SCENE BY JAMES: The 2017 Auckland Arts Festival in Review

by James Wenley

"Eli Kent" in Peer Gynt [recycled]

[Giving Auckland Something to Believe in]

By the end of Eli Kent’s 3&1/2 hr epic Peer Gynt [recycled], we’ve crashed a wedding, attended a troll kink-party, seen the author give birth to a baby Henrik Ibsen, escaped from a spiritualist retreat, hung out with Milo Yiannopolous, given James Cameron a taste of his Titanic medicine, and confirmed that onions, like the self, don’t have a core. In the final moment though, it’s just Eli Kent and his laptop, and the character delivers his takeaway message: “If we all believe in the lie together, isn’t that as good as the truth?”

A bit glib? Perhaps. But after peeling back the onion layers of Ibsen’s text, and Kent’s own selfhood, it is a necessarily hopeful statement about finding some sort of meaning, where perhaps there is none, if only to continue on. It speaks to the mission of theatre. In that room we be together, and believe.

Eli Kent did as Eli Kent does and wrote himself into the play as a character (I called him the “selfie-playwright” in my review). The lie here was that this gave us direct access into the creative anxieties of the playwright as he struggled with hell to adapt Henrik Ibsen’s play, and whether he could possibly add anything else to it that the Norwegian “father of realism” hadn’t already mastered. Jack Buchanan (who has known Kent since high-school) played the Kent character on stage, but such was the spitting-image illusion, anecdotally, many audiences couldn’t distinguish the lie and the truth, and believed that really was the playwright being tied up by the militant Ibsen appreciation society.

Kent’s question – “If we all believe in the lie together, isn’t that as good as the truth?” – resonated throughout the 2017 Auckland Arts Festival. The Encounter, Every Brilliant Thing, and How to Keep an Alien had slippery relationships with fictionality and truth. All were confessional shows purporting to tell a true story, performed by a solo actor with a little bit of help (sound design for The Encounter, an on-stage stage-manager for Alien, and the audience for Brilliant Thing). One of Eli Kent’s themes is the craving for authenticity that eludes us in our post-modern world. The encounters with these shows opened questions of the balance of truth and fiction that we seek from theatre.

The Encounter presented by Complicite
The Encounter presented by Complicite

From the beginning we’re clued not to believe the narrator of The Encounter, played by Richard Katz. Nonchalantly he tells us there’s a technical hold-up, so in the meantime he’d like to take a selfie with us to send back to his daughter in London who doesn’t really understand Daddy’s work. The show has, of course, already started, which he then proceeds to point out.

Next he gives away how the binaural Head technology works (which has made this show such a must-see, or rather, or must-hear event). Each audience member has their own set of headphones. He says he can change the temperature of our ears by blowing gently into the binaural head onstage. This happens. Or did my brain just think it did because he said it would?

Rachael Longshaw-Park, in her review, was intrigued by what this technology adds to the theatrical experience:

This kind of exploration into this technology signals future possibilities of how we might define and construct theatrical experiences. On the one hand, it is easy to suggest the story could still be told in traditional format (whatever that really is now), however, the layers of the story build when the technology is added and played with. The sound becomes another player on the stage with which Katz can riff with and perform with, another vehicle to tell and develop the story.

I am not being hyperbolic in saying that The Encounter is a mind-altering show. There’s the mediated reality that we can see on stage, and the dissonance created by the ‘reality’ of what we can hear, and in turn the visual images in our heads conjured by the narrative of National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre journeying into the Amazon. With those headphones on, that incredible 360 degree audio, your mind is constantly tricked. As McIntyre goes deeper, so too does our experience, and it becomes possible to forget the mechanics of this theatrical event and lose yourself in the story.

And yet, doubt plagues us at every turn. Can McIntyre’s account be trusted? Is that really the voice of Katz’s daughter that we hear interrupting the narrative? It was after all Complicite’s artistic director Simon McBurney that originated the role. What lies were being spun in the service of this story?

Every Brilliant Thing’s James Rowland was not the original performer either. I did not discover this until we received the programme walking out of the theatre, and it made me question the fictionality of everything that I had just witnessed. The show seemed so honest, so heartfelt. I believed that Rowland had started a list of brilliant things as a child as a naïve way of cheering up his mentally unwell mother, and continued this list on and off through his life, becoming a record of milestones and cultural tastes. Rowland’s party trick was to have memorised this list (or the entries used in the show anyway), but also to have memorised which audience members he had given which number to, who would read them out when he turned to them and called their number.

Written by Jonny Donahoe and Duncan Macmillan, the programme says it is “based on true and untrue stories.” As a show, it is one of the most successful in honestly dealing successfully with mental health, while also delivering non-sugar coated comfort.

This leaves us with How to Keep an Alien, performed by Sonya Kelly, who really did fall in love with an Aussie stage manager named Kate and then go through visa hoops to prove their relationship and keep her in Ireland (now, Kelly’s tour of Alien ironically keeps her apart from her partner!). It was wonderfully heart-warming, but left me wondering about what it didn’t do:

The request to quantify their relationship for the immigration service has a number of possibilities for dramatic soul searching. How do we prove a feeling? Why do we love each other? Do we love each other? These aren’t fully exploited. True, there are some prickly moments, as Sonya asks, “how do people go through all this and not want to kill each other?”, but Kate remains safely perched on a pedestal for the most part.

