SCENE BY JAMES: Stars, Sex, Scares and Sisters: Auckland does NZ Theatre Month

by James Wenley

Orientation by Chye-Ling Huang

[What’s Good Auckland?]

Already in the first fortnight of the inaugural New Zealand Theatre Month, Auckland has had a glut of good theatre.

Consider, that in the professional theatre alone we have had:

Add to this the Short + Sweet Festival presenting 20 ten-minute plays at TAPAC, the local work on our community stages, like Matthew, Mark, Luke and Joanne at Howick Little Theatre, as well as Southern Cross Campus’ Agents of Change at Māngere Arts Centre. Then there are the theatre-adjacent performances, like Black Grace’s Crying Men (with a narrative framework by playwright Victor Rodger).

None of this is exceptional. This glut of good theatre is common all year round. New Zealand Theatre Month is an arbitrary framework – it is likely these would still have been happening in September regardless of whether we called it New Zealand Theatre Month or not.

For me the month has provided an occasion to cast a spotlight on the activity that is already happening, the people and companies doing excellent work, bringing stories to life on our stages.

Here are some glimpses of what I’ve seen so far…

Why did it take so long for Auckland to get a production of Stuart Hoar’s Bright Star? Hoar’s Bright Star premiered at Circa Theatre in 2005, was produced for a London theatre in 2010, but is only now getting a second local professional production. The play itself showcases the little-known biography of NZ cosmologist Beatrice Tinsley, who challenged the prevailing ideas around the fate of our universe. The production history indicates that something is broken in our ecology in that there are few companies looking through the drawers of our top playwrights for great scripts (Playmarket is very browsable). On our stages we often focus on the new and innovative – but once produced, and possibly toured, they lose this newness and our attention is drawn to the next thing. As this production demonstrates, it can be worth taking another look at our nation’s back catalogue (and more than just the works of our Pākehā male writers).

But now, this particular production has found its zenith star. Programmed for Suffrage 125, with Jacinda in the PM’s chair, helping to give Tinsley the profile she deserves feels entirely right for this moment. In July, the New York Times featured a belated obituary of Tinsley (who staggeringly died aged only 40) as part of their “Overlooked No More” series, highlighting the significance of her research to the field – she changed cosmology.  As director Paul Gittins (who had wanted to do this play for a number of years) writes in the programme, there is a “good deal of synchronicity around performing Bright Star at this point in time.” Bright Star has been popular with audiences, with an extra performance being added to its two-week season.

Tinsley’s ideas are mind-expandingly awesome. Played superbly by Chelsea McEwan Millar, Tinsley lays out how our galaxies age and why our universe is ‘open’ and will go on expanding forever. What is not awesome is the close-mindedness and sexual clangers that she experiences as she pursues her work. She’s locked out of the academic fraternity, while she walks around the fragile masculinity of her husband (played by long-time Theatre Scenes reviewer Matt Baker), who can’t countenance leaving his academic position so his wife can pursue her space-breaking research. Bright Star is a sensitive character study that makes the science accessible and exposes the sexism for exactly what it is.

[Read Camilla Walker’s review of Bright Star]

When did a contemporary theatre show with an interval become a novelty? Supported by Q Matchbox, it is especially satisfying seeing playwright and director Chye-Ling Huang burning through Aotearoa’s sexual and racial politics over two acts as we follow the sexual conquests and hang-ups of protagonist Mei (Natasha Daniel).

Through the figure of the ‘Asian Everyman’, the narrator played by Kyle Chuen, Huang draws attention to constructions of Asian-ness in popular media. He acknowledges one implied audience to the work – he is your one Asian friend – and then implies another – you might know him well, because he may just be you. We are primed to be conscious of the biases and frames each of us bring into the work – and the kaleidoscope of responses we might bring out of it. As the everyman, Chuen insists on the right to play the role of any Asian ethnicity, hurtling into the grey areas of debates around performance and authentic representation: it is a position that underlines the reductiveness of the ‘Asian’ category, the limited western imagination in which Asian simply equals Chinese, and, by enacting it, raises questions around actors playing characters of an ethnicity different to their own (is a pan-Asian approach problematic?).

