SCENE BY JAMES: 2015 – A Theatrical Year in Review

The Playground Collective's All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever

Half Full / Half Empty [by James Wenley]

The Playground Collective's All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever
The Playground Collective’s All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever

So Auckland, how did we do this year? Were our generously marked up interval drinks full to the brim, or running on empty?

If you’d asked me this question at the beginning of September, say between shows at Auckland Live’s decadent Cabaret season, I would have responded gloomily. Programming choices were tepid, and there had been little to get excited about. The year in Auckland theatre was not going well. Hand me another drink.

But if you’d asked me at the end of the month, following Q’s one-two punch of The Events and All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever, I would have responded with a bit more hope.

Still, this was a year of disappointments. Cluster-Fringe. Underachieving local work. And mid-year, Silo’s Eight Gigabytes never-nude scandal, in a which a war of words between Silo and the playwright was traded on the pre-show notes on audience’s seats. Now this was disappointing. I wanted lumpy middle-age bodies! I demand to see lumpy middle-age bodies!

But hey, at least we didn’t actually have to see lumpy middle-age bodies.

Yes, it’s been a glass half full, half empty sort of year.

OF FRINGE & FESTIVAL

This year’s Auckland Fringe sought to answer the perennial question: if you put on a Fringe, but don’t tell anyone, will they come? Not really. The Fringe website made preventing audiences from buying tickets into a performance art. The print program finally arrived AFTER the first shows had already begun. And there was little communication from the organisers to let the artists know what was going on. As I reflected in my lessons from the Fringe:

It was notable that shows also aligned with the Pride Festival did well, and The Basement hummed along with its core audience in attendance, but spaces like Q Vault’s proved a noose around artists’ necks. There were some notable successes, Ponsonby tribute I Wanna Be Na Nah Na Nah Nah sold out early, and Victor Rodger’s Girl on a Corner is coming back to The Basement in March — but due to issues getting the word out, this Auckland Fringe was even more Fringe than usual in terms of wider awareness. It’s not a good look either for international artists looking to make Fringe one of the stops in their tours. Auckland has artists in abundance to make for a truly exciting Fringe. They deserve better than this sloppy affair.

I wanna be Na Nah Na Nah Na
I wanna be Na Nah Na Nah Na

On the bright side, the artists kept going, and delivered some smashes. I Wanna Be Na Nah Nah Nah was an evocative portal into Ponsonby of yesteryear.  Prehistoria was a chortle. Ben Anderson’s Puzzle had visual quirk and sharp writing. Taylor Hall’s Beast was the most memorable character I met all Fringe. Through Stutterpop we get to walk in Sam Brooks’ (platform) shoes. Freya Desmarais’s Live Orgy was socially important, and contained the Fringiest moment of the Fringe. Mother/Jaw was politically orientated and powerful dance meditation on belonging, using Grace Taylor’s Afakasi poetry collection as its backbone. Torum Heng’s Keep Out of My Box (and other useful advice), performed at The Basement’s box office, was a koha charmer. Credit to Heng, and Lydia Zanetti, our heroes of the Fringe, for riding in and helping the Festival course-correct.

Of course, Fringe also contained had The Shittiest Theatre You Will Ever See, and Eat the Young Fresh, both of which could battle it out for the former title.

Auckland Festival’s local program led with Nancy Brunning’s Hikoi and The Mooncake and the Kumara. I didn’t get to see Mooncake – the Festival would not give Theatre Scenes or Metro a ticket. I think this is a shame – I suspect this play, with its weaving of colonial Pakeha, Maori and Chinese culture is important historically for our theatre. It was also short sighted for the Festival – a good review quote may have helped its subsequent North Island tour. It sold out its short season even before opening. I hope this one is on the cards for a return, because the demand is there.

Brunning’s Hikoi was in part a response to the 2011 Te Reo Mauriora review which predicted the death of Maori language in the next 40 years. I wrote:

Without didactically getting on the pulpit, the play quietly yet powerfully makes the case for Maori language learning in schools so that all New Zealanders can benefit. Hikoi is a cathartic work of remembrance with immediate relevance.

Silo Theatre presented The Book of Everything, which was an excellent production, but a poor choice for the Festival. It was difficult to get excited about Silo doing an international work that had already premiered in Wellington in 2011. The Festival context helped Silo produce the large-cast play, but I’d like to think the Festival is an opportunity to strive beyond more of the usual. Matt Baker thought the production was missing a page or twoOthello: The Remix was hella fun, and Akram Khan’s iTMOi (in the mind of igor) and Mau’s I AM were works of vast, intelligent spectacle, but the Festival lacked for real standouts.

