Theatre Reviews: Best of 2010

By Janet McAllister, Paul Simei-Barton

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Robyn Malcolm in Happy Days. Photo / Andrew Malmo.
Robyn Malcolm in Happy Days. Photo / Andrew Malmo.

Auckland theatre punters have been spoiled for choice over the past year. There were heaps of shows (at least 110 professional and semi-professional plays) and overall, they fulfilled two important get-off-the-couch criteria: they were entertaining, and cheap enough to compete with the movies.

But were they art? Unlike last year, I did get one or two small chances to be a bitchy critic this year - but only one or two.

It would be nice if experimental, physical and non-narrative-driven pieces were more prominent - but this plea for "more, please" is because the avant-garde-type pieces I did get to see were so good.

Louise Tu'u's Providence masterfully led its audience into "experiencing a replica aspect of homelessness" feeling vague and confused and unsure of what was expected of them - by deliberately breaking the rules.

On loan from Wellington, the Binge Culture Collective revealed we are all puppets, by manipulating our laughs into disturbed silence, using only a rough-and-ready student aesthetic of chalk and plastic bags.

Miranda Harcourt played herself as written by her husband Stuart McKenzie in Biography of My Skin at the Town Hall Concert Chamber - a clever conceit which was comfortable rather than conceited, thanks to the friendly performances.

Like Providence, Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape (well wrought by Edward Newborn) was a miniature gem in the Basement's upstairs studio, as was Sam Shepard's "forgotten" Sad Lament of Pecos Bill, On the Eve of Killing His Wife.

The Dove Hunters beautifully evoked a culture of grief and living with death, with skilled musicianship and an enveloping magic-realist set of bonfire and hay bales.

For the larger productions, it was great to see our literary history on stage and treated with so much fun in Horseplay, written by Ken Duncum and produced by Auckland Theatre Company. The ATC's Cabaret was superlative - raunchy, wonderfully conceived, political spectacle.

And the Silo's production of When the Rain Stops Falling neatly captured family claustrophobia played out against the wide open spaces of the Outback.

It also offered the best male performance I saw this year: Stephen Lovatt's, full of dark energy. Bruce Phillips in A View from the Bridge also packed a punch.

The best actress I saw this year was Chelsie Preston-Crayford. She was in a number of plays but it was The Vagina Monologues which showed off her chameleon, magnetic presence the best, as she gracefully swapped between poignancy and comic timing, sass and vulnerable youth.

The Short+Sweet festival offering medleys of short works is a welcome addition to the annual calendar, as is the Maori playwrights festival Taonga Whakaari, which was a chance for revivals as well as new plays.

One worrying disappointment was the cancellation of what was to be the Silo's end-of-year production, due to recession-created funding problems.

A lesser, but also less explainable, disappointment was the day two members of the Eulogy crew took a thoughtful volunteer reviewer to task on the theatreview website.

Her crime? Writing a review rather than a dramaturgy assessment report.

Dear luvvies: as most actors know, that's not our job.

We're not here for you. We're here for those parting with their hard-earned cash to see you. And happily, there are a lot of shows around worth doing that for.

Live theatre often acts like a barometer for shifts in the social climate and the economic downturn seems to have prompted a move towards a more serious kind of theatre.

2010 was a great year for socially engaged drama with a number of shows taking on tough issues and a definite trend towards plays that tackle the big existential questions.

This tendency was most apparent in the preponderance of one-person shows. This low-budget theatrical form is well suited to hard times and is particularly effective when actors use it to tell personal stories.

In Heroic Faun No One at The Basement, Gregory Cooper provided a revealing perspective on a mega-budget Hollywood epic from the point of view of a low-paid and over-worked "featured extra".

And Katie Prior's performance of My Name is Rachel Corrie (The Basement) delivered a powerful account of an idealistic university student's tragic death while protesting against the Israeli occupation of Gaza.

Perhaps the most successful efforts in this genre were The Second Test by Jonny Brugh (Herald Theatre) and Silent Night by Yvette Parsons (Maidment Musgrove Studio), both of which paid homage to the incredible strength of character of Kiwi battlers from an earlier generation.

For original work by New Zealand playwrights, the triumphant return of Richard O'Brien's Rocky Horror Show (The Civic) set an impossibly high benchmark.

But the Young & Hungry Festival (ATC/The Basement) showcased a wildly imaginative piece of Kiwi madness in Grant Buist's Fitz Bunny: Lust for Glory. The show is so weirdly original it's easy to imagine that, had it opened in London, it might have transferred to the West End and gone on to world domination.

In a more lyrical vein, He Reo Aroha by Miria George & Jamie McCaskill (Glen Eden Playhouse) provided a beautifully romantic love story, while Passage by Fiona Graham (Herald Theatre) delivered a visually sumptuous evocation of a spiritual journey.

Our established theatre companies presented a nice mix of new work along with imaginative revivals of classics. Auckland Theatre Company opened with Dave Armstrong's sharp political satire Le Sud (Maidment Theatre) and Colin McColl breathed fresh life into Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (Maidment Theatre).

Silo Theatre cemented its reputation for cutting-edge contemporary theatre with Shane Bosher's stunning production of Polly Stenham's That Face (Herald Theatre).

The small, independent companies continued to demonstrate the passion that drives committed theatre practitioners who work with little expectation of financial reward.

Tapac theatre hosted a lovingly crafted version of Frederico Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba and Edward Newborn gave a haunting performance, reviving his 25-year-old production Krapp's Last Tape by Samuel Beckett (The Basement).

The Basement clearly established itself as the epicentre of Auckland's independent theatre scene with electrifying short season runs of plays like Mojo by Jez Butterworth.

For outstanding performances, the scales were heavily tilted towards female roles with Brooke Williams capturing Juliet's frenetic teenage restlessness in ATC's Romeo & Juliet (Maidment Theatre) and Robyn Malcolm's mesmerising performance in Silo's production of Beckett's Happy Days (Herald Theatre).

But for me, best performance would have to go Jennifer Ludlam's brilliant characterisation of the mad, drug-addled matriarch in August: Osage County by Tracy Letts (Maidment Theatre) and Colin McColl's visionary direction of this superb drama makes it my pick of production of the year.

- NZ Herald

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