Wears its heart on its sleeve [by Matt Baker]
The decision to revisit a piece of work is an intriguing endeavour. For David Aston it was based on his belief that Where Are You My Only One? – a piece that he first performed in 2003 as part of Silo Theatre’s To Russia With Love mentoring project for young directors – needed to be seen by a wider audience. Originally a 30-minute one-act play, the piece was developed by its writer Vanessa Rhodes while she was a resident at The Robert Lord Cottage in Dunedin. It debuted as a full-length play at Circa Two in 2009, and 9 years after his initial involvement it is clear to see why Aston would want to approach this character with greater context.
Aston epitomises the Waikato farmer with an endearingly awkward characterisation and affably honest dialogue to serve him. Every word, and occasionally breath, seems like a struggle to express himself, which continually adds to his backstory and consequently informs a great deal of his character. Elena Stejko gives a tightly bound performance, reflecting the maternal bonds which dictate and restrict so much of her character’s life. Matriarchal New Zealand actress Elizabeth Hawthorne gives an acute portrayal of a domineering mother in both words and action. A manipulator with honest intentions, there is a razor sharp edge to her performance that is both dangerous and intriguing, and even when Hawthorne’s accent does slip now and then as the show progresses (bar her phonetic ‘e’ vowels which are flawless), her natural RP keeps her in good standing. Each of these three actors finds not only the honesty and inner turmoil of their characters, but the laugh out loud comedy that arises from their foibles (especially Aston in his video address).
Cameron Rhodes, brother to the writer, is very much a director who understands the dynamic of relationship between character, which, while crucial in all theatre, is one of the fundamental driving forces of the play, especially, and somewhat ironically, between Stejko and Hawthorne as opposed to Stejko and Aston. The women’s performances are certainly heightened to a degree, especially in comparison to Aston, though this hint of melodrama is reflected in the script and makes for a nice dichotomy between the two worlds.
John Verryt’s set design also illustrates this difference, dividing and mirroring the space evenly, yet creating a feeling of claustrophobia and grand isolation for Moscow and the Waikato respectively. These aesthetics are enhanced by Bonnie Burrill’s bold lighting design, as well as the variety of music used by sound designer Stacey Donaldson, including Brendan Dugan, The Windy City Strugglers, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, and traditional Russian music. The latter lends itself nicely to the narrative dance sequences, choreographed by Marija Stanisich, and both she and Rhodes have found pieces that accurately reflect the journey of the characters.
The aforementioned melodrama of the script does occasionally result in slightly wooden dialogue that should really be the characters’ subtext, and some of the plot progression felt a little too easy. That’s not to say that the elements of conflict, motivation, and resolution are not there, simply that due to them being addressed in such a direct manner, I felt that as an audience member I wasn’t required to invest much of an effort into the story. The meat was tasty, I just wanted a bit of fat to chew on. There is some beautiful poetic imagery in the script, and, while it is certainly written for the stage and contains elements that best work in such a mode, I couldn’t help but feel that this story would be better told on screen. Perhaps a co-production between the New Zealand Film Commission and the ever-enthusiastic-to-collaborate Russian Cinema Fund could be the next step?
Where Are You My Only One? plays at The Basement until 8th December. More details see The Basement.