Review: The Devil's Half-Acre

Adam Goodall reviews Trick of the Light's The Devil's Half-Acre, a dive into the grimy, corroded soul of turn-of-the-century Dunedin.

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Adam Goodall reviews Trick of the Light's The Devil's Half-Acre, a dive into the grimy, corroded soul of turn-of-the-century Dunedin.

Towers of rusted steel loom in the darkness. They reach for the ceiling above, dwarfing the actors. The actors try to get a boost from the metal slopes at the feet of each tower, but they’re still ants in comparison. It’s like we’ve been lowered into a neglected industrial sewer, or an abattoir that’s been falling apart for a long, long time.

Meg Rollandi’s set is simple and beautiful, a set of orange and red vertical lines staggered across the stage, but it also sets the terms of engagement for The Devil’s Half-Acre. Trick of the Light Theatre’s latest is a deep dive into the grimy underbelly of turn-of-the-century Dunedin and Rollandi’s set is our portal. Here’s a place, it says, where the infrastructure’s collapsing, values are being eroded and hope is falling away before our eyes. Have fun.

We see this corrosion through the eyes of Irish brothers Dylan (Richard Dey) and Jack (writer Ralph McCubbin-Howell). They’ve got a pretty familiar dynamic: older brother Dylan is the cynic, prodding others to do right, while Jack is the immature younger brother whose optimism belies a certain selfishness. By day, they pull sleight-of-hand cons down at the harbour; at night, they bunk down in the Devil’s Half-Acre, a slum near the Warehouse District that’s a stone’s throw from the Octagon “but a hundred worlds apart.”

The Devil’s Half-Acre has an incredible sense of place, breathing to life a murky, muddy Dunedin where the rich and the poor lie in uncomfortably close proximity. McCubbin-Howell’s script labours this point in its first twenty minutes, but it also frequently conjures up striking images of a Dunedin that came to life unbidden and unwanted, “buildings of brick and stone” springing out of the Octagon “like weeds”. Then there’s the set of metal panels, as strong a first impression as director Hannah Smith could make, and the charcoal-coloured imagery of old Dunedin projected onto those panels. Shadows of people rage and ramble in those projections, and while they move through the projected space in clumsy ways, they also feed into the show’s atmosphere, antisocial and tad-too-social types clinging to each other and barking into the ether.

Marcus McShane’s lighting design, too, makes it look like the darkness is fighting to reclaim Dunedin from its residents. Orange lamplight highlights the rust and a dark blue mist bleeds through the glow, threatening to engulf everything. It looks astonishing, reminiscent of the rickety projections and back-alley aesthetic of 1927’s The Animals and Children Took to the Streets. Productions with ambitious visual concepts are relatively rare in Wellington due to the paucity of resources, not to mention audience tastes and expectations. The Devil’s Half-Acre has one of the most ambitious visual concepts I’ve seen in this city, up there with the likes of a slightly isolated dog's Death and the Dreamlife of Elephants, Circa Theatre's Blood Wedding and Taki Rua's All Our Sons, and the end result - the colours and shapes and shadows that frame the action - is spectacular, vivid and dripping with menace.

With their tame card games and Dylan’s muted conscience, the brothers are curiously immune to all this rot. Then a mysterious man in grey, Pilgrim, enters with an offer from his employer, the equally mysterious Shadow: do some of our dirty work, end up twice as wealthy. There’s something off about Pilgrim - Tom Clarke, wearing a suit that’s a bit too cartoonish in this context, plays him with a deathly calm that’s portentous to a fault. This isn’t a deal Jack and Dylan can refuse, though, and Pilgrim quickly sets them to work conning a gallery of pompous upper-class buffoons. Clarke and Anya Tate-Manning bring these toffs to life: Clarke plays like he’s thrilled to be here, throwing himself into the physical life of his characters, and Tate-Manning, one of the country’s most versatile comic actresses, gives her talent for brash pomposity a good workout.

McCubbin-Howell’s script is scarily good at ratcheting up the tension, suffocating the audience with mysteries and misdirections.

Their under-the-table employment soon takes its toll, though, and Dey and McCubbin-Howell spark off each other in recognisable but entertaining ways. What starts as a gleeful turn-of-the-century Hustle, fuelled by Jack and Dylan’s hilarious theatrical flourishes, soon sours: Dylan grows uneasy with the demands of the job and clashes with Jack’s eagerness to see it through and get what he’s due. Dylan hides his fears from Scarlett, the no-nonsense bartender he’s seeing (a bit of a thankless role that Tate-Manning nevertheless gives some grit), but this conflict sets off a slow burn that promises to destroy everything in its path.

The narrative settles into a comfortable groove, too, when Jack and Dylan’s fortunes turn, slowly and methodically tightening its grip around their necks. McCubbin-Howell’s script is scarily good at ratcheting up the tension, suffocating the audience with mysteries and misdirections. When it hits its stride, The Devil’s Half-Acre recalls the best parts of The Road That Wasn’t There and The Bookbinder, never feeding us more than we need to get to the end of a scene and pulling the rug out from under us when we least expect it.

It’s a shame that the rest of the storytelling feels less disciplined. There’s an imbalance between Jack’s monologues and the action, made worse by the imbalance between the volume of the actors and the volume of the music. Tane Upjohn-Beatson’s score is typically great, spooky and dense, but when it soars it muffles crucial dialogue and description. On top of that, we’re not given enough time to settle into Jack and Dylan’s good fortune before the muddled turning point, a confusing and showy bit of chronology-jumping.

More effective is the undercurrent of political intrigue. All of this plays out against the backdrop of Otago Daily Times editor and man-about-town Julius Vogel’s campaign for South Island separation. This subplot, then, is loaded with arch references to our modern political climate (the phrase “it’s a distraction” is bandied about a lot). More importantly, this political skulduggery subtly (and then bluntly) feeds back into the play's broader portrait of a society that obscures its moral and economic corruption through trickery and sleight of hand. Dunedin’s rich and powerful constantly appeal to their black-and-white Christian morality - heaven/hell, God/Satan - to justify dividing the city along class and racial lines; the only true levelling force in this place is gambling. This corruption begets corruption, as Jack unwittingly notes in one of his monologues: “They were all of them corrupt, and they deserved what they got.”

If The Devil’s Half-Acre trips up at any point, it’s when it hammers that note too hard, particularly in the last ten minutes. Moments after replaying the ominous opening sequence, the show explicitly calls attention to its basic themes of greed and the toxicity of a society whose guiding principle is the selfish pursuit of wealth at all costs. Then it does it again, and again, and again. It’s not so much double-percussive as it is banging the whole drumkit, and this didacticism undermines the emotional impact of an otherwise harrowing and affecting finale.

When it’s firing, though, The Devil’s Half-Acre is riveting theatrical spectacle. It’s funny and it looks great and it builds its mysteries with considerable care. It’s Trick of the Light’s most coherent and satisfying meld of low fantasy storytelling and sociopolitical commentary to date, finding a shaky but fascinating middle-ground between its best productions (The Road That Wasn’t There, The Bookbinder, The Engine Room). Waxing hopeful about South Island separation, Jack tells Dylan, “A rising tide lifts all boats”; a skeptical Dylan snaps back, “Except those too broken to float.” It’s a beautiful and simple exchange that drags an unflattering spotlight over the hopeless society that created it, and it echoes uncomfortably over 100 years in the future. That’s when The Devil’s Half-Acre is firing.

The Devil's Half-Acre runs at
Hannah Playhouse
from Wednesday 09 - Sunday 13 March
For tickets and more information, go here.