[In the Light of Day]
Why this play, and why now? It’s the question in every funding application and at every first production meeting that, whether literally asked or not, must be considered, and one for which I often struggle to find an answer when Auckland Theatre Company releases their annual programme. Presented in repertoire as the Ma & Da season, Joan (2018) and The Daylight Atheist (2002) are anecdotal narratives reflecting on the lives of writer and political satirist Tom Scott’s mother and father respectively. As Danny Moffat and the titular Joan regale us with their stories, actors Michael Hurst, and Ginette McDonald and Kate McGill evoke the fiery Irish temperaments of the immigrant protagonists as they navigate their new lives in New Zealand.
The problem, however, with presenting Scott’s scripts now, is that when considering them through either a masculine or feminine lens in the current climate, the effect of any ‘woke’ presentism is incompatible with the nostalgia on which the plays rely to resonate. Danny Moffat lacks connection, a common symptom of toxic masculinity, but instead of being a pitiable product of society, his humour exposes him to be little more than simply a selfish man who abuses those closest to him. And while the Angry Young Men of 1950s Britain have their place in theatre history, there is a loss in any attempted translation to New Zealand culture, because we simply do not have the same depth of political and social turmoil in our history to justify such egoism. At least Joan provides us with a measure of how far feminism has come.
As one of the country’s most prolific actors, a life of successfully treading the boards has provided Hurst with flawless stagecraft, but with it a performative control that can inhibit the emotional freedom for a truly cathartic release. That’s not to say that Hurst cannot provide the pathos required in the dog-eared moments of the script, such as a moving eulogy, but, when stifled by conventional, unimaginative, and boring direction from ATC Artistic Director Colin McColl, the performance is restricted to technique that relies predominantly on the external.
While the eponymous daylight atheist uses others as the targets of his humour, self-deprecation is Joan’s comedic mode – understandably so when the two are considered in tandem. Unfortunately, laughs seems to be director Tim Gordon’s only concern, and while McDonald’s timing and delivery has the audience roaring, there is no promised equal measure of crying, with patrons riding the subsiding wave of giggles through mediocre moments of otherwise heart-wrenching words.
In addition to the lack of connection between text and emotional content, is the discordance in McDonald and McGill as a single character. There is little congruity in the respective performances, and while vocal and physical characteristics alter with age, these traits are often inherent. As a result, the drawcard of seeing mother and daughter not only onstage together, but also inhabiting the same character, simply doesn’t pay off.
Joan and The Daylight Atheist are not plays to be seen, they are scripts to be read. This is not a suggestion that the works be put in memoriam, simply that ATC’s productions offer nothing more than the texts themselves. The only possible interest that could be derived from the productions would be deciding in which order to see them, as hearing one character’s perspective of events after the other’s would inevitably provide a dramatic irony that would influence an audience’s view on both parties. Either invest in both, or save yourself the trip.