Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

Vernon God Little turns sights on American gun crime

Sebastian Dudding in Vernon God Little.
Sebastian Dudding in Vernon God Little.

Independent theatre company Last Tapes, responsible for the outstanding cabaret Valerie, and The Actors' Program are turning five, so they're getting together to stage one of the most controversial comedies of recent years.

It's Vernon God Little, based on DBC Pierre's Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name. Why controversial? Written four years after a mass shooting at Columbine High School, it's a satire about gun violence in the United States as seen through the eyes of 15-year-old Vernon Gregory Little.

He's the sole survivor of a school massacre committed by his best friend, Jesus Navarro, who turned the gun on himself. Vernon, regarded as a little odd by residents in his small Texas town, soon finds himself in the sights of the law, fellow townsfolk and the media and is taken in for questioning.

The blurb on DBC Pierre's novel states the novel is "quite unlike any other and quite possibly the only novel to be set in the barbecue-sauce capital of Central Texas".

The story lived up to the hype, with many likening Vernon to Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

Four years later, when the play was performed at the Young Vic in London, there were raised eyebrows. They loved the show but it came less than a month after another mass shooting in the US.

Out of respect, should the Young Vic have re-scheduled? Turns out, with the increasing frequency of gun violence in the US, there probably wouldn't have been a time to stage it when the nation wasn't dealing with the fallout of mass murder.

Leon Wadham, who directs the Auckland premiere production, says it's unfathomable to most New Zealanders that the citizens of the world's biggest democracy put up with this type of violence.

"Vernon God Little is a work of satirical fiction but it talks very much about the time we seem to be living in," says Wadham.

"I like that it's not a transcript of a real-life event but a satire that forces us to look at things through a theatrical lens."

Wadham says Vernon God Little, with a cast of 16 about-to-graduate actors, is the biggest production he's led.

He's got a good team around him, though, including tutors from The Actors Program (TAP), Last Tapes' Robin Kelly and Cherie Moore, and design team Andrew Foster, Lara Macgregor and Paul McLaney, who's putting together the soundtrack.

There is, says Wadham, quite a lot of music, because it's a story and production which lends itself to a big soundtrack.

The cast of relatively young emerging actors includes Sebastian Dudding as Vernon. No one on this year's TAP course was automatically assigned a role; they all auditioned so Wadham and team could decide who was best suited to playing a single part, who should take on multiple roles and which combinations would work best.

Dudding was only six when the book was published in 2003 so he wasn't aware of the story until it was decided upon for an end-of-year production. He read the script, found out a bit more about it and decided he wanted to play Vernon.

"I thought he would be funny to play. He's someone who needs to be calm in the whirlwind which swirls around him rather than being the whirlwind itself, he's watching everything happen around him. I'm used to playing angry and over-the-top characters; this is a good change."

He's not the only young actor to tackle the role. In that Young Vic production, a drama school student called Colin Morgan played Vernon; he's since starred in Merlin and the acclaimed series Humans.

Preview
What: Vernon God Little
Where & when: Basement Theatre; November 16-25

- NZ Herald

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