Theatre Review: A Model Woman

By Paul Simei-Barton

Alex Ellis and Simon Coleman in A Model Woman.
Alex Ellis and Simon Coleman in A Model Woman.

A New Zealand play about a pair of Danish artists living in Paris in the 1920s testifies to an emerging global sensibility amongst local writers who do not feel the need to proclaim their Kiwi identity.

The artistic ferment of the 1920s has a very contemporary feel and the show highlights how many of the ideas associated with the 1960s were forged 40 years earlier as an anarchic energy obliterated the profound disillusionment of World War I's lost generation.

The play excavates the little-known history of the world's first recipient of sex-change surgery and holds a mirror to current debates about gender and sexual identity.

Phil Ormsby's poetic script is finely attuned to the complexity of the topic. The story ironically shows how bohemian rejection of bourgeois conformity and a willingness to experiment with trans-sexual identity was replaced by a fierce adherence to traditional notions of femininity once the sex-change was realised.

The intricate narrative structure focuses on the emotional turmoil of the two artists as it darts back and forth in time and gives voice to those who condemn and misunderstand their unconventional lifestyle.

Although the story itself is fascinating, the script sometimes struggles to find much dynamism in the routines of artists who spend a good deal of their time moping around in their studio and some of the more interesting scenes are presented as reported action.

The casting works against the physical expectations of the central role and the audience are never given a convincing visual image of a character who could switch rapidly between male and female identities.

But Simon Coleman delivers a moving account of the anguish felt by an individual whose self-understanding challenges the way society defines gender, while Alex Ellis engagingly captures a vivacious exuberance for the artistic life and the seductive allure of transgression.

What: A Model Woman
Where and when: The Basement, Auckland to November 2

- NZ Herald

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