Maybe their relationship really was as blessed as it is depicted in the show (the struggles against the bureaucracy a great way to unify). But with this one, I began to wonder about the voice we didn’t hear, and what Aussie Kate would have to say about it all.

***

The Bone Feeder
The Bone Feeder

2017 marked Artistic Director Carla Van Zon’s final Festival, which she has led since 2011. One of her legacies is the championing of local work, especially culturally diverse productions. This year Aotearoa was represented by Cellfish, The Biggest and The Bone Feeder.

There’s a lot of literature on how arts programmes in prisons can improve recidivism rates. So going into Cellfish, about a Shakespeare in prisons programme, you might expect a worthy, life-changing narrative. But instead of redemption, it channels Lady Macbeth’s mantra “look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t,” and becomes a play about revenge. Though its filmic cutting gets in the way of landing the full force of the ending, Cellfish, written by the formidable team of Miriama McDowell, Rob Mokaraka and Jason Te Kare delivered a powerful korero about cyclical trauma and violence and in this country.

Jamie McCaskill’s The Biggest meanwhile used the occasion of a fishing competition to have a gentle conversation about our bicultural relationship, focussing particularly on the attitudes of a senior generation. Nathan Joe wrote:

Set in small town New Zealand, this is a rural love letter with the intention of capturing these men as they are, rather than how they should be. They talk about women, race and sex without much regard for political correctness, censoring themselves for no one. In the wrong hands, these men would be insufferable, but team behind The Biggest capture the earnestness and honesty necessary to bring these men to life, filling them with the familiarity of a family member.

Unfortunately, as I wrote in my review, “the comedy is undersized, and McCaskill could still get deeper into the guts of the issues he raises.” McCaskill had attempted to write a mainstream comedy, but it was “at its best when played for truths, not for laughs.”

Nathan Joe called Renee Liang and Gareth Farr’s Opera The Bone Feeder a “big deal” because of its East Asian cast in his review, but found:

The most exhilarating aspect to The Bone Feeder is the way it injects much needed life and relevancy to a medium that’s mostly relegated to museum pieces. It might not be a big two-act show with reckless love affairs or campy caricatures, but it makes up for it in it sheer emotional depth and cultural nuance. Not to mention how well the sentimental and earnest quality of the subject matter is handled, avoiding didacticism or lazy moralising. If you have any shared history with the characters, like myself, it’ll be hard not to come away feeling directly spoken to. And those watching with outside eyes will come away experiencing a moving elegy that doubles as a valuable history lesson. This is without a doubt, a significant addition to the canon of New Zealand theatre and opera.

Nathan Joe also attended Rice from Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, which responded to the life cycle of rice fields in Chihshang, Taiwan. He found it “most effective when shining light on the inherent beauty of human labour amongst mother nature,” but this was not enough to sustain interest in the whole piece:

to me it takes a simple idea and stretches it too far, even for its relatively short 70 minutes. The resulting work ebb and flows between hypnotically slow-paced and frustratingly repetitive, astonishing beauty and intermittently captivating.

There was a new Speigeltent in town, hosting LA SOIRÉE. Sharu Delilkan and Tim booth raved that it had “everything rolled in and more that” that they’d “want and need from a naughty, nasty enticing festival in celebration of the weird, wonderful and amazing,” and for me, it was “the most unabashed fun I’ve had in a Speigeltent for years.”

I saw a trailer for Horror at the movies, which had to make clear that “this is not a film.” It was a clear push to get movie buffs to the live theatre, and made a bold call as to what audiences would see and experience, but when Rachael Longshaw-Park went along, audiences were pissing their pants for a different reason:

After sitting through a very reactive audience you do realise that Horror becomes comedic on stage. It’s no secret that bad horror films tend to become great comedic fodder; for some reason we haven’t quite nailed down the elusive horror prescription perfectly enough to consistently replicate it, and so often horror movies fall into the “so bad it’s good” category. While Horror did not set out to be a knee slapper, all around audience members were squealing with laughter at the action on stage. This is perhaps not a failing on the part of the creator or performer, but of the medium. Theatre is too live and all too knowingly fake. The audience is as present as can be whilst still sitting comfortably away from the action. At times the grisly elements of the gore were lost on anyone sitting more than four rows back and centre, and became an obvious trick. Without the guidance of the camera lens that gives the opportunity to observe, but also limits our knowledge, we are given too much freedom to see the tricks as they come to truly be scared.

***

The aftermath of Every Brilliant Thing. Photo credit Raoúl Shahil
The aftermath of Every Brilliant Thing. Photo credit Raoúl Shahil

At the end of Every Brilliant Thing, the ultimate gratitude list is left on the stage. Audience trawl through these artefacts, lists scrawled on lose sheets of paper. A record of a life lived. They shared what they found with each other.

Was this authentic, or did the props department spend hours creating it?

I decided it didn’t matter.

For the duration of Every Brilliant Thing, I believed.

Eli Kent might be right (the fictional character at least).

The 2017 Auckland Arts Festival played 8-26 March.

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