The peculiar business, Laurie Atkinson

Lucy O’Brien
Playmarket, $22.50,
ISBN 9780908607419


No 8 Wire: Eight Plays, Eight Decades 
Playmarket, $30.00,
ISBN 9780908607426


Plays 2: London Calling: Blue Sky Boys/John, I’m Only Dancing/Waterloo Sunset
Ken Duncum
Victoria University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780864736840


Harry Love
Steele Roberts, $19.99,
ISBN 9781877577529


When these 13 plays arrived in the mail, I was reminded of what director Dominic Dromgoole wrote in 2000: “Never before in the history of humans wandering, waving, shouting and scrawling their way across the face of the earth, have so many of them been engaged in the peculiar business of writing plays.”

The number of people here engaged in the peculiar business must be increasing markedly since there is now available much valuable support: publication, workshops, dramaturgical advice, university courses, rehearsed readings, residencies, travel awards, and, most important of all, professional theatres (well, most of them) keen to produce local plays particularly if they are comedies.

One recipient of these advantages is Lucy O’Brien whose play Katydid was started when she was studying for her MA in scriptwriting at Victoria University. It was then given a two-day workshop, and later a script advisor was called in and another workshop was held before rehearsals started for its successful season at Bats in 2010. It is a strong, gutsy play that isn’t bleeding-heart for a moment in its portrait of a family coping with a 19-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy.

There have been collections of New Zealand plays published before now but none has covered the range of styles, time-span or variety of themes represented in No 8 Wire, a selection of short plays from the amateur theatre groups of the 1930s to the professional fringe of the 21st century. The eight plays, like those in the other three volumes, reflect the whirligig of tastes, styles, structures and methods of composition that underlie contemporary plays world-wide.

There are black comedies by Robert Lord and Thomas Sainsbury, a devised work by a company of actors called SEEyD, and Fiona Samuel’s collaborative work with actors in One Flesh. The lives of women in the middle of the last century are depicted in a couple of traditional one-act plays from the 1930s and 40s by the prolific Violet Targuse and Isobel Andrews, whose plays were often performed in British Drama League (New Zealand Branch) competitions. In striking contrast is Kathryn van Beek’s Indiscretions, a fugue-like account of women’s lives in the 21st century.And then there’s “the playful post-modernism” of Stuart Hoar’s Scott of the Antarctic.

Targuse’s Rabbits is about the plight of a woman trapped for 10 years in an isolated cottage near a cemetery by a railway siding with her young son, his pet rabbit, and her railway worker husband. She yearns for a stimulating life in Christchurch, which seems to be a possibility when her husband is offered a transfer. One knows almost immediately that Maggie has as much chance of getting to Christchurch as the three sisters had of getting to Moscow. Yet the play, for all the obvious symbolism of Maggie setting free her son’s rabbit, is a moving and troubling account of the unfulfilled life of a woman living in the backblocks, and it provides, as John Thomson surmised in New Zealand Drama, the rare chance of a bravura performance.

Andrews’s The Willing Horse is a comedy with roles for 10 women and one unseen but occasionally heard man, a shy suitor to the willing horse, Kate, who spends most of the time in the kitchen buttering bread for the supper of a local dance in a small rural town. While Kate plays Cupid and helps a younger woman to meet a man she fancies, and some good comedy is created by a garrulous hypochondriac, the play deftly conveys the isolation many women must have suffered in remote farming communities where marriage for a woman was the be-all and end-all. Kate compensates by being the willing horse (“Donkey’s more like it!”); she has never married “because no one has asked me. I messed up the one chance I had, and I’ve never had a proposal. Not even a dishonourable one.”

One wonders what both playwrights and their audiences would have made of the lives of the women portrayed in van Beek’s Indiscretions (2002) which highlights, often in the bluntest language, “the sense of injustice I felt when I left the comparatively safe haven of a girls’ school to go to university, and the reality of what it means to be a woman in today’s society first hit me.” The three female characters grapple with “ageing, sexuality, mothers, men, murder, contraception, and stuffed dogs”.

And one wonders what they would have made here, of the two black comedies. The dialogue of Robert Lord’s amusing Balance of Payments owes a lot to early Albee, and its male prostitute to Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane (though it lacks Orton’s subversive Wildeian wit). However, I can remember Janet Findlay giving a bravura performance with her lethal knitting needles in the original production in 1972, so it may perform better than it now reads.