DEVELOPMENT BLUES

Not Psycho
Not Psycho

The failures in new Q Presents shows The Deliberate Disappearance of my Friend, Jack Hartnett from Bullet Heart Club and Not Psycho from Fractious Trash prompted me to write a piece where I asked if we were giving new work the best chance to succeed?. I admired the artists and the ways the works refused to conform to conventional theatre games, but both were highly frustrating to watch as their potential collapsed in front of me:

Jack Hartnett had a “Raw: Projects in Development” showing as part of the Auckland Arts Festival earlier this year. Not Psycho was work-shopped prior to rehearsals. This is healthy, and more than a lot of other new works get. But should the next jump be a major two week+ Q season? Is presenting partner Q Presents empowering enough development rigor? Are they ready for their audience? Are they ready to be fed to the critical sharks?

And it wasn’t just these two – I wondered if we have a systemic problem in developing new work, with the odds (including critics like me) stacked heavily against the makers:

Is our development system fatal to new productions? Unless a production is universally praised on its debut, it can be difficult to remount a new and improved show. Your money has been spent, and if you’ve already been on in a major Auckland venue, it is difficult to coax audiences back.

Red Leap's Dust Pilgrim
Red Leap’s Dust Pilgrim

Red Leap’s latest, Dust Pilgrim was another case in point. The company downsized, went dark, created incredible magic-realist imagery, but the story crumbled to dust. Without the narrative storyboard that Shaun Tan’s The Arrival provided Red Leap’s physical adaptation, the company’s work has come up against this storytelling battle again and again. They are a company that continually refine their work, so perhaps they should stop using Auckland as the market to premiere their shows. Indian Ink have long done ‘out of town’ try-outs in Hamilton, and cultivated a loyal following, for example.

Bronwyn Elsmore’s Fallout was reworked for the 30th Anniversary of the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior. It was an effective history lesson, but left me wanting more as a stage drama. Days Like Today was ill-served by its creative team, and Matt Baker also found issues with The Mourning After and Orangutan.

Show’s like Josephine Stewart-Tewhiu’s examination of depression through The Black had great potential, but ended just as it had started to get going. Bryony Skillington’s Northern Glow had transformed not only the upstairs Basement space into a living room of a 90’s British housing estate, but the downstairs corridor as well. There was party food galore – chips, dips, sausage rolls, fizz – to feed the audience. But the show was undercooked – bingo downstairs with Skillington the father was a fun warmup, then Skillington as 5 year old sister fed us and made us play some party games, then Skillington as mother delivered a revealing monologue. It was a little heart-breaking that so much effort had gone into constructing the space when the story was still not ready – because a work like this does not easily return.

I also took the Short+Sweet Festival to task and wondered what its value was in Auckland’s infrastructure – it’s sad to see it such a shadow of its former self.

So, cause for pessimism. But then, having asked questions about Q Presents, the program came through by giving a platform to the Playground Collective’s All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever. This work had been honed over multiple seasons, most recently in New York, and you could tell. I loved it, I went gaga for it:

When there’s nothing new under the sun, The Playground Collective dares to be meta-original. Outstanding, inventive, exciting – a surge of creative current. Satisfaction 100%.

It was a post-modern existential crisis that asked why we should care about your post-modern existential crisis. It was fascinated by stories, why we tell them, how we tell them. I found myself investing emotionally in a talking lightbulb, or getting teary when Kent turned off the life support for an inanimate object. Then there were the great post-show foyer discussions as we dissected the layers upon layers of the story and put forward our best theories as to what it all meant. This was my production of the year, a shining example of a team working at their full, who have invested the time to understand the story they are telling.

RESONANT EVENTS

The Events
The Events

The Events also helped restore my faith in theatre this year. It was not a perfect production; the Rangitara space was like an empty Cathedral, when it needed an intimate village church. However, Silo’s production of David Greig’s play was a really important production in the way it resonated with far too many tragic events around the world this year. The provocation was the 2011 Utøjya attack perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik,  but Greig defamiliarised it into an attack on a community choir. Each night a different choir would participate on the stage, and it was fascinating watching them watch the play. As the year has continued, sadly, the memory of this play has continued to grow with the burden of relevance.