Through Mei, Huang lights a fuse under the narrative that we can’t help who we desire or fall in love with. Our sexual desires and preferences are an intensely personal part of our identity: with our lizard brains taking over, we are not in control over what and who we like. Maybe so, but Orientation leaves no doubt as to how much social conditioning and internalised racism make a huge impact. Mei has only ever dated white boys, but she’s on a mission to relearn and undergo her own programme of sexual exposure therapy. During her dating adventures she’s congratulated for being “very white”, learns about ‘gateway Asians’ and is rejected by body Kace (Marwin Silero) when he learns of her mixed heritage, telling her “I’m just not into Asians.”

Mei’s current concerns are juxtaposed with the cross-cultural love story of her parents, who inventively appear as a Chinese Dragon (her father) and a piece of white bread (her mother). Huang also draws wider connections with the present and the history of Asian peoples in New Zealand. As the Everyman expresses, “I planted my seeds in you, nothing was going to uproot them.”

Yes, there’s a lot packed in here, but as Huang so eloquently shows us, there is a lot to unpack.

Mei is a refreshingly unapologetic lead, both wronged and doing wrong. The play itself embraces a dramaturgy of female sexual desire, the scenes led by Mei’s whims (and also her repressions). It is adventurous and wild, moving in and out of her imagination and the truth-telling realism of post-coital conversation. It bangs its way through, taking us to the edge of discomfort, and often all the way over as we enter into a space of deep personal interrogation.

“My existence is political” says Mei. The play too carries this self-awareness, not afraid to play in difficult areas. Orientation is a hugely significant work: sexy, smart, and not putting up with your shit.

[Read Rand T. Hazou’s review of Orientation]

If you think The Nun is the pinnacle of convent-based horror right now, then I dare you to go see Cradle Song. There’s a persistent view that horror is especially hard to do in a stage play, which is perhaps why productions of horror-based plays remain relatively rare. This view does not apply to Albert Belz, whose latest play successfully brings not only some scares (watch out for the closest), but a chill that creeps slowly up your spine as the full horror of the situation dawns on us. For its premiere season at Corban Estate Arts Centre (as part of Te Pou Theatre’s Kōanga Festival) we were led into a small church to watch the show. “Everybody good?” asks our guide. His voice turns ominous, “We’ll see…”, and he slams the door shut.

A palpable atmosphere is established from the beginning: lit by the light refracted through the stain glass windows we see Nuns at prayer, the unnerving sound from underneath our seats of babies crying, and the sides of the building reverberate from hidden figures knocking outside. Cradle Song’s takes us and Irish building that has gone through multiple lives, from military barracks, to a home for unmarried mothers, to a convent, to finally a backpackers, which is why an Aussie (Ariaana Osborne) and a Kiwi (Briar Collard) travelling on their OEs have wound up in a space which appears to be haunted by a malevolent spirit.

The play successfully dials up the tension while deeply investing in the characters, treating them as anything but disposable. Perhaps what is most chilling is that Belz took his inspiration for the play from an actual horrific incident.

After seeing the debut there’s one question that lingers, whispering in my ear: How are they going to do it at Q?

[Read Nathan Joe’s review of Cradle Song]

Saraid Cameron has had previous experience with a Uther Dean text. She played the lead in Dean’s 7500 Days presented for Young & Hungry at The Basement in 2015, expertly navigating Dean’s discursive text as she attempted to present a scientific survey of the first 7500 days of her life, but was continually diverted. As such, Cameron is an ideal person to direct Dean’s Me and My Sister tell Each Other Everything (which debuted at BATS Theatre last year), balancing the script’s whimsy and painful pathos, and guiding the beautifully attuned performances of Emily Campbell and Phoebe Borwick. Playing sisters Murph and Jos respectively, they capture the ache that comes with being so impossibly close to someone and yet, so utterly far away – any equilibrium that might be possible in their relationship always just eluding them.