Thomas Sainsbury is a young playwright who has written 26 plays. His Sunday Roast is a two-hander with eight characters, seven from a wealthy family which indulges in cannibalism. Hoar’s Scott of the Antarctic, originally a radio play, has the four British heroes played by women, the fifth character being a husky played by a man. Towards the end, the play is interrupted by an audience member who demands to see a play about Scott and none of this nonsense about what the actors think the play is about and their concerns about nudity and their artistic integrity.

SEEyD by Tim Spite, Scott Macky, Richard Edge and Genevieve McClean is the only play in the collection that is directly political even though, as Tim Spite points out, “GE issues are largely behind us and the Corngate scandal is almost forgotten.” But the play thoroughly deserves its place in this anthology because, like all SEEyD’s subsequent work, it mixes drama, sly comedy and current issues with daring and innovative staging which have all added up to stimulating evenings in the theatre.

With Ken Duncum’s three plays, we are plunged into the world of popular music. Blue Sky Boys has the Everly Brothers harmonising on stage but disintegrating off-stage in a tatty dressing-room at the Buffalo Hall in Wellington on the same night the Beatles are playing the town hall. Waterloo Sunset (the title a nod to both the Kinks and Bob Geldof) is also set in Wellington in a boatshed turned into a tiny bar, the only place where it wasn’t a bad thing to be a Pom and one could “talk like Michael Caine and eat pickled eggs”. Kiwi punks also hang about there listening to the Sex Pistols.

The third play, John, I’m Only Dancing, has yet to be produced. It is set in a secondary school in Rotorua. The central character, John, is a young teacher, gay, an ex-pupil of the school, and a David Bowie fan, who plans a revenge on the school by producing the annual musical and in the process undergoes a transfiguration into Ziggy Stardust.

These three “music” plays are solidly constructed, thoroughly professional works. Each is given an illuminating introduction about its conception and subsequent history. Duncum describes watching Blue Sky Boys from the gods of the St James Theatre in Wellington during the five-night run after its sell-out season at Bats, and hearing a gasp and then “a ripple of movement, a wave of physical response swept backward through the audience – something you could actually see rushed from the front rows all the way back, and then bounced forward again as a laugh.” No wonder people are attracted to the peculiar business.

The plays are not about the music. The playwright hears “another music stitching these plays together – a harmony, sweet and stinging, of loss and redemption”. Only at the end of John, I’m Only Dancing does Duncum falter when it is revealed that the headmaster is a closet gay. This is just too contrived and brings to mind the supposedly surprising Freudian denouement of the American play Tea and Sympathy (it was 1953), in which the tormentor of a young man is shown to be repressing his own homosexuality. Incidentally, Duncum’s play is the only play here, apart from Hurai,that has a Maori character.

With Hurai we are harking back in one respect to James K Baxter’s “Greek” plays but, luckily, Harry Love does not reduce The Bacchae, as Baxter did, to the level of a story about bored Remuera housewives attending dancing classes. The play is a rarity; few contemporary playwrights in the Western world have written plays dealing with religious belief.

While no gods appear in Hurai and itshint of cannibalism is not a reflection of anything ‘bacchanalian’ ” (then why use The Bacchae?), there are lengthy speeches by the five central characters as well as a chorus of three Maori and one lengthy “messenger” speech about sensational off-stage events. The play is “not about religion, but the experience of living it” which is shown in the actions and beliefs of two strict, well-meaning but blinkered Protestant missionaries of the early 1830s and the supposedly more “natural” and “innocent” beliefs of the Maori prophet, Papahurihia, who identified Maori as Hurai (Jews), a lost tribe of Israel. The young wife of the missionary is drawn to Maori ways with tragic results. The language is declamatory and while many of the speeches have a poetic tinge, Love’s writing smoulders, never quite bursting into flame.

For all their different styles, settings and themes, many of these plays display – to varying extents – what seem to me the typical weaknesses of recent New Zealand plays. Main characters remain types rather than credible idiosyncratic individuals. The language is always in the vernacular, and often characters sound too like each other, regardless of sex or status. The dialogue is usually terse, and the language rarely resonates beyond the surface tension of its statements.

There are four strong roles for actors in Hurai and many strong roles in the others. However, it is only in the earliest of these plays, Rabbits – and to a lesser extent in the recent Katydid – that the leading role actually dominates the play. In Rabbits, Maggie’s speeches are eloquent and touching without being “poetic”. Her description of going to the desolate cemetery to smell the flowers left by mourners is characteristic, ending: “You need not look so scandalised, the dead have no need for flowers: the living have. Oh, sometimes the living have.”


Laurie Atkinson is the theatre critic for the Dominion Post.


Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Literature, Plays
Search the archive
Search by category