Ten Moments in Wellington Theatre 2015
From an unexpected tour of the Opera House to an invigorating showcase of Māori and Pasifika work to those Theatreview threads, Adam Goodall picks his top ten moments in Wellington theatre this year (read his top ten plays here).
I don’t think a Wellington actor has made as strong an impression right out the gate as Errol Anderson did this year. In Aroha White’s 2080 he was Smith, a hyperactive and good-hearted Pasifika refugee living in a dystopian New Zealand, stuck at the bottom of the ladder; in All Our Sons he was Alec Campbell, the son of a Pakeha colonist in well over his head as the leader of the New Zealand Native Contingent. These roles were different on the surface - Smith a tightly-wound coil of reckless energy, Alec an increasingly terrified boy marked by the death around him - and Anderson owned those differences. But he also grounded both characters in the nervousness and naivete of inexperience, and he did so with incredible confidence and emotional depth. He’s the most interesting new actor in this city right now.
There’s a great Guardian interview with the working-class creators of the play No Milk for the Foxes. In it, they talk about how a theatre’s design can make working-class audiences feel like they don’t belong in the venue. “Architecture – “big, posh buildings” – can repel, as can decor.” Pretty unambiguous.
The Opera House has just that problem - how do you convince those people who normally wouldn’t give the building a second glance that it’s an asset to Wellington’s creative ecosystem? In this case, you get Barbarian Productions in to do a massive site-specific production-cum-tour for the weekend of Wellington’s 150th Anniversary. After being allocated to one of several tour leaders, audiences were shuffled around an off-kilter re-imagining of the Opera House as it functions, following a series of ridiculous stories and never getting the same one twice. It was massive and ostentatious and perfectly tapped into what makes spaces like this so joyful and so vital.
Berry was everywhere in the first half of 2015. She was arrogant back-alley dealer Hudson in 2080, the Ann Savage to Nua Finau’s Tom Neal; the snarky straight man to a cast of theatrical neurotics in Don Juan; and a frustrated hotline ‘psychic’ reluctantly letting her emotionally-fragile sister stay with her in Cassandra Tse’s emotions-bomb Long Ago Long Ago. Berry does a strong and incredibly entertaining line in withering condescension, and all three roles gave that a good workout, but it was her willingness to dive into her characters’ contradictions and blow them out that made her fascinating to watch. An example: towards the end of 2080, Hudson pleads with Bart (Finau) not to leave for the First. It’s a short scene, one that could have easily gotten lost in 2080’s bolt to the finish line. But Berry’s energy shifted; she grew uncomfortably desperate, shining a grimy new light on Hudson’s casual indifference, and dragged that desperation out. It’s a moment buried in my memory of both the show and the year in theatre.
I really don’t know how much I should say about the climactic moment in Kate McIntosh’s overlong-questionnaire-turned-acoustic-experiment All Ears. What I will say is that it stayed with me long after the rest of the show evaporated into thin air. It was a beautiful and hypnotic piece of audio design that drew on our own participation in ways that I’ve still not fully unpacked. It could probably have done with a trigger warning, though, given the seismic quirks of the country we live in.
The Ahi Kaa AK Festival was rolled out in June across four Wellington stages, showcasing six works in various stages of development by Māori and Pasifika makers. It’s the latest in a series of festivals for the development and delivery of Māori and Pasifika theatre, following on the heels of Tawata’s Māori Development Festival at Circa and Te Pūtahitanga a te Rēhia’s Pūtahi Festival at 77 Fairlie Terrace. This is bloody exciting, especially because the main result of this kind of support isn’t just more Māori and Pasifika theatre commanding main stages and pushing against the status quo. As illustrated by Ahi Kaa’s mix of Aotearoa futurism (2080), dance (The Beautiful Ones), clown (Double Derelicts) and searing social drama (Not in our Neighbourhood), the end result is more experimentation and greater risks taken on bigger stages.
I can only echo what Sam said in his and Rosabel’s Ten Plays They Loved In 2015: Auckland Edition. In a year of Centenary celebrations that constantly sold a narrative of glorification, An Awfully Big Adventure tackled the thorny legacy of the Great War - especially the idea that New Zealand covered itself in glory when it stepped into the fight - with constant, breathtaking invention. The show’s segment on conscientious objectors should be required viewing in all Social Studies classes.
