Capital fare so fine audiences can forgive one dud

By Paul Bushnell

Judging by its first week and a bit, this New Zealand International Arts Festival is shaping up to be one of the best. There have been three big international theatre shows, a terrific Maori Showbands concert, a widely admired pair of orchestral concerts, and just one dud.

Of the three theatrical shows, only one is a play. The action of Tristan and Yseult draws on the same myth used by the composer Richard Wagner, but this production surrounds the central love triangle with a chorus of the romantically dispossessed.

There is something quintessentially English about this cluster of anorak-wearing, binocular-toting lovespotters, excluded from the world of love but yearning vicariously for its pleasures and pain.

The production plays up the comedy which derives from their interaction with the title characters, and the tone of the staging is briskly extroverted.

The only thing missing in the mix of comedy and tragedy is gravitas. In many of Shakespeare's comedies, there is a moment of still equipoise in which emotion surfaces to make true and poignant what has seemed until then to be merely amusing.

The closest this play gets is in the account of the maid Brangian of the pleasure she took in substituting for her mistress in the wedding-night bed, to avoid the king's discovery that his bride was not a virgin.

Cross-dressed as a rather beefy Brangian, Craig Johnson delivers this speech with tenderness, but as lovely as this sequence is, it cannot carry the emotional superstructure of the whole work.

A lack of emotion was no handicap to Super Vision. Three subplots deal with a businessman travelling repeatedly to the US; an elderly woman in Sri Lanka who talks with her grand-daughter in New York via video streaming; and a middle-class man who uses his son's digital identity for credit-card fraud which finances, then destroys, his family's comfortable existence.

The multi-media show fuses pre-recorded digitally created images with live action and live video projection, to produce a set of meditations on the role that digitised data has in affecting how we deal with each other. The most compelling sequence has the African-born businessman being quizzed repeatedly by passport-control officers whose knowledge of his digital life rapidly becomes encyclopaedic. It's a cool, elegant production, which refuses to provide easy answers to the dilemmas it presents.

By contrast, the largely non-verbal Bright Abyss is played strictly for fun. Created by James Thieree, a grandson of Charles Chaplin, this show swizzles mime, physical theatre and acrobatics into a refreshing cocktail.

Bookended with scenes looking as though they have strayed out of an epic Baroque opera, the show has five performers who enact child-like games of dominance and control, to delicious comic effect.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment played timid programmes of popular Baroque and classical works but it pleased an audience keen to hear live performance of work otherwise accessible only on radio or CD.

The most joyous music-making has come from the Maori Volcanics. They provided a splendid concert of show-stopping numbers, comedy and musical impersonations, climaxing with all 21 musicians belting out Poi E as if their lives depended on it.

Judging by the rapturous reception at the first of the two festival concerts, it is time now for the Maori showband tours to be revived.

I would be surprised to hear if Aarero Stone - a New Zealand collaboration between choreographers/performers Carol Brown and Charles Koroneho - is seen again after the festival. It gives pretension a bad name, being full of moody not-quite-dance, and excruciating acting.

The only good thing about this frightful production (apart from the elegant set) is that it will be eclipsed by the international dance still to come, Eva and Aterballetto. It is the only mis-step the festival has taken so far, so audiences will find it easy to forgive.

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

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