A Way of Life
The Unforgiven Harvest/The Lead Wait
We were once a nation of farmers. National courted the rural vote, and the sheep farmer was king. These days the power players live in the cities, and National kisses ass in Epsom. This urban drift, this evolution of power and place is what Roger Hall charts in his play A Way of Life. Hall is arguably New Zealand’s leading playwright. His work is that very rare beast – commercially successful theatre – and his particular brand of comedy, with sharply turned phrases and mocking insights into the tropes of the Kiwi middle classes, is pretty well guaranteed to put “bums on seats” (as his autobiography puts it). Most major New Zealand theatres programme at least two Roger Halls per annum, using these sure-fire audience successes to bankroll riskier endeavours.
However, A Way of Life is a departure from Hall’s usual style. This is no light-hearted comedy peppered with social commentary; instead this work is epic in scale and tragic in theme. It relates the story of a Kiwi farming family, the McDonalds, and their journey from humble beginnings through the boom-and-bust years of New Zealand farming. Three generations of McDonalds work their way through wool, cattle, grapes, even home-stay accommodation, in an effort to keep the wolf (and the bank manager) from the door. Their farm acts as a microcosm of New Zealand’s agricultural industry, and we are treated to a survey of political and economic policies and the impact of these shifting forces on those who work the land. Given the current state of global finances and national budget cuts, this feels markedly topical, despite the fact the play covers some 100 years of New Zealand history, and was first penned and performed 10 years ago. There is a genuine admiration for the farming life, and an enthusiasm and nostalgia for times gone by. The text is bestrewn with footnotes providing explanations for historical references and supplementary detail; some of this is fascinating, but in places the weight of the material drags.
It is a demanding script in many ways. Early scenes require inventive or expensive staging, and actors are put through their paces with an exacting schedule of character doubling. The action moves swiftly, we jump forward in time scene by scene, necessitating very brief introductions for some characters, who are not always endowed with enough detail, or part of the story for long enough, to invest in them as fully as the action demands. The most successful are those with whom we spend the bulk of the play, John and Beth McDonald, who carve their farm out of the scrub to pass on to their children, and who provoke genuine sympathy and admiration in the reader and viewer. A Way of Life is Hall’s tribute to the Kiwi farmer, and homage to a way of life that no longer exists.
The Kiwi farmer stereotype is also at the heart of Jo Randerson’s The Unforgiven Harvest, a disquieting play that contrasts a traditional structure and theatrical frame with a startling and original perspective. The farmer and his wife are raising their daughter on a classic Kiwi farm with classic Kiwi values – which include sexism, racism, homophobia, brutality and casual violence. Apples do not fall far from the tree in this drama-cum-horror, and the family reaps just what it has sown. Randerson states in her introduction: “A goal was to write a play that was within the parameters of the canon. I was tired of adjectives like ‘crazy’, ‘weird’ and ‘absurd’ being cast around my work.” The Unforgiven Harvest plays at being conventional, using naturalistic dialogue, a kitchen-table setting and the convention of the fourth wall. While it toes the line in terms of form, the content is radical: the play writes back to the canonical texts whose structures it is observing; comparisons to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Strindberg’s The Father spring to mind. The script adopts a moral stance that seems almost adolescent in its righteousness, and the shocking ending, where the daughter takes vengeance for perceived injustices, is a dark and furious example of what happens to those who are pushed too far.
A similar sense of moral rage underpins The Lead Wait, the second Randerson play, which enjoyed a restaging at Circa Theatre in Wellington earlier this year. This play also deals with a family living in an isolated rural environment that finds itself entwined in unhealthy and destructive relationships. Randerson’s dialogue is sharp and hooks the ear, working with rhythms that owe more to percussion than realism. Her stories are jolting, her symbols memorable; she has a wicked sense of humour and a taste for dramatic endings. A distinctive feature of her writing is to insert parables into her plays, stories that illustrate with bright colours and cheerful examples themes that lurk, hidden or obscured, in the text proper.
The Lead Wait ends with one of these explanatory parables, a character directly addressing the audience, relating a story of sea animals that lose their sense of community and responsibility for one another. This final monologue was cut completely in the recent Circa remount, a bold decision, and one that significantly changes the final image and tone of the play. The parable is such a characteristic feature of Randerson’s writing that this cut did a disservice to the dramaturgy of her language – not to mention that it made the final moment of the production a more difficult sell.
The third volume here brings together three of the most successful plays commissioned as part of the Young and Hungry Festival of New Theatre. Written for youthful performers, these scripts lend themselves to being read and produced as part of a school curriculum. The most recent of the three, Urban Hymns, deals with working-class urban youth struggling with poverty of body and spirit in the shadow of the global financial crisis. Set in the noir-esque underbelly of Wellington city, the characters inhabit a dark and dangerous world of dealers, vandals and poets. Miria George creates setting and atmosphere with an enviable economy of language, and the story of disenfranchised teenagers struggling in a world not of their making is immediately gripping. The interweaving of the poetry of Hone Tuwhare is a mixed success. The teen protagonists’ fretting about jobs and rent feels more authentic than their oft-repeated concerns about when their Tuwhare essays will be due. While this element can feel forced, it gives the play a dreamy lyrical quality that contrasts well with the gritty urban setting.
Pip Hall’s Queen Bee is set in a post-apocalyptic future world in which women are kept like bees and divided into workers, warriors and queens. Reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, this script would be ideal for performance in a high-school setting: it has a small cast of four girls and is simple enough in staging and requirements that a student director could easily make it work. The pseudo-scientific language is clunky in places, but the narrative is solid, the pacing is good, and the twist at the end, while not exactly surprising, is certainly satisfying.
Lauren Jackson’s Exchange is classic Young and Hungry fare. A large group of students are on a high-school exchange to Germany; all have personal problems, some of which are resolved, some not. The play addresses love, loneliness, eating disorders, and what it means to be a Kiwi in a foreign country. While the subject-matter and style are very youthful, an experienced director is called for as clarity of story and character require careful choreography, and complicated transitions are necessary to keep the pace up. The preoccupation with New Zealand identity, at home and abroad, will never go out of fashion, and the big OE provides an excellent frame for posing questions about culture, homecoming and a sense of self.
While the plays gathered in these three collections explore a wildly diverse array of subjects, they all express something about what it means to live in New Zealand. It is to be hoped that through publication these scripts will be remounted in staged productions, and these stories find the wider audiences they deserve.
Hannah Smith is a former Wellington theatre reviewer.