Hunt for the Wilderpeople's Rachel House on her new project

By Dionne Christian

Actor, writer, director and coach -- is there no end to Rachel House's talents, asks Dionne Christian.
Rachel House. Photo / Michael Craig
Rachel House. Photo / Michael Craig

Rachel House thought she was done with theatre.

After 21 years either on stage -- she's appeared in about 30 productions -- or directing, and winning awards for both, House decided it was time to focus her attention on other ways of telling stories.

She picks her words carefully when she tries to explain why.

"I didn't want to direct any more theatre because I wanted to try something different, to move into another realm," House says. "I felt that I had done years and years of theatre, and it had been a wonderful journey where I'd learned a lot, but I wasn't as passionate about it as I once was.

"With theatre, we are always trying to engage in a conversation with people, and to bring people into that conversation, but I was disappointed the audiences were not as mixed as I hoped they would become."

You could also suggest House had hit the highest heights.

In 2012, she directed a Te reo production of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida at London's Globe Theatre. That same year, she received an Arts Foundation Laureate Award which recognises excellence "across a range of art forms for an artist with prominence and outstanding potential for future growth".

She's probably best known to most New Zealanders for her movie and TV roles in the likes of Whale Rider, Eagle Vs Shark, Hope and Wire and Find Me a Maori Bride. Right now, House is on the silver screen again, playing Paula Hunt, from child services, in a hilarious turn in Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Having decided to take a break from theatre, House was concentrating on screen work, her own writing and being an acting coach, particularly with young people, for which she's gaining an international reputation.

Then Sophie Roberts, artistic director of Silo Theatre, brought her a script that changed her mind about that break from theatre.

The script was for Medea. Re-told and re-imagined during millennia, Medea is a character from a very old story, her roots in Greek mythology. She marries Jason, of Jason and the Argonauts, and they have two sons.

In the version of Medea, by Greek tragedian Euripides, produced in 431BC, Medea is abandoned by Jason for another woman, then avenges the betrayal by killing their sons. Since then, she's appeared in or inspired characters in other stories on the page, stage and screen; operas, ballets and rock songs have been written about her and she is discussed and debated by feminist scholars. Medea even features in a video game.

Both Roberts and House have long been interested in whose stories are told -- and by whom -- in the theatre. The script Roberts gave House was a new version of the story. In all the re-tellings of Medea and her terrible deed -- is it vengeance or an act of love? -- not one has focused on the two sons whose lives she takes. Until now.

Written by Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks, this Medea takes place in a contemporary kid's bedroom where brothers Leon and Jasper try to amuse and distract themselves as their parents rage outside the locked bedroom door.

Rather than relegated to supporting characters -- barely mentioned in a drama which will have fatal repercussions for them -- the boys are the leads in this production.

This is the first-time Silo has featured children in leading roles, and Joe Valentine, Levi Kereama, Aeden Burmester and Quinn Bevan work in two teams appearing on alternate nights. Roberts says working with youngsters is an exciting move for Silo as it's always looking for new approaches to story-telling.

"Children on stage, especially when they are alone on the stage, not only do they bring a new perspective, but a new sense of risk and danger because audiences are aware of their vulnerabilities."

It echoes what playwright Sarks says about creating this version of Medea: "This new version of Medea began its life inside of me as a bold and persistent what if -- in terms of the story of Medea, but also in terms of what is possible in the theatre with children.

Rachel House in rehearsals for Silo's production of Medea with Aeden Burmester, left, and Quinn Bevan. Photo / Jinki Cambronero
Rachel House in rehearsals for Silo's production of Medea with Aeden Burmester, left, and Quinn Bevan. Photo / Jinki Cambronero

"I believe children bring an electricity to the stage. They change the quality of the air with their playfulness and their truth.

"In this new Medea that electricity is at the centre of the theatrical experience."

For the most part it's just the boys on stage; occasionally, Medea (played by Bronwyn Bradley) appears. House says it's an intriguing premise and plays into what originally attracted her to theatre: new approaches to story-telling, allowing new voices to be heard.

"It's about -- as much as anything is -- empathy, and there's a certain amount of intrigue in being a 'fly on the wall' and looking into a child's world, learning more about their thinking and how their parents' behaviour and actions resonate and are interpreted by the kids."

Roberts describes the play as playful and magical -- until the final scenes. "Then it delivers such a punch because you forget you're watching these boys in the last hours of their lives."

She wanted House to direct because she's worked so often with children, namely on movies like Boy, The Dark Horse and, more recently, Wilderpeople, but she also trusts her to recognise and respect the emotional depths of the story.

All the boys who auditioned, and their families, were briefed by House and Roberts as to what was involved. Scripts were given to parents and caregivers to read in advance.

Roberts admits she had moments when, before the auditions, she wondered whether four boys could be found to play the roles; House never doubted it.

"There's lots of talent out there," she says.

"I could have cast any of the boys who auditioned -- they were that good -- but these particular boys are very smart and really capable of understanding and taking direction really well."

They have gone over the script line-by-line, discussing character motivations and analysing what's going on in the brothers' lives.

House loves watching the young actors make "new discoveries" and seeing "the cogs turning" as the story falls into place.

She has no worries about their ability to bring it all together on stage.

"With all the stories that we have, it's still rare that we get to see what goes on in the minds of our children when they're in their own world."

What the boys say:

Joe Valentine, 11: "I've never done a play this big before, it's very deep and meaningful. How nervous do I think I'll be? Out of 10, probably 11. But it will go down."

Levi Kereama, 14: "I just came off Tom Sawyer and I really liked it, so I wanted to do it. I can make new friends and get to know people. I have never learned the 'wants' before, like been this deep into a character ever. I'll be really nervous but I think I will be really prepared. Good nervous, nerves that you can use to make it better."

Aeden Burmester, 12: "It can get a bit sad and dramatic near the end, but other than that it can also be quite funny and exiting during the rest of the play. I am learning how to channel my emotions and use them differently for different sentences and words that I say. I might be happy and sad in one line or angry and funny in another. There are so many different ways you can say a line, it is just very creative."

Quinn Bevan, 10: "I wanted to be in this production to have fun because I love acting. I like the chance of dying on stage; when I was told that my mother kills me, I was really, really excited. I know it's a sad story, but it doesn't make me feel sad. I'm learning about 'wants', too, -- looking at the 'wants' of each line and action; the s story of Medea and Jason and the Argonauts; the meanings of words like Neanderthal, rabid, empathy and compassion."

What: Medea
Where and when: Herald Theatre, June 16-July 9

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