An English blogger wrote recently about the prospect of attending theatrical performances at the Edinburgh Festival: “Who hasn’t walked into a venue to feel their heart sink, just a little, at the sight of yet another single chair, yet another single spotlight, yet another cast of one?”
The same brief sinking of the heart can also occur on entering a theatre in this country when going to see a New Zealand play with yet another small cast in yet another safe comedy that lasts somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes. The momentary sinking feeling can of course still happen when the small cast play is yet another one from overseas.
Notwithstanding the reality of the economic pressures of producing plays of any size, let alone epic ones, and our small theatergoing population, the actor and director Michael Hurst seemed acutely aware that the problem with most New Zealand plays is that they are too small in scale and lacking in emotional depth. “We need these stories that will make us weep and be purged. We don’t see enough. It’s a health issue,” he said in an interview in 2003 about his plans for The Large Company, which he hoped would produce epic plays.
Apart from two or three visits from Christian Penny’s and Anna Marbrook’s Theatre at Large (1990-97), the only epic or large-scale plays seen in Wellington in recent years, with the notable exception of David Edgar’s Albert Speer at Bats, have been performed as graduation productions at Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School, where the actors are, of course, not paid. We have seen Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, David Edgar’s Pentecost and Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The only large-scale New Zealand play that I can remember was commissioned by Toi Whakaari back in 1992: Stuart Hoar’s A Long Walk off a Tall Rock.
But it is not just a matter of large casts. It is also the scope of the plays themselves. Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament and Robert Lord’s Joyful and Triumphant need only nine and seven actors respectively, but one is always aware in these plays that New Zealand society is under the spotlight just as much as the lives of the members of a rugby team or a middle-class Pakeha family at Christmas time. One could go further back and add works by Bruce Mason, Mervyn Thompson and Vincent O’Sullivan, all of whom have written plays which, to paraphrase Michael Billington, link private and public worlds in a broad vision of society.
I’m not so sure about the latest batch of plays that Playmarket has recently released in its attractively presented, sturdily bound and reasonably priced New Zealand Play Series. Playwrights who have already been published in this series are Tom Scott, John Vakidis, Toa Fraser, Gary Henderson and Dianna Fuemena. Two more are to be added shortly to make up the 10 that were promised when the series was first announced.
Of the 15 plays so far published, including the latest six by Dave Armstrong, Sarah Delahunty and David Geary, four are solo plays, four are for two actors, and two are for three actors. Of the rest, the largest and longest needs nine actors and for two of them doubling is required or possible. The subjects of these plays are varied but predictable: youth suicide, education, sport, immigration, race, feminism, rural New Zealand, and the not-so-predictable Bare, Toa Fraser’s collection of snapshots of contemporary Aucklanders.
In his 1992 review of the first production of Geary’s Pack of Girls, Alan Brunton complained that “The pervasive cries ‘Bums on seats’ and ‘Make ‘em laugh’ as cultural imperatives leave the national theatrical enterprise in a vacant situation.” Our predilection for comedy in order to put bums on seats is borne out by the fact that nine of the 15 plays are comedies, including, surprisingly, 2b or nt 2b, Sarah Delahunty’s play about youth suicides. One of Henderson’s plays, An Unseasonable Fall of Snow, also deals with suicide but in a completely different manner.
All of the six plays in this latest batch are neatly tailored comedies in which the playwright is in total command of his or her material as well as knowing with pinpoint accuracy what will appeal to a contemporary audience. Armstrong’s are plays that Roger Hall might have written if he had been born and raised here. He has Hall’s ability to pick a subject that he can play about with and just occasionally challenge his audiences but never make them weep or feel that they have been put through an Aristotelian purging. He also has Hall’s mastery of comic plot reversals, the topical joke, and using stereotypes as characters that everyone can immediately recognise, and even if you recognise one of your friends or even yourself, it is most unlikely anyone is going to be offended.
Armstrong’s Niu Sila, co-written with Oscar Kightley, is about the childhood friendship between a young Polynesian boy, Ioane, and a palagi boy, Peter – a friendship unable to survive the emotional tensions caused by the social, racial and economic differences the two face as adults. It has charm and humour, and Armstrong acknowledges in his introduction that the play is “a requiem for a time in New Zealand that no longer exists”. But then he provides a slickly contrived, message-laden ending with the arrival of a friend for Peter’s young son in the form of Vincent (or as he says, “Wincen”) from Hong Kong. One leaves the theatre with a warm glow.
