of the auditorium for performers and dialogue, alongside visual and set effects galore, and the crowd were even handed stuff to wave about.
Rachael Walker’s set is everything it should be for a rock opera – dramatic, surprising, big, brave and bold. I loved the way it transformed from an unassuming simple white chair on stage to hidden surprises and gems being revealed throughout the show, complementing the sentiments in the foreground. And the use of a thrust stage heightened the rock concert-like atmosphere perfectly. Lisa Holmes’s costumes were equally fantastic, contrasting the freedom of the Gang Ensemble against the norms and societal expectations of Kate’s persona, both physically and characteristically. The gradual de-cloaking of Sheppard from a dutiful wife through Mary Poppins-esque sass, to dedicated deliverer of justice, was extremely effective and excellently mirrored in tandem through the revealing set elements. It would have been too easy to replace femininity with feminism and humanity with activism but instead the costuming, set and intelligent acting on stage supported the script beautifully in this respect.
And this would not have happened without the astute direction of Kip Chapman. His ability to create a sensory feast for the audience of That Bloody Woman is unparalleled. While maintaining the edgy madness and mayhem that we have come to know and love about Chapman’s direction, his delicate touch during the quieter more meaningful moments displayed conscious careful craftsmanship at its best.
The band (keys/guitar Andy Manning, guitar Tim Heeringa, bass Hannah Elise and drums Cameron Burnett) were tight and not only played the music but were integral characters within the show. However, having managed rock bands in a previous life, I (Sharu) felt the bass and drums should have been more a driving force, given that they are essentially the backbone of any band and even more so in a rock band arena. The technical choice to diminish the gutsiness of the bass and drum sound reduced their potentially powerful performance.
That Bloody Woman is a quintessentially Godzone show and the numerous references both contemporary and post could mean that an overseas audience would probably miss much of the in-jokes, asides and commentary. But that doesn’t weaken its universality in terms of major themes such as suffragettes and the fight for equality. It’s also a show that should be seen worldwide because it distills so much of ‘what it is to be a Kiwi’ into a fast-paced, adrenaline-fueled, honest, sassy and poignant celebration of a world first: a true moment in time and an absolute triumph. But more importantly, as the buzz of opening night’s fabulous production gently wanes, we still feel proud, informed and uplifted by the characters and events of this pivotal slice of ‘Her-Story’.
That Bloody Woman is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays at SkyCity Theatre until 26 June. Details see ATC. The show is then heading down to the Court Theatre in Christchurch, and will play from the 2nd – 30th July.