Bringing back the cultural cringe [by James Wenley]
Like many kiwis, I joined the yearly summer exodus from the cities, and went camping over New Years. The miserable rain-drenched ‘summer’ of 2012 had little to write home about of course, but it did provide me with one memorable experience: the family holiday train-wreck. Not my own, thank goodness. Evidently, the family at a camp site across from me had been asked to leave thanks to the bad behavior of one of the young men the night before. As the mother tried to keep it together, stoically and systematically packing up, the younger sister went all-out psycho at her brother with many a ‘how could you?’ and ‘I’m never speaking to you again’. As I sat in my fold out chair, only a few metres away from the scene, and watched this fascinating family implosion, I thought; this sure is good material for a play.
Dave Armstrong for one was able to recognise the dramatic potential of the camping holiday – take a family out of their normal environment, and watch all hell break lose. Working off a story by Danny Mulheron, his play The Motor Camp, presented by Auckland Theatre Company, is a clever dissection of our yearly ritual and our confused kiwi identities.
The proximity of camp sites provokes good drama between two archetypal families who have to share the space – Armstrong sees camping grounds as “great levellers”. The Redmonds – upper middle class Auckland intellectuals, and the working class Hyslop/Tairoas. The Motor Camp is run by a “Dutch Fascist” who repeatedly makes announcements over a booming intercom (a great running gag, voiced by Director Roy Ward). Andrew Foster’s set, coupled with Brad Gledhill’s summer lighting makes for an attractive, bright and green environment, consisting of two working motor home trailers (purchased of Trade Me) and an elegant cyclorama of native bush. What we don’t see (or smell) are the meat works the campers have to pass to get to the beach. Naturally, the stress comes early on arrival at the motor camp, as the Redmond’s struggle to get the awning up, and Jude is unhappy to see Frank bringing out the laptop so early.
Frank is most unhappy about being so close to another family (“We’re kiwis, we need our space). Stephen Lovatt’s Frank, a teachers college lecturer, is an excruciating study of a neutered alpha-male, full of resentment for a famous colleague, not to mention his more professionally advanced wife, with a low emotional intelligence to boot. In an ‘academia’ quirk that Armstrong revels in, he has to write a book that nobody will read so he can be ‘published’ and keep his job. Lisa Chappell’s long suffering wife Jude lets him have his rants, but can shut him up when she puts her foot down. She seems to have her head screwed on and we warm to her – she heads up the uni Arts Faculty, but is more than content to read a trashy novel while on holiday.
Greg Johnson’s Mike Hyslop is gifted with some of the best one-liners, an outrageously inappropriate joker who peppers his speech with casual racism. It’s ‘okay’ though, because his wife Dawn (Nicola Kawana) is Maori. Dawn gets some of the best wardrobe (costume designer Nic Smile), loves cocktail innuendo and is a very proud Mum, but out of all the characters I felt like I’d learnt the least about her. The younger set, who strike up a friendship despite their families, do nice work; Holly Redmond (Lucy Lever) is a suitably stroppy teen girl who’d rather be at ‘The Mount’, and Nathan Mudge is noticeably natural on stage as a Jared Tairora, an easy-going teen boy with a secret.
The play drives with the comedy created when these disparate characters, already possessing their own internal family problems, come together. Act One climaxes with Holly and Jared returning later than curfew, Frank, as expected, going off on a high rant. But Armstrong is not afraid to take his comedy into some darker places, the laughter cutting as jovial Mike gets abusive with his adopted son. Mostly though there’s little let up with the farce (helped along by Roy Ward’s rapid direction), and my sides positively ache with recognition. Armstrong brings the farce to such a high point near the end, that a further revelation involving the Hyslop/Tairoa’s financial situation doesn’t compare, the comedy falling from this moment, unable to sustain itself. By play’s end the families have well and truly imploded, but a fallback to an “I love you” moment too easily fixes all that has gone before.
It’s completely normal now to see a New Zealand play, with recognisable characters onstage. It wasn’t always so, the New Zealand character largely absent on stage, victim to the oft discussed “cultural cringe”. In the 1970s Joseph Musaphia and Roger Hall changed this, arguably spurning an unique genre of New Zealand plays that middle class NZ audiences would take the yearly trip to self-flagellate and laugh at themselves. Dave Armstrong’s stage work (The Tutor, Le Sud) has often been compared to Hall’s, and he’s certainly working within that tradition, but while Hall gently mocks us, Armstrong takes delight in completely skewering us.
Often during the play, I found myself actively cringing at these characters. Mainly, it was the two adult men: Frank’s lack of self-awareness, or Mike’s complete inappropriateness. At times we laugh, and then a sense of shame creeps in. Yes, these characters are recognizably kiwi, and that’s the problem: at some level I felt a sense of cultural embarrassment. This is who we are? Oh gawd… Armstrong’s characters and farce has a small wash of unpleasantness that prevents a full feeling of warm comic glow at the bow. A cultural worm still gnaws our innards.
Perhaps this is because of the wider study that Armstrong includes in what, in its structure, is otherwise a conventional dysfunctional farce. His writing points to an intense interest in our schizophrenic modern kiwi psyches: adrift masculinities unsure how to express themselves, or a society constantly on the edge, fearful of offending anyone, unsure of where the boundaries lie. There’s also an overt issue that’s explored about literacy and the education system.
It’s all enough to make you swear off camping holidays for good, but it’s thrilling being in the voyeur’s seat, just like in my ‘real life’ experience, watching the motor camp wreck. As long as it’s not happening to us, we can sit back and enjoy. So while I perhaps wouldn’t normally recommend a holiday with these families, from the comfort of our seats, and protected from the rain, The Motor Camp is one theatrical holiday that you’ll definitely return from with many happy memories.
PS: The program is quite fun too. The cast talk about treasured holiday moments with retro photos. A quiz lets you find out your ‘holiday camping tribe’ (apparently I’m a “K Rd Camper – Auckland’s most fabulous breed of fabulousness”!), and I’m quite proud of being able to complete the ‘Holiday’ during the interval, requiring a working knowledge of Dave Armstrong and ATC Productions!
The Motor Camp is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays at the Maidment until 3rd March. More information at ATC.co.nz
SEE ALSO: Theatreview Review by Adey Ramsel