Alpha Books, [price unavailable],
Doygal Press, $29.95,
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
Puppetry, pirates, conscientious objectors, big business, morality tales, land wars, popular songs, poetry, Shakespeare, rock and roll and romance provide the substance of these three volumes of New Zealand plays. Though the writers may have little in common beyond the pursuit of a political agenda, what their work helps to celebrate is the explosive diversity of writing for the stage in this country. New Zealand theatre has developed exponentially over the last 20 years. One can now chant a litany of names of established and emerging writers – Stuart Hoar, Briar Grace-Smith, Gary Henderson, Hone Kouka, Jean Betts, Victor Rodger, Toa Fraser, Mitch Thomas, Jo Randerson, Jacob Rajan and Duncan Sarkies – writers whose divergent backgrounds and interests bring energy, wit, intellect, elegance and sometimes sheer bloody-mindedness to the business of discovering who we are through our drama.
William Direen’s Song-Plays is a retrospective collection of eight of his pieces performed all over New Zealand between 1984 and 1992. Direen’s work is characterised by its hard-driving rock rhythms, its rabble-rousing declamatory style, and its surreal imagery in the manner of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, as in this extract from Dial A Claw: “The casualties were serious. The walls of their veins curled back like the burnt skin of oranges. The dried canals were smoking. We tried to help them but they stared into our eyes and cried.” (Another piece, Brides of the Wheel, is actually based on texts by Artaud, as well as Stendhal and Shelley.) Direen likes to play with language, dextrously flinging Joycean puns, inverted quotations and lyricism together to fight for survival, as in this characteristic passage, again from Dial A Claw:
Hire a peat. Hair is just no cause to – Four! – alarm. We shall kill them on the porches. We shall not paw. We shall unswervingly legislate at the yawningest importunity. Even dough – the threat has whipped our flying forces yet we shall not cease from making air shots.
The plays in their published form are satisfying to a greater or lesser degree, depending on whether one views them as image-rich texts in their own right, with a clearly-defined political subtext, or as blueprints for performance. If the latter, it may take the eye of a director or a scenic artist to recognise the full possibilities in the references to puppets, masks, movement and dance opportunities and cabaret-style elements in works such as A New Town Tale or Dial A Claw (the centrepiece of this volume). A performer or designer can find their own responses to such surreal directions as this from Fawkes Alive: “During an instrumental section Brian dives to deep chasms in Cook Straight [sic] where giant squid sleep. He hears the voice of an ancestral identity.”
Without access to the original music, the song lyrics reproduced, though powerful, are arguably stripped of at least half their potential impact. This is the case with the morality tale of Raoul, Prince of Jeans in which a sequence of songs and a linking narrative explore the rise and fall of Raoul, “receiver of blessings”, from local boy to overseas tycoon with his “fastest fashion in the west”. Since the arrangement of the volume is not chronological, it is interesting that Direen has chosen to leave the reader with the most gentle and lyrical of his plays. Bitumen, an evocative memory piece, is strong on physical sensations – the wind, worn velvet, tobacco smoke, a rocking horse. Its final song is of gentle regret for a time past:
but a different ocean I heard
and I was washed clean with every word
when we were children we hid in a cave
and we were washed clean with every wave
The poet’s perspective is shared by Kathleen Gallagher’s Peace Plays, which contains two radio plays (Charlie Bloom and Shanty & the Angel) and Hautu, a longer work, which explores the dilemmas of conscientious objectors during World War II. There is something almost formal about the way Gallagher constructs her dialogue, which is less about character than poetic imagery:
Your hand a slim bone
Your arm a slim sickle in my hand
Your face gone green/brown
Blotches over your whole body
Brown and green and gold
Most of the characters speak with a single voice – that of the writer. There is a slightly didactic, evangelical feel to these plays, which are designed to fulfil a specific peace agenda. Charlie Bloom, first broadcast on Hiroshima Day in 1995, is essentially a protest piece about the French bomb tests on Moruroa Atoll, and the effect that fall-out from these tests has on the lives of Ola and Charlie, a married couple. Although Charlie’s symptoms point clearly to radiation sickness, it is left to a mysterious Irish traveller named Patrick Perks to confirm the diagnosis, and allow the play to rail against Charles de Gaulle:
Did they cut the tumours out
of you too de Gaulle
did you go blind
lesions on your skin
diarrhoea that never went away …
Charles what a bloody gall!
Hautu employs a large cast, popular song, mime, clipped, spare dialogue and chorus work as it examines what it means to be a pacifist and be incarcerated in a detention camp. The play focuses on both the men in detention and on their families back home – “the peace people of WWII”, as the back cover explains. The most successful play in this volume is Shanty & the Angel, which follows the path of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood and James K Baxter’s Jack Winter’s Dream in using narrators who enable us to infiltrate the dreams, lives and fantasies of a street full of neighbours. The twist is that these characters rise above their grinding poverty and turn their gaze outward to unite in the face of attempts to quell rebellion from the poor. The tone and structure of the language is also strongly evocative of Thomas:
William Sweet William sits in
waistcoat and necktie
reading the sky
eyeglass firmly in place
Lorae Parry, like Bill Direen, is an actor who frequently appears in her own work. She has an actor’s ear for dialogue, and a good sense of character, structure and event, preferring to work in a largely realistic mode. Vagabonds, first performed in Wellington in 2000, is a big, lush, robust tale of passion, betrayal, seduction and play-acting, set in the 1860s at the outbreak of the Waikato Wars. There are clear echoes in tone, style and intention of Parry’s earlier successful work, Eugenia. Both plays have an almost operatic and sensual feeling to them, and both deal with issues of gender and cross-dressing.
As with her earlier plays, Parry celebrates women’s strength. She inverts power structures by providing (in this case) three strong women – two actresses and a pirate, vagabonds all – who easily dominate the men in their lives, from the whimpering ship’s captain (whom Charlotte Badger has stripped and whipped) to the actor and photographer Richard Swan (who confesses to shyness when seduced by the strongwilled Adelaide Foley). The character of Charlotte Badger, based on a real-life convict and mutineer, and the first recorded Pakeha woman in New Zealand, is one that Parry flirted with in an earlier play, Cracks. Here Charlotte is “as arrogant as any pig of a man I’ve come across”, but she attains heroic stature. Parry draws on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, uniting overt theatrical performance with an exploration of the colonial mentality, and providing a subtextual love scene between Charlotte Badger and Kathryn Horton, which neatly inverts the intentions of the original scene between Cesario (Viola) and Olivia. Like Viola, washed up on the shores of Illyria, these characters struggle to make sense of what they discover on these “foreign shores” of New Zealand.
Lisa Warrington teaches in the Department of Theatre Studies at the University of Otago.