This is an office space where tokenistic cultural gestures are used to tick boxes. Where the line between appropriation and appreciation is blurred. Where microaggressions lurk around every corner. For some people this will never be a concern; for the rest of us, it’s a reality.
WEiRdO, created by Waylon Edwards, William Duignan and Jane Yonge, is a strange chimera of a play. Casually flipping between genres, it straddles the lines of workplace satire, seminar, psychological horror, metatheatre and even musical. Originally staged in Wellington, the Auckland season is timely, coming at the tail end of Taika Waititi’s recent comments that New Zealand is “racist as fuck”.
Set around the Department of Lifestyle Encouragement (DOLE), the story pits two colleagues against each other. The fact that Waylon (Waylon Edwards) is Māori and Richard (William Duignan) is Pākehā is no coincidence, but the play patiently ratchets up the tension rather than spelling it out straight out of the gate. While we know exactly what this play is about even before its themes are spelt out for us, it’s not until the rivalry over a golden lanyard (the measure for success in this office space) that everything comes to a head: Richard, through a combination of insecurity and passive-aggressiveness, suggests that the only reason Waylon is promoted is because he is Māori.
It’s a fantastically simple setup that propels the characters and audience into some uncomfortable places and demonstrates the issues that minorities face in predominantly white spaces. In trying to cover all these facets it doesn’t always give enough nuance to any particular moment, often relying on discomfort over depth, but the effect of seeing these issues reflected through an unabashedly Kiwi lens is a rare and unique experience.
Despite the testosterone-filled environment and relationship being central to the play, the play’s greatest conflict happens within Waylon himself, and the icky contradictions that rub him deep down: when he uncomfortably lists off his major accomplishments at DOLE, twisting inside himself with self-loathing; when he sits in silence like a wounded animal, with only the omniscient and booming Te Reo haunting him; and when he is unable to perform a karakia for his workmates, both embarrassed and ashamed. With his brow heavy with sweat and back ready to break from pressure, his performance embodies the uneasy and discomforting reality of wearing what feels like a second skin.
Like the aggressive and pig-headed men-children of Neil Labute’s plays, Duignan as Richard is the epitome of white privilege and cocksure arrogance, but he’s also an easy caricature; for all the loathing his swagger and comments induce, he can be laughed off. His antagonism offers no new insights to the inner workings of such environments, though he does exemplify what they are like at their worst.
Though Emily Hartley-Skudder’s set design is superficially a retro throwback to the 90s, Yonge’s direction unsettles these elements from their reality, framing elements so they evoke horror films above all else. The ugly patterned carpet recalls The Shining as much as any dreaded office and the ugly fluorescent lighting that hangs over Waylon becomes a torture device, exacerbating his already heavily-perspired condition.
WEirdO ends by rewarding Waylon with a neatly tied arc of self-acceptance. It’s a powerful moment, especially considering the proceedings, but it’s also entirely unearned. The play never shows how he has reached this point. It simply puts the narrative on hold and delivers a moment of catharsis, giving the audience what we crave but not what we need. But, while the happy ending rings false, the portrait of Waylon’s inner struggle is immaculately painted. A play that unfortunately continues to be timely.
WEirdO plays at The Basement until 21 April.