REVIEW: Sydney Bridge Upside Down (Taki Rua Productions)

Innovative theatre not to be missed.

Stylised, Sinister and Sexy [by Sharu Delilkan]

Innovative theatre not to be missed.
Innovative theatre not to be missed.

When I heard that David Ballantyne’s classic novel Sydney Bridge Upside Down was going to be staged by Taki Rua Productions I fought tooth and nail to get the chance to review this iconic New Zealand piece. But in retrospect I may have been a little bit too hasty as the show that unfolded was rather cryptic, making the task of reviewing rather daunting. However speaking to a number of the actors post show made me feel more at ease, as they admitted that the rehearsal process had been equally challenging.

So if you enjoy being challenged this show is definitely one you’ll relish. Unlike the run of the mill production that spoon feeds you and tells you exactly what to think, Sydney Bridge Upside Down is one that confronts both the heart and mind – something that is not seen often enough in Auckland.

This brave piece of theatre that Taki Rua has undertaken is daring and one that most companies might shy away from – often taking the tried and tested safe route. And the fact that it wasn’t a particularly Maori-tale, which Taki Rua is renowned for, was also another risk. On both accounts Taki Rua succeeded and their bravery needs to be applauded.

It’s rare that you sit in a theatre these days and wonder what is going on – often the start, middle and end of a play is laid out on a platter to you and audience members are rarely asked to use their brains. Being tested and provoked is something I thoroughly enjoyed. Whether I fully understood or will eventually understand what was being conveyed is immaterial – the fact that it has made me sit and think about show just shy of 24 hours later is what makes this experience unique and clever.

Another first for the evening was John Gibson’s amazing soundscape. I can’t remember the last time I watched theatre in Auckland where the sound played such an important role in the show. The way in which the sound complimented the actors and was pivotal to the entire storytelling of the novel, made its application innovative thus deserving the highest praise.

In addition to the amazingly interesting content of the play, Taki Rua or should I say director James Ashcroft’s creative choices are also definitely worth mentioning. The actors fill the stage entirely and are complemented effectively by Kasia Pol’s minimal set design with a slope on stage right and two white panels completing the rest of the staging. The utilisation of audio-visual and multi-media designer Robert Appierdo’s special effects, which included the live use of a camera on stage, was both effective and groundbreaking. I must admit the last time I saw live camera work on stage was during the NZ International Comedy Festival 2008 when the Umbilical Brothers did their stand up show at SkyCity, but this is first time I’ve seen it applied to theatre over the past decade that I’ve been in Auckland.

The seven-strong cast of actors used all of the stage and more – scaling slippery slopes and disappearing behind back-lit screens for a combination of silhouette puppetry and other on stage special effects which included the afore mentioned camera antics aka Umbilical Brothers. The talented cast that included Claire Van Beek (Caroline), Maaka Pohatu (Dibbs/Buster/Mrs Kelly), Holly Shanahan (Susan Prosser), Tim Carlsen (Harry Baird), Rob Mokaraka (Frank), James Tito (Cal) and Aaron Cortesi (Mr.Wiggins/Mr Dalloway/Mr Phelps) excelled themselves throughout the intricately stylised visual spectacle.

The mantra-like repetition devise of certain phrases was genius, emphasising a number of emotions including isolation and jealousy that the main character was feeling about living in a close-knit community. And the sound that tracked the thunderous ten league boots like Gigantesque-clatter of the key evil character Mr Wiggins (Cortesi) perfectly embodied his character’s singleness of purpose and power.

Overall I liked this show but like many audience members it was a show that requires time to digest, understand and conclude – the hallmark of a great production, which lives beyond the timeline of the actual production. The show promised evil and intriguing events that were realised in such a subtle way that I wouldn’t pretend to have actually understood it all at first viewing. If I’m honest it’s a show that I would love to see again, with the ability to fast forward some bits, to be able to focus more on the story and the conclusion.

The production elements of the play are nothing short of exquisite – the best I’ve seen in long time. Ashcroft’s ability to suspend our belief and logic is phenomenal, allowing us to lose ourselves in the beautifully acted narrative.

Sydney Bridge Upside Down is presented by Taki Rua Productions and plays at Rangatira, Q until 11 August. More information at Q.

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Nik Smythe

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