In The Tutor, Armstrong pits a pugnacious right-wing millionaire businessman against an earnest left-wing, politically correct secondary teacher whom the millionaire has hired to improve his 14-year-old son’s poor grades in mathematics. The clash of personalities and beliefs leads to some good jokes, and many plot reversals and surprises but, like Hall’s facile coupling of quarrelling left- and right-wing married couples touring Italy together in Four Flat Whites in Italy, The Tutor also has a neat and happy ending. One leaves the theatre yet again glowing warmly.
In Geary’s The Learner’s Stand, a renegade ram called Aries, who has revolutionary aspirations, says to Eunice, a young ewe, “God doesn’t make it out this way much. When the bitumen crunches into loose metal he does a U-ey in his Nissan Bluebird and heads back into town.”
Way down a loose metal road somewhere in the godforsaken Manawatu you’ll find the genesis of both The Learner’s Stand and Pack of Girls. The Learner’s Stand, described by Susan Budd in The Dominion Post as a cross between Animal Farm and Footrot Flats, is about the bonding of a shearing gang, and Pack of Girls is about the creation and bonding of a women’s rugby team. Both are broad, popular, commercial comedies that go down well with audiences in both cities and country towns. There are plenty of comic surprises in the staging as well as in the plays: a rugby game is played on stage, “as close to full pace as possible” reads a stage direction; a transvestite is a rousie for the shearing gang; dummy sheep are shorn on stage during the Golden Shears’ semi; and then there are the talkative Aries and Eunice who plot revolution until a blue Nissan runs them over.
Delahunty’s Eating the Wolf, a children’s play for adults, is a pantomime complete with a storyteller, and a grandma who objects to the story being told and decides to jump out of bed and eat the Wolf. Then “with just a little hiccup of satisfaction, Grandma gets back into bed.” She also has a go at the Woodcutter whom she puts down as “a post-modern, flexible, multi-tasking, metrosexual employee”. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Rose Red all appear free from their fixed roles in mythology in this short comical ride through a history of feminism.
But behind the humour, which is often penetrating, lies an emotional plea that slices through the satirical pantomime. Red Riding Hood’s mother looks straight at the audience and says:
I know how I have appeared in this play. Silly. Pathetic. Thinking jam-making was a worthwhile occupation instead of running Telecom … What is it you do? What is it you all do, out there in the world, that matters so much? Really matters? What do you do in a day that is so incredibly, shatteringly, deathbed-seemingly important?
One leaves the theatre challenged.
In 2b or nt 2b, which Delahunty wrote for her teenage drama students, the six characters are drawn from the plays of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Sophocles and Ibsen. Hamlet, Hedda, Antigone, Masha, Helena, and Irena are all confused and disturbed 16- or 17-year-olds with laptops and cell phones. They eventually connect with each other through www.whatsthepoint.com and meet on the Bridge to Nowhere. They discover, as the playwright states, “that the answer to their questions and their unhappiness lay in each other. The only answer there is.” It is also a very funny play.
What sets Delahunty’s plays apart from the other comedies is that she has to some extent broken free of traditional comic structures and topics. Consequently her plays seem fresh and lively, and their plots don’t appear so obviously manipulated and designed purely to put bums on seats. In other words, she’s not a playwright writing to a neat, tried-and-true formula.
In his essay “Theatre of Unease”, published in Performing Aotearoa (2007), Peter Falkenberg wrote: “What a Kiwi audience expects in the theatre is that their performance in life is being reflected and approved of on stage.” All of which takes us back to Brunton’s complaint about “bums on seats” and “make ’em laugh” as cultural imperatives that many of these plays in the New Zealand Play Series follow out of economic necessity. How you change the economics or an audience’s desire for the tried, true and safe is a conundrum that only time or a genius, or a cataclysmic event, or a change in the national psyche, or the discovery of large quantities of oil will solve. Whatever, you still need bums on seats. You can’t do without them.
Laurie Atkinson is the theatre critic for The Dominion Post.