Does anyone read plays any more? Go into any of our major bookshops and you’ll have difficulty finding shelves devoted to “Drama” or “Theatre”. You’ll find Shakespeare by the metre under “Poetry” and anthologies of scenes for auditioning actors by the dozen under “Movies”, but a play by anyone more modern than Beckett, let alone a play by a New Zealander, and you’ll be lucky. I exaggerate only slightly.
Nevertheless, New Zealand plays continue to be published, and have been since the 1970s on a regular basis, thanks largely to Victoria University Press (43 plays in total in its New Zealand Playscripts) and other smaller publishers such as Hazard Press, Huia, Aoraki Press, Women’s Play Press, Tawata Press, and The Play Press. Playmarket, an early publisher of New Zealand scripts in manuscript form, has taken up the gap left by Victoria University Press’s reduction in the number of plays it publishes, by launching the New Zealand Play Series with two volumes of plays by two playwrights whose work has been highly successful here and overseas but has not been published before.
With the exception of Gary Henderson’s An Unseasonable Fall of Snow, which was commissioned by the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts and presented at Wellington’s Downstage Theatre in 1998, both of his other plays in Three Plays started life across the road from Downstage on the tiny stage of Bats Theatre. Both of Toa Fraser’s two plays first appeared on the equally small stage of Auckland’s Silo Theatre.
All these are small plays. They are designed for small spaces, easy touring, using minimum scenery (two with none at all), a few props, and lasting no more than 80 minutes without an interval. Three actors are needed in each of Henderson’s plays and only two in Fraser’s Bare and one virtuoso actor for No 2. In two of Henderson’s plays, the third role is a walk-on one and appears only in the last minute or so; they are, of course, essential to the theme of the plays.
While these plays wouldn’t impress the Monsterists, a group of English playwrights who are tired of too many similar-seeming plays in small ghetto-like theatres on similar single-issue sociological themes and want to see large-scale plays on large stages, they could well be described as belonging to what might be called the New Zealand School of Miniaturists. Just about every New Zealand playwright belongs out of economic necessity if not artistic belief or inclination to this school, if they want to tour their plays or have professional productions of them.
The one thing you can’t accuse these playwrights of writing are plays with “similar single-issue sociological themes”. In fact, if a future historian wanted to know what life was like in this country, what concerned people, as we moved towards the millennium, he or she could find a pretty accurate feeling for the times in these works. All the plays were first performed between 1994 and 1999.
What marks Gary Henderson out as a special playwright is the range of his choice of themes, his ability to capture Kiwi characters and their speech patterns, particularly teenagers in some of his early plays (where he never patronised that particular audience), his knack of building tension, and his incisive use of the dramatic moment to surprise and move an audience. The shocking fight between Tom and Elizabeth that opens Skin Tight and the ending when old Tom stares at the sky listening to the cry of the magpies as darkness falls are both superb coups de théâtre. So too are the thunderous noise that starts, ends, and underlines the violence in Mo & Jess Kill Susie, and the appearance of the next male suicide victim in the final moments of An Unseasonable Fall of Snow.
Henderson is not only able to create dramatic situations and believable characters; he also gives his characters speeches that flare the imagination with their vividness without ever being mere decoration. Liam’s description in Snow of walking home along the railway tracks early in the morning is finely done, and Mo’s very long (for a New Zealand play) description of a drunken New Year’s Eve in Dunedin has the force of a punch in the stomach, as I described it in a review of the play’s first production.
His themes of urban violence and male suicide have been the subject of plays by other playwrights, but without his conciseness and sharp focus. In Skin Tight, a play inspired by two poems – Denis Glover’s “The Magpies” and Sam Hunt’s “Baptism by River Water” – we are in different territory. By combining the physical presence of two young actors in their prime with Glover’s requiem for an old and vanishing way of rural life, Henderson has given a Chekhovian touch to his play which is imbued with a lyricism unique in New Zealand drama.
With Toa Fraser we are in another world: a multi-racial world of fast-food, pop music, movies, TV, and student flats. His two plays are lighter in vein than Henderson’s, and in Bare he writes about “the mosaic of contemporary Auckland, of contemporary New Zealand” that he observed as a varsity student working at a Newmarket cinema on Saturday nights. He also views this country with the bemused sensibility of a man educated in England and with a British-Fijian background.
Bare, a two-hander, is a series of brief monologues and duologues, including a DJ, an hilarious teenage caller with logorrhea, a pompous university lecturer and a couple making love – with both actors only metres apart on either side of the stage. The text of the play published here is an updated version, written for the play’s 10th anniversary, which means that certain details (such as film titles) have been changed, and Fraser has popped in a reference to his next play: “No.2? Nah bro I don’t support that kinda shit …. I heard there was no Fijians in it anyway.”
No 2 “came straight outa Mt Roskill” where Fraser’s grandparents moved from Fiji in the 1950s. “Mt Roskill, indeed New Zealand,” Fraser writes in the play’s introduction, is where his “family had the common sense to realise” that it was “a place to celebrate life”. And that is exactly what his play does, set in Nanna Maria’s backyard as she plots the naming of her successor among her delightfully observed – and very funny – family. No 2 has been turned into a film, but for theatregoers who saw the first production with Madeleine Sami there will always remain the indelible memory of theatre’s alchemical power to create gold out of light, space, words, a chair and a very talented actress.
Having seen the first productions of all of these plays, I know that they “work” on stage. I know too that actors rise to the challenge they offer. As I read, I could see and hear Ian Hughes and Madeleine Sami in Bare, Nicola Kawana as a terrifying Mo in Snow, Jed Brophy and Larissa Matheson in Skin Tight, and Jeffrey Thomas and Damon Andrews in An Unseasonable Fall of Snow.
Fraser’s and Henderson’s plays may be “small”, but their reach is long, and the skills with which they are written are exemplary. Playmarket has done them proud in the first of their attractive and inexpensive New Zealand Play Series.
Laurie Atkinson is the theatre reviewer for The Dominion Post.