The play’s the thing, Mark Houlahan

Best Playwriting Book Ever
Roger Hall
Playmarket, $22.00,
ISBN 9780908607600

Shift
Alison Quigan, Vivienne Plumb and Lynda Chanwai-Earle
Playmarket, $35.00,
ISBN 9780908607617

Bats Plays
Ken Duncum and Rebecca Rodden
Playmarket, $30.00,
ISBN 9781776560899

To review Best Playwriting Book Ever, I broke the first rule of playwright club. In his prologue, Roger Hall advises: “To get the best out of this book, write a play (or as much as you can of one) before you read it.” I have never written a play, though I have been watching and performing plays on various stages for almost as long as people have been flocking to Hall’s plays, since his break-out hit, Glide Time (1976). He has now written 50 plays, alongside film scripts and TV series, so he has certainly earned the right to stake his claim in the title of this book. Ticket sales from Hall’s plays have helped fund so many of our theatres, and Hall himself has managed the still rare local feat of making a living as a playwright. He has told that story entertainingly in his autobiography, Bums on Seats (1998).

Here he has extensively revised a previous book on playwriting, showing us more of the writer’s toolkit. He advises playwrights to write the play they want to write, and then, I think usefully, warns them of the pitfalls if they choose to break key conventions audiences live by. So, you could ignore all his advice, or you could spurn all of Hall’s works as barriers against the final triumph of the proletariat, or something … and his book would still be worth reading. It would be a good addition for any classroom, secondary or tertiary, where people are trying to write viable plays that come alive in front of audiences. This is harder than you might think: many readers will recall slowly tortuous nights in the theatre where the script, among many other things, did not work.

Hall drops in excellent examples from his own works, noting where an actor’s innovation ended up as Hall’s in the published script (so it goes), and acknowledges compelling features in a range of successful New Zealand plays by other writers. He includes also an extended analysis of Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1957), a classic of Australian realism. Lawler showed Australians, as McGee and Hall did here in the late 1970s, that plays about us could and should be riveting, funny, sad and desperate. The book has been handsomely produced in a square A5 format by Playmarket with engaging stills from productions discussed. It’s a good read. I’ll let you know how that first play goes.

The umbrella title Shift for a trio of recent plays indicates several leaps forward from the era when Hall’s plays began filling theatres. First, as David O’Donnell notes in his concise introduction, the three playwrights, Alison Quigan, Vivienne Plumb and Lynda Chanwai-Earle, are high-achieving multi-taskers. Their skill as playmakers arises in part out of their other lives as performers, broadcasters and directors. Second, the volume highlights the prominence of female instigators of New Zealand theatre. Third, all three plays have enthralled audiences in performance, emphasising the frequency with which well-received New Zealand scripts can have several different lives now.

At Centrepoint, Quigan co-wrote a series of highly successful plays, drawing on local stories. In Mum’s Choir, she works from her own experiences of burying parents – siblings of middle age put aside ancient resentments and the family pecking order to plan, prepare and deliver a funeral and wake with gravity and panache. In the play, the dead mother has been an accomplished singer and devoted choir member; the heart of the play is a sequence of musical intervals when the grown-up children break into routines and songs learnt from childhood. Their main challenge is to sing sequences from Fauré’s Requiem at the funeral. They are coached by Noel, the brother who became a music teacher. They pull this off, while cleaning the house, cooking and settling old scores. The warmth of nostalgia and the stirring power of group singing has made the play a hit; and I imagine in future that amateur theatres will have a great time staging it. A skilled performance will allow audiences to forget that achieving the complex piece of singing in the three days the plot requires is not remotely credible, and that, amidst the shared memories, the wrenching pain of grief is completely absent.

In The Wife Who Spoke Japanese in Her Sleep, Plumb adapts her own short story for the stage. The result is a charming, magical and at times hilarious fable about mid-life transformations and cultural adaptation. Honey and Howard have been married for decades. They rub along well enough, joking and bickering, but they want more. Howard becomes obsessed with exotic yucca plants, but Honey hates them. In turn, she starts speaking Japanese, a language she does not know. In Japanese, she speaks as a prophet, predicting global doom. She becomes famous and monetises her visionary powers. She wears a kimono and sips green tea. The yuccas leave her garden, which is remodelled after the famous sand-and-stone gardens of Kyoto. The play is beautifully achieved. The relationship between Howard and Honey is caustically vivid, and Honey’s immersion in japonisme highly poetic. It’s a lively extension of the merging of New Zealand with Japan which Vincent O’Sullivan experimented with in his 1980s classic, Shuriken.

Chanwai-Earle’s Man in a Suitcase is the last and most recent of this trio of shifting plays, and also the darkest. She reinvents the gruesome true story of the body murdered and then its parts placed in a suitcase and cast into Waitemata Harbour. Chanwai-Earle relocates the story to post-quake Christchurch, where the play premiered at the Court Theatre’s relocated home-base in Addington. The play goes much further than Plumb’s in presenting a truly multi-cultural world. Scenes take place in English and in Mandarin, represented here both in characters and in romanised letters, with translations at the base of the page. The play refuses to romanticise New Zealand-based Chinese families. Wen Lin is an exchange student from Nanjing. He is gay, but cannot be open in China. In New Zealand, he can try to explore his sexuality. He falls prey to Pete and Kim, who encourage Wen Lin’s advances, but only so they can blackmail him. They believe his parents are prominent party members in China, so will pay handsomely. When this plan fails, Wen becomes the man in the suitcase, now in Lyttelton harbour. The suitcase serves its gothic purpose, but also comes to stand for something larger, the small collection of things, clothes, memories you carry with you: all that migrants can travel with and, in a wider scale, the small number of things all post-quake citizens have learned to really count on. The play is a fascinating reflection on a range of disturbing energies in the new New Zealand.

Ken Duncum’s and Rebecca Rodden’s Bats Plays in contrast are, collectively, a time machine into what seems like a very ancient theatrical past: the late 1980s/early 1990s, when the pre-reno Bats Theatre on Kent Terrace in Wellington was the home of alternative theatre, a grungy, punk-inspired, in-your-face space, designed to counter the safe and comforting world of a Roger Hall play and its audiences. Playmarket have done an excellent job in putting early Duncum scripts (mostly co-written with Rodden) back in print. Each play is prefaced with a set of memoirs from the playwrights and their collaborating actors and directors, vividly recalling the times when they were just out of drama school and happy to hustle and starve in order to please their cultish audience who gathered at Bats. They give a good feel for the occasions which provoked these plays, and it’s easy enough to read through the sentimentality that colours memory to sense the energy and fevered inventiveness that drove these pieces. These memories also strike me as the best pieces of writing in the book.

It’s great to have these scripts on record, but I wonder where the market for them is assumed to be? Will those who saw these plays, or the many who helped stage them, buy this book out of loyalty? The plays in Shift could easily be at home in classrooms, or inspire theatre companies looking for good pieces to stage. In the Bats Plays, there are some lively scenarios, notably in Flybaby (two no-hopers give birth to the Messiah) and Jism (conjoined female twins seeking separate love lives). But long stretches of bombast made even the short plays slow reading. I found these intriguing, but not good.

Mark Houlahan teaches in the English programme at the University of Waikato.

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