Tandi Wright’s priest went looking for why, and could not answer it. Reading and watching news reports this year of mass shootings and violence provoked this question again and again. Matt Baker wrote:

But the catharsis does not come with an answer, because, ultimately, there is none other than the one the person asking the question accepts. If violence is the question, then art is, at the very least, one response. These discussions should not remain relegated to the pages of an Internet blogsite; they are the epitome of why we gather together to be presented with a playwright’s truth.

The Rebel Alliance’s Manifesto 2083 continued the conversation with a solo show using Brevik’s 1500 page manifesto as its primary material. I wrote:

In Manifesto 2083, the events on Utøjya are recounted with a sickening matter-of-factness. The Events ask what sort of person would do this, but its journey is of a survivor and if it is possible to come to some sort of acceptance. Manifesto demands to know what sort of person would do this – and it asks it again, and again, and again. It is a chilling and challenging character study, without any of the catharsis that The Events provides.

In Officer 27 Aroha Awarau used the 2009 NZ police shooting of 17-year-old bystander Halatau Naitoko, and the effect of this tragedy on Naitoko’s mother, as the impetus for its story, but it lost its way:

There’s huge value in going behind the headlines, and looking at how policies set at the Government level can have unforeseen and ongoing repercussions. Using actual events as inspiration for this play comes with an extra ethical responsibility in its storytelling. Yes, it should fictionalise, but in doing so, should distil something true. David Grieg’s The Events, staged by Silo Theatre, does this very well. Unfortunately, Officer 27 fails in its task.

Earlier in the year Victor Rodger tackled gun violence in Club Paradiso in one of the more underrated productions of the year. Robbie Magasiva went against type as the piece’s complex villain, and Rodger exploited the real-time possibilities of theatre to lead us through a hostage situation from beginning to end. Sharu Delilkan wrote:

This local version of a ‘Tarrentino-esque’ production is honestly like nothing I’ve seen on stage before! …The brutal, psychotic indifference of the perpetrators of a seemingly pointless crime is reminiscent of the Panmure RSA murders in 2001, making such a scenario that would otherwise be considered unlikely in New Zealand all the more real and horrifying. Testament to Vela Manusaute’s astute direction was a comment from one of my mates after the show: “you basically felt captive in the space just like the people in the pub” – in short it was impossible not to feel part of the proceedings taking place in front of our eyes. Trauma and basic disbelief was the overall reaction as people left the theatre, mainly in silence with their jaws still wide open.

For me it was certainly a tense and gut-wrenching experience. There is often a sense of timidness in the productions and stories that are told in Auckland theatre. Mostly, our shows are commercial and safe. There’s a hesitancy to touch politics. None of these shows can be accused of being timid, it was encouraging to see such a strong conversation happening within this cluster of productions. We need more of this.

THE BIG TWO

If The Events was a high-point for Silo, then Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography was its nadir. The production became overshadowed with the disagreement between the company and the playwright, Declan Greene, over the handling of the climax. The actors would keep their clothes on, but the play is licensed on the condition that the play is produced as the author intended – undies off please. I wasn’t impressed:

Does it matter? Yes. Fatally so. The first effect is that it pulls focus from other aspects of the play. And when you get to the ending, it’s going to be top of your mind, already neutering the dramatic potential. The script has the actors describe what they are about to do, take off their clothes, and stare at each other’s bits. We are meant to be anticipate this moment with perhaps a mixture of dread and excitement. Greene tweeted: “theatre audiences have good imaginations. Hopefully they’ll dream away those undies, lol”.

I can understand how the intended image would be far more powerful than seeing two people in their funny undies. The characters have been dissembling the entire play. Naked, they would have nowhere else to hide. Neither would we. Wright and Bradley remove their layers, but don’t go all the way. We get the gist, but it’s not exactly confronting. It’s a shame. How often do we get exposed to real, normal, lumpy bodies onstage?

Though it sold those tickets, Silo did not come out looking good. Did they want to threaten their reputation with other playwrights? This wasn’t bad art, it was bad professionalism. If it was a condition of the contract, then they needed to honour it. All parties should have agreed to this upon casting. If there were issues at that stage, that’s when you negotiate with the playwright, not just before. Poor form.

Hudson & Halls in the flesh.
Hudson & Halls in the flesh.