Dunedin- and Wellington-based comedy collective Discharge has had the fastest-selling show at BATS for the last two years running. Last year it was with their smart and grotesque three-stans-in-a-room comedy Benedict Cumberbatch Must Die, which I saw in someone’s lounge this year for a Dunedin Fringe Festival fundraiser (I drowned in the sheer volume of laughs and am now a ghost). This year it was with their New Zealand Fringe Festival comedy musical 28 Days: A Period Piece, about a sanitised school tour production on women’s health that quickly turns into something far bolder when a cluster of cast members revolt against the heavy hand of the male-dominated corporation bankrolling the tour. With impeccable chemistry and a wonderful sense of dead-pan, the Wellington-based branch of the ensemble (Abby Howells, Caitlin McNaughton, Harriet Hughes, Rosie Howells, Kate Schrader, Heidi Geissler and Josephine Byrnes) is one of the city’s most exciting theatrical success stories of the year.
The Presentation of Findings from My Scientific Survey of the First 7500 Days of My Life, Done in the Interest of Showing You How to Live Better Lives
Young and Hungry shows are ensemble shows. This was as golden a rule as Young and Hungry had, and two of the shows in this year’s Festival of New Works - Helen Fletcher’s How To Catch A Grim Reaper and Sam Brooks’ The 21st Narcissus - stuck to it. The moment monstrous control freak Max (a frighteningly present and absolute Maria Williams) started talking about Doctor Who, it was clear Uther Dean’s absurdly-titled jet-black comedy had no interest in following suit. 7500 Days is as close as Young and Hungry’s ever gotten to a monologue, but it was also an unflinching and passionate interrogation of the consequences of treating your life like a solo show. Filled with fascinating contradictions, Dean’s script was the bedrock for the most thrilling and self-reflexive Young and Hungry show to date - and ended up reinforcing the philosophy of that ensemble rule in the process.
A Stage of One’s Own, Pat-a-Cake Productions’ ambitious anthology show about/platform for feminism, had more than its fair share of problems. Directors Bea Joblin, Lily della Porta, Jody Burrell and Sabrina Martin devised four short pieces to speak to their personal values and voices as feminists, running through a laundry list of formal conceits to tell their stories: dance, waiata, confessional, monologue, clown, audience interaction. At times raw and angry and thrilling to watch, it was also messy, occasionally didactic and wildly uneven.
I come back to that word, though: ambitious. A Stage of One’s Own tried to bring something to the stage that’s very rarely attempted by the shows that drift in and out of BATS for five-night seasons, particularly those coming from companies one, two, three years out of courses at Vic or Toi or Whitireia. It made a loud and unavoidable argument for putting the communities around you at the forefront of the theatre you make. If it was messy and didactic and wildly uneven, it was also a statement of intent that challenged you, as a maker, to do better, to give more consideration to the space in which you operate and to do more to signal-boost other voices and visions in the crowd.
Theatreview has almost accidentally, certain unexpectedly become the country’s go-to vessel for theatre criticism in the last few years, filling the void left by the slow death of the nation’s print media. It’s also a site that prides itself on public engagement, especially in their forums. So it’s a bit concerning that the most visible public engagement this year involved arguments about the coverage of John Smythe’s Where There’s A Will and Sam Brooks’ Stutterpop. Charged discussions about conflicts of interest and the right of a producer to refuse complimentary tickets to an outlet probably seem like the definition of inside-baseball to outsiders, and that would be a fair response. It’s also worth noting that constructive conversation is taking place, albeit very slowly. There’s a growing friction, though, between pockets of young creatives in Wellington and the critics who have (perhaps against their will) become the establishment. This kind of friction is traditionally healthy - what is a young theatre without a status quo to push back against? But this isn’t a disagreement over the way stories are told. This is friction mired in issues of integrity, communication and the mutual responsibilities between critic and artist. The answers, whatever they are, aren’t likely to be comfortable for anyone, but the volume of the discussion right now means we need to find them sooner rather than later.
Also, postscript: it’s telling that when there’s a behind-the-scenes drama in the Auckland theatre community, it’s this grandiose stand-off between an international playwright and the highly-respected theatre company staging his show. When Wellington theatre gets one, it’s an insular tiff on a Theatreview comment thread.