It’s the first time The First Time has played in Auckland, and it’s the first play from Wellington playwright Courtney Rose Brown. This season of the show is described as a “mash-up” of Brown’s script and director Stef Fink’s experimentation with physical theatre, inspired by her previous work in devising and working with Massive Company.
Brown’s script follows the lives of five young women who experience different “first times”: love and relationships, exploring their sexuality, and darker subjects such as sexual assault. These stories are real situations that many women in New Zealand face, and the characters and actors onstage are somewhat more reflective of this country’s diversity than your average play. Brown’s dialogue demonstrates her ability to write varied and distinct characters, an impressive skill in a young writer. The stories interlink in natural ways, casually revealed through the individual monologues as the play progresses.
The First Time script uses a monologue structure, which Fink overlays with a dance-based physicality, presumably to prevent the performance from appearing too static. However, by adding an extra physical language, the script is stretched beyond its limits and expires once it hits the hour mark. It’s a structural problem; the rhythm of the text is broken up in a way that disrupts focus and flow, and often movement is used to repeat what has already been said by the text. Instead of acting as a reiteration tactic, it wastes time and takes us out of the story. A prime example of this is the stylised reinterpretation of the sexual assault that happens to one of our young women. The text already approaches the rape in a way that serves the character’s story, so the issue here is that the extra visual representation of sexual assault is unnecessary. This addition is gratuitous, and more care could be taken in handling sensitive subject matter. In an interview on the Basement Theatre blog, Fink describes the show as using confronting physicality. If the rape scene is what this refers to, perhaps the collaborators need to re-examine whether we sit in a space where the depiction of rape needs to be confronting or shocking in our contemporary work, and is it necessary to contribute to the overwhelming and continual imagery of raped and beaten women in our stories? This interrogation of our responsibilities as theatre makers is a complex investigation, that doesn’t have any lines drawn just yet, however, this is not a new conversation and gratuitous rape scenes are disappointing to see on any stage in Auckland in 2018.
The performers all do an impressive job for the full 80 minutes, often having to hold space silently, collectively picking up the energy in the room when it drops. Each performer embodies their characters well and has at least a moment or two where they get to impress the audience , but credit again must also be given to Brown who clearly has a keen ear for the voices of her fellow millennials. The actors all have different strengths, for example, Courtney Bassett has an ease on stage that makes you feel as if you’re chatting intimately over coffee, whereas Alex Tunui has a bubbling intensity that nearly forces you to avoid her gaze, but most importantly, it’s easy to see that the actors trust each other and the performance benefits greatly from this.
There are moments in the production where Fink’s directorial vision gels with the text and we get a glimpse of how the script could be complemented through added physicality. The choice to have the women mimic the main speaker’s emotions through movement adds a layer of synchronicity that binds their stories even closer together. However, these moments are too few and far between to sustain the performance into something more cohesive. In saying this, the Basement Studio is a place for experimentation and exploration, and that’s exactly what this team set out to do. The First Time team have brought to light five touching, relevant stories to Auckland audiences and allowed space for five talented, female actors to walk the stage.
The First Time plays at The Basement until 14 April.