Hudson & Halls Live was a deserved win for the company, and hopefully a sign of things to come under the leadership of Sophie Roberts: a commissioned local work that has owned its end of year season slot. I was a little spoiled by the rave reviews elsewhere, which set my expectations too high. It was a wonderful farce with a lavish helping of kiwi nostalgia, delivered by comically gifted cast, but if it was going for more depth it was not yet realised. Matt Baker was spoiled by the documentary Hudson and Halls – A Love Story, and the depiction of the couple that didn’t make it to the show. His was the lone critical voice to say:

The “amazing” story that inspired Emerson to collaborate with director Kip Chapman and Silo Theatre artistic director Sophie Roberts is not the story we are shown, and little has been done to extend this original devised script beyond its pantomimic Christmas special paint-by-numbers structure. Instead, audiences can expect a hilariously entertaining show, but one of little substance.

Auckland Theatre Company meanwhile? Their program was the definition of safe. The Ladykillers had “no dynamite under The Maidment boards and consequently no spark or imagination” according to Matt. Thriller Enlightenment had the potential for resonance, but the localising didn’t work nor did the elements congeal. As fair and balanced as Fox News, Rupert was entertaining. So too Michael Hurst’s delivery of a Michael Hurst’s Lysistrata – sexy, outrageous, fun, lots of phalluses. I found the gender politics stuck in the 1990s. To answer why do this ancient play today, ATC needed to deconstruct the text. What would a female director’s version look like here? This year, Gaggle, an all-female ensemble in London, reset the play to feature “a gang of vigilante women, set against the backdrop of post-election despair in the UK”. Now that sounds interesting. Watching Heroes was like putting on a warm jumper and settling with a glass of good wine in your hand. Guys and Dolls was safe but boring choice for ATC’s end of year Musical and certainly didn’t rock the boat.

Panda House
Panda House

Acclaimed novelist Emily Perkin’s adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was the most fascinating for me, having a fundamental rethink about how the ideas of the text work within a contemporary setting (which should have been done for Lysistrata). Tony Rabbit’s design had people talking, and I had a lot of fun trying to unpack what the pit filled with a thousand panda soft toys meant.

As usual, some of the most important work ATC conducted this year was in their youth program Next Big Thing. This year they had Bed, an oddly beguiling devised work from a script by Benjamin Henson, a return of Sit On It, set in the woman’s bathroom at a club. But Inky Pinky Ponk Amanaki Prescott-Faletau and Leki Jackson-Bourke, with all the charms of a John Hughes film, was the stand-out.

GHETTOISATION

The most interesting and relevant show on Auckland Theatre Company’s program was My Own Darling by Grace Taylor, which had a short season at Mangere. This is what ATC should be doing more of – investing their considerable resources in artists and helping them shine. Taylor’s background as a performance artist gave this work a unique sensibility, a poetic tribute to the places and faces of Auckland, and the politics of belonging. I’d love to point you towards a review, but we weren’t asked.

My Own Darling should have been on Auckland Theatre Company’s main bill. At the very least, it should have also been taken to a central city venue too. Auckland Theatre Company have been running a Pasifika programming at Mangere for the last few years, but isn’t it time for this to reflected on its main stages too? Where are the local works that reflect a Maori/Pasifika Aoteoroa?  In one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, ATC seems only to be paying lip service to diversity. ATC also faced criticism when non-Asian actors were cast in a play reading of The Arrest of Ai Weiwei. Theatre is all about representation, and a question ATC have a duty to get right.

One of the most significant developments this year has been the opening of Te Pou Theatre in New Lynn, “the Auckland home of Maori Theatre”. They work with principles of tikanga and have a policy of inclusiveness for all-comers. They have held festivals for the de-stigmatization of mental illness and HIV. They’ve presented new work from Albert Belz.They are quietly building a community/whanua of makers. It’s a great initiative for theatre in Auckland, and great for Maori theatre to have a venue.

What must be guarded against is it becoming the only home for Maori Theatre for Auckland, just like Mangere has been the only home for ATC’s Pasifika theatre. Where else can we go to see Maori theatre in Auckland? It should be everywhere. Hikoi in the Festival was excellent, as was Taki Rua’s revival of Briar Grace Smith’s Ngā  Pou Wahine . It remains unclear where Te Pou will be steered, but I hope one of its purposes is as a base to develop new work to be taken out New Zealand wide.

