Play it again, John Smythe

Red Light Means Stop: Six Super Solos from Aotearoa NZ
ed Vivienne Plumb
The Women’s Play Press, $27.95,
ISBN 0958231001

Readers of this potent volume of mostly solo plays may engage with them as literature, as texts “auditioning” for production, or as blueprints informing the course of pre-production and rehearsal. What distinguishes them from radio drama or short stories to be read aloud is their physical immediacy and dramatic dynamic.

I should declare here that I am not enamoured of solo shows that oblige actors to tell their stories in the past tense, especially when that is all their present action consists of. (Examples: Roger Hall’s The Book Club; Justin Butcher’s Scaramouche Jones.)

From the moment we find her approaching orgasmic bliss as she cleans the toilet – “Your first time. You never forget it do you?” – the Woman in Mel Johnston’s I’m Having It Off With Ajax compels us to care. Will her need to clean realise or destroy the potential of her post-student flat, her would-be-committed relationship, her life itself?

Her second quest in this deftly assembled, grouted and polished mosaic of rite-of-passage experiences is to become more informed via the newspaper. Each of her readings from the “throne” distils an essence of New Zealand life and invariably leads to recollections of childhood, family and neighbourhood as she confronts her own adulthood and its potential.

I laughed out loud several times and conclude I’m Having it Off With Ajax is a mini-classic that deserves regular public airing. What irritates in this publication, however, is a note that advises: “The italicised lines of text represent the woman’s half of the conversation with the man” – followed by an italicised block of stage directions. It is irresponsible of the editor to confuse the reader so quickly.

The challenge issued by Jo Randerson’s exploration of the antipathetic ethics of punk, Banging Cymbal, Clanging Gong, intensifies from page to stage, especially when we meet her Barbarian of the Bastardos line (as I first did) through the charisma of Randerson’s own performance. Written with a heavy Scandinavian (Viking) accent, the text contrasts sudden aggressive episodes with a winning gaucheness and linguistic foibles. It may be easier to see on paper that the fights with swords are not literal and to relate the play more to the fantasy realms of comic books or video games. Even so, the speaker’s response to a man who advised her to learn to walk before she run, is deeply shocking:

Before I breaked his skull open with my bare hands and sucked his brains out through his naval, nav-sorry nasal, cavity; before I swung his saggy torso high in the air above my head and watched you know as the blood was going around, around, around, around like this on the walls in a beautiful pattern like a modern art; before I laid his tender corpse on the ground and marvelled at the perfect beauty of this man I had just been forced to kill; before I did all of those things, I said to him, “I have to run. I have to. If I do not run, I think I will surely die. And besides, how else am I going to feel the breezes on my skin?”

 

Here, telling the stories in the past tense does not rob them of dramatic immediacy because the speaker’s very presence is visceral and dangerous. Like Iago, or any well-written evil genius, she constantly puts us on the spot by challenging our values. My personal response is to get very clear on the difference between forms of rebellion that challenge society for the better and the intimidating intolerance of those whose “fight” is fundamentally fascistic.

Linda Chanwai-Earle’s Box/Role/Dream places two solos on either side of a four-handed drama – which leads to another editorial irritation. Calling the book “six super solos” is simply inaccurate and misleading. Also, the solo characters in Box and Dream are both called “Man” but turn out to be very different people: Victor, a Cypriot Maori wannabe screenwriter, who chats to us as if we were an actress in a sauna; and Parvee Vagliadimov, a Czech air-conditioning engineer passing himself off as Russian, female and alive, as he seeks peace and quiet in the engine room of the submerged Mikhail Lermontov. (It is, incidentally, the red light the nautical pilot disobeyed that gives the anthology its arresting, if otherwise not very resonant, title.)

Chanwai-Earle plays with the visual as well as the verbal in revealing the truths of Victor’s quest to transcend his circumstances and Parvee’s fate at the hands of the “drunken fool” upstairs. And betwixt, in Role, she plays with time in offering two women’s perspectives on their revisited and, for one of them, finally fatal encounter in the wee small hours outside Chianti’s Bar.

The present action in Gabe McDonnell’s The Inept finds middle-aged Louise sipping sherry and trying to record a Christmas Day audiotape for her daughter in New Zealand. Thus, amid rich evocations of generational and cultural contrasts, an insightful family saga uncoils from a core of guilt only a mother can feel.

Vivienne Plumb’s Fact or Fiction: Meditations on Mary Finger has the writer’s alter ego Veevee Palumbo deliver an illustrated lecture to validate the “little known New Zealand artist” who made her mark, such as it was, first by applying her own bodily fluids to canvas, then with her unique “rollover” technique, using her body as the “brush” to materialise the “polymorphic images that lie just below the threshold of consciousness”. A satire of artspeak pretentiousness, Fact or Fiction also reveals Veevee as an obsessive-compulsive stalker who slowly self-destructs in her own sense of inadequacy. Perhaps the play’s very lack of any wider meaning is its nihilistic point.

All these plays have been produced at Wellington’s Bats Theatre and all but one premiered there. Some have toured further afield, most deserve further production and all are worthy of study. Their availability in print, thanks to The Women’s Play Press, makes all that possible. Indeed, until they are published, homegrown plays remain more ephemeral than they need to be and, crucially, less able to claim a place alongside more easily acquired foreign fare.

 

John Smythe is theatre critic for the National Business Review and is currently writing the history of Down stage theatre.

 

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Posted in Literature, Plays and Review
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