We are shown glimpses of their sibling dynamics over a number of years. We are able to date the play through various references:  when they are young and Murph makes internet dial up sounds, when they are adults and Katy Perry’s Witness is released, or a Marry Poppins sequel (without Julie Andrews!) is announced. An early scene seamlessly shifts from petty childhood fights between the sisters to a surface-petty fight over deodorant as adults, with years of resentment boiling over. By the end of this scene Dean takes us to a place that other writers might take an entire play to get to when Emily announces that they are no longer sisters and won’t talk again. So the action of the play becomes their grasping attempts at self and mutual understanding and reconciliation.

We are also told about their dynamics. A lot. Uther’s script self-consciously leans on narration – and the cast are also provided with microphones. They coax and shape the messy versions of their lives into digestible stories – the narratives they tell themselves to maintain the sanctity of their view of themselves, a defence against the counter narrative offered by their sibling. Sometimes Borwick and Campbell narrate the same text, but mostly they talk over the top of one another. Cameron heightens this effect by staging the play in an overly long traverse (a perhaps intentionally heavy-handed metaphor for the space between the sisters). Campbell sits next to me and talks to my side of the audience. Borwick sits in the opposite seating block and talks to hers. Their characters are sharing stories about when they appeared together as Von Trapp sisters in a production of The Sound of Music. I catch Murph’s hero worship of her older sister – she did the show to be with her sister, but, inevitably, her precociousness in the So Long, Farewell number stole the attention away from her sister. But they are not telling each other this. They remain ignorant of how special this memory is for the other.

Nor are we able to catch everything. Throughout we have to make a strategic choice as to whose tones we privilege. Layering his dialogue, Dean wants us to miss bits in his writing. Just like the relationship between the sisters, the play’s form is constantly swinging between immediacy and distance.

In frustrating our ability to take in everything, the danger this flirts with is that instead we tune out. But the production continually shifts storytelling modes, snapping us back to attention. Jos plays with a doppelganger doll, describing the drudgery of her day to day adult life controlled by the clock. Murph meanwhile wakes up late, scrolls through Twitter, and goes to bed with a pizza.

Murph is convinced she will die. Her first-time suicide attempt is poignantly narrated with the benefit of hindsight – knowing that this was the first time, and there would be others. Dean sensitively engages with our contemporary manifestations of anxieties and pathologies of which there are no easy answers. The characters are in internal pain, but perhaps one is just better at affixing the mask of ‘resilience’ than the other.

Each time we get to an emotionally heavy scene though, it is overcut with an irony-laden musical number: the title of the play, for instance, gets used for a one-upping Vaudeville duet number. I remain unsure if the effect ultimately relieves us of the uncomfortableness of painful truths, or if it raises the discomfort. Certainly, I find myself lurching at the emotional whiplash.

In the closing moments the reflex to narrate – “I remember” – is overcome, and we are back in a diegetic scene between the sisters – “do you remember?”. It is hard to stop weaving the narratives and be present with each other.

This is what New Zealand theatre is doing in 2018. If you want to know why theatre is still an utterly modern and innovative medium, look to these shows. In particular, Orientation and Me and My Sister Tell Each Other Everything, which showcase the contemporary concerns and styles from theatremakers in ascendance. I’m thinking especially of the constant play between post-dramatic and dramatic elements, the neo-Brechtian distancing of deconstructing, commenting on, and stepping out of the play (and adding dance sequences!) versus deeply investing in the truth and realism of the characters.

In Me and My Sister the confidence of Uther Dean’s writing and Saraid Cameron’s direction butts against the meta-textual lack of confidence that the characters have and their difficulty to look –really look– at themselves, to sit in their emotions without deflection. It is deeply contradictory. Certainly, in Orientation, some of the most effective scenes were when the fourth wall crashes back down, such as when Marwin Salero’s character has a heart-to-heart with his sister. And yet, so too was Mei’s ‘battle for the relationship’ showdown with her Pākehā boyfriend, the role fragmented out across the male cast. Neither would be as effective if we didn’t have the contrasting modes.

The plays are restless and dynamic, revelatory and invigorating, constantly shifting and surprising. They fight against passive reception. They ask us to pay attention, challenge us, keep us thinking long after we’ve left the theatre – maybe even shift something inside us too. This is what theatre can do.

Orientation and Me and My Sister Tell Each Other Everything close on 15th September and Bright Star closes on the 16th. Cradle Song plays Q Theatre 18-22nd September. 

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