MORE LOVE FOR THE BASEMENT

Don’t you just love Basement television? First, they got into the writer’s rooms and starting popping up on 7 Days and Jono and Ben, and then they got their own show.  Rose Matafeo, Laura Daniel, Nic Sampson, Eli Mathewson, Hamish Parkinson, Chris ParkerJoseph Moore et al are Basement regulars and had smashing Comedy Fest shows this year.

For a few weeks this year it was possible to catch some of them in person at Snort, while – what Wizardy is this – also appearing on TV’s Funny Girls. We’ve known how good this gang has been for a while, but now the whole country does. How choice is that?

As usual, The Basement provided some of the great theatre memories of the year.  The Experiment took over the Basement for a week of amazingly eclectic programming. Art, music, talk, Julia Croft performance art, Chris Knox jamming, it was a definite highlight. Others included Loving Kurt Vonnegut, Cover Lover, The Best Possible Album Part Anybody has ever been to and Beards! Beards! Beards!

Virginia Frankovich and Julia Croft have made a formidable team this year,  creating powerful work with meaning for Auckland’s stages. If There’s Not Dancing at the Revolution, I’m not coming  mashed film clips, Laura Mulvey theory, and a slow strip tease for a work that was affordable, political, incendiary, and triumphant (and it’s coming back next year!).

One of Christine Urquhart's incredible sets...
One of Christine Urquhart’s incredible sets…

Young & Hungry had a strong year featuring writing from Sam Brooks and Uther Dean. While Brook’s mediation on online spaces made for a fairly passive drama in 21st Narcissus, Dean’s 7500 Days, with the endlessly inventive hand of director Nisha Madhan, was an anarchic riot, another favourite.

And to finish, Jesus Christ Part II has got to be the best Xmas show The Basement have offered yet. Having just one celebrity guest for each show was a smart move, enabling a properly rehearsed show to develop around them. I love that Director Oliver Driver tested the audience during the show – would we help pay for Pizza? Would those with Santa VIP table seating give up the seats they paid a premium for so those in the stalls could also have a chance to experience the show from their end? Jesus’s narrative fate really was in our hands, genius.

Mention of The Basement this year cannot be complete without mention of Christine Urquhart’s sets. From The Non-Surgeon’s Guide to the Appendectomy to This is Our Youth to Loving Kurt Vonnegut to The Lesson, she invigorated the possibilities of the space.

EVEN MORE

  • We had some great international visitors throughout the year: Swing, The Daisy Theatre and the Globe-to-Globe Hamlet. The British Council were awesome for supporting Hiraeth and I, Peaseblossom.
  • Live Live Cinema’s Little Shop of Horrors was a zany and accomplished tribute to a very schlocky film.
  • After Empire, Limbo and Le Noir visited us this year, the adult-circus genre needs to find some new tricks to wow seen-it-all-before Aucklanders.
  • Prayas’ A Fine Balance, adapted from Rohinton Mistry’s novel of the same name, was a worthy epic staged at TAPAC about the tragic consquences of India’s Rule of Emergency in the 1970s.
  • CATS was a love it or hate it affair. Where is the musical for dog lovers huh? It was nice to see a stage production of the old classic Singin’ in the Rain.
  • Meanwhile, Generation of Z, which began life in Aotea Square in 2013, played for over 4 months in London, bringing a number of kiwis along for the ride. I think that achievement is worthy of more recognition.

It’s been a year’s of ups and down, of smashes and could-do-betters. And we can.

… And that’s Theatre Scenes for another year. On a personal note, I was thrilled and humbled to win the inaugural Pantograph Punch award for “Best Critic” at this year’s Auckland Theatre Awards against strong competition. I’ve been going at this sometime (five years for Theatre Scenes!) so it’s gratifying to receive the recognition. I’d like to thank my regular contributors this year – Matt Baker, Sharu Delilkan, Tim Booth, Tim George and Jess Bates for helping cover all the theatre scenes, and Simon Wilson (now Metro Editor-at-large), Frances Morton and the staff at Metro Magazine for their support.

And thanks too to you for reading. I’ve enjoyed the critical conversations this year.

FOR MORE PERSPECTIVES ON 2015, SEE ALSO:
– The Pantograph Punch’s Ten Plays We Loved in 2015 and Ten Moments in Auckland Theatre 2015 
– Jonty Crane’s Best of 2015 – Auckland Theatre
– Nathan Joe’s Best of Auckland Theatre in 2015 for the Lumiere Reader

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