NZ Arts Festival: 360 review

By Mark Amery

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A depiction of how the audience experience '360'. Image / Carl Bland
A depiction of how the audience experience '360'. Image / Carl Bland

Auckland's Nightsong Productions and Theatre Stampede have premiered in Wellington a joyous, theatrical tour de force.

A triumph in 360 degrees, it has the brilliant conceit of being staged with the audience in the round, planted on swivel chairs while the action occurs on a circular ramp around them. This could so easily have been a case of style over substance, but instead the work's strength is that content, form and structure reflect each other beautifully.

Writers Carl Bland and Peta Rutter have woven a surreal, multi-layered meditation on life's circular shape and unpredictable motion through the familiar story of a son leaving home and then trying to find his way back again. It is like a rich, lyrical interior monologue brought to fantastical showbiz life by a travelling troupe of players in a dream pavilion.

Matching the script's almost Joycean rhapsodic absurdist tangents, an outstanding creative team throw every visual theatre trick in the book into the ring.

Movement, puppetry, object theatre and a smart 360 degree soundscape and lighting design amplify the work's joyous celebration of the adventurousness needed to make leaps into the unknown in life. It has all the magic of an old fashioned children's pop-up storybook.

Centred around a circus family - in which there is no mother but instead an adorable lifelike performing seal (one of a number of pieces of gorgeous puppetry) - the eldest son Gee leaves only to find life is a series of returns. Gee is played by three different actors at different stages of life, sometimes all on stage at the same time. Beautifully cast, the company are an adventurous mix of seasoned professionals and talented newcomers. All shine.

In the manner of a circle the play is about how life can be seen as starting and returning to the same place. With the actors popping up and strolling around you, you have to constantly readjust your position in relation to everybody else. It can feel like being in the barrel of a camera, time spinning backwards and forwards. This echoes 360's exploration of how, as the world spins, time has a habit of catching up with itself. Your memories start to overlay each other to cause strange subconscious meetings.

The text contains echoes of the movement of the work itself, noting for example that a character is "swinging wildly between subjects", "constantly spinning, not going anywhere" or that "when you're going this fast you can't quite focus on what's going past the window". Comments like these provide some comfort as you struggle to follow the story, echoing the jumpy nature of the work's construction.

The narrative detail is very hard to follow. This is particularly the case with the eldest Gee who plays a narrator who isn't in control of the telling of his own story (no disrespect to Bruce Phillips's strong performance in the role). He is more like an absurdist echo of Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, submerged in memory, playing tapes of his younger self over and over.

Yet making sense of all this didn't matter to me too much. The detail was secondary to the work's dreamlike reverie, which has a strong logic all of its own.

The drama instead hinges on the beautifully drawn characters.

Emotionally the work is powered by yearning, expressed beautifully by all three Gees (Miilo Cawthorne, Edwin Wright and Phillips) and the young sister (Olivia Tennet). The spirit of the work is that of the clown - full of joy, hope and adventure in the face of danger, but aware that ultimately the day will end as it began.

To tell you too much about the surprises that this work pops up continually, like rabbits out of hats, would be to damage the experience. Suffice to say they left the audience grinning like blissful goldfish as they went round and round in life's fishbowl.

360 reminded me of happy communal nights in the early days of Auckland's Watershed Theatre, a time when Bland and Rutter first presented their unique view of the world in The Bed Show, to which this work shows a strong connection.

It also reminded me of the surreal magic of the storytelling of The Front Lawn shows of that time. Together with The Arrival at the festival this week it felt like delivery on the long held theatrical potential of a particular Auckland strain of theatre.

Can I book tickets for the Auckland Festival 2011 season of 360 now?

*360 runs from March 12-21 at Te Whaea, as part of the NZ International Arts Festival in Wellington.

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