Biggest buzz from home-grown productions

By Paul Bushnell

Although the days of the celebratory opening processions with firewalkers and stilts have long gone, there is still a sense of bustle in the air in Wellington now the festival has begun.

Festival-goers emerge blinking into the sunlight during the intervals of afternoon performances before plunging eagerly back into darkness for the second half. They cluster in bars and cafes between shows, arguing about what they've seen.

With the redevelopment of Waitangi Park next to Te Papa, the festival's centre of gravity has moved into the entertainment zone of the city. This area hosts an exhibition of startling photographs from throughout the world, as well as the 28m-high dome which is home to Les Arts Sauts, and the Festival Club - a small cabaret venue modelled on the old-style Dans Paleis, and which was first seen here a few festivals ago.

It has all started remarkably well. Devotees of popular and high art would both be satisfied - if they can afford the prices. Les Arts Sauts, which is probably the most family-friendly show, costs $285 for two adults and three children.

The show's European style is evident in its accompaniment, from a string trio and singer on platforms high above the audience, the body-hugging costumes, and the mix of bravura and insouciance with which the performers complete their gravity-defying routines.

It makes no pretences to profundity but is a wonderful piece of entertainment.

Les Arts Sauts is explicitly international, yet the show that has provided me with my best theatre to date is emphatically of this country. As brilliant as the ensemble English cast was at leaping over the high jumps of Alan Bennett's script for The History Boys, it was King and Country that moved me more.

This absorbing piece of theatre by Dave Armstrong tells the story of New Zealand's involvement in World War I.

The word "play" is hardly the right one to use for what is a series of monologues, fragments of storytelling, and songs accompanied by a live brass band, but from the simplest elements a complex and powerful piece of work has been made.

All credit to the seven New Zealand arts festivals which jointly financed the production's development. I predict a long future for the show, in professional and amateur performances, as its blend of words and music is within the compass of many performers.

Words were the least satisfying element of two otherwise intriguing international performances - the opera Tea, by the Chinese composer Tan Dun, and Eraritjaritjaka, a Swiss production featuring French translations of writings of the Bulgarian essayist Elias Canetti.

Even when delivered by an actor with the charisma and voice of Andre Wilms, these existentialist musings failed to have much impact.

It mattered little, however, because the staging was so engrossing. About a third of the way through the show, Wilms was followed by a camera relaying his image and sound as they left the theatre, got into a taxi, and travelled through central Wellington to an apartment.

Nearly all the action happens in this flat, which is revealed in splendid coup-de-theatre to actually be backstage, behind the screen on which the live video image is projected.

Nothing in the staging of Tea matched this moment. It was best to think of Tea as a concert with some ancillary visuals rather than any coherent piece of operatic drama.

Despite the words of the libretto (written and performed in English) being largely incomprehensible, the sound world created by the composer, who also conducted, was captivating.

His writing blends percussion, water, non-Western instruments, and the Western classical orchestra - the NZSO in fine form - to produce a meditative score.

However, notwithstanding the fine performances of all concerned, the vestigial action and negligible plot mean that experiencing the opera was an aural rather than a dramatic or emotional experience.

Although the metaphor of tea matters a lot to the composer, he failed to make me feel the same. Perhaps it's a matter of the difference in cultural contexts, as it's hard to imagine a play about the first Anzac experience being much of a hit in China or Japan.

Still, I'm pleased to have seen Tea, as offering a range of experiences is what a good art festival is all about.

* Paul Bushnell reviews the New Zealand International Arts Festival at 2.30pm each weekday on National Radio.


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