Best words deliver verdict

By Reviewed by Paul Bushnell

In An ironic twist of scheduling, one festival production pronounced a verdict on another show last weekend. Opening a day after the worst play in the festival (The Holy Sinner), a character in the best play (The Dragons' Trilogy) delivered the line, "They play with form because they have nothing to say".

He might as well have been talking about The Holy Sinner. This farrago of witlessness showed just how far a talented crew can go astray when it is given a big budget, a conventional proscenium theatre and is allowed to indulge itself.

Billed as the festival's major New Zealand theatre commission, this work was recreated by Mike Mizrahi and Marie Adams, who first staged it in Auckland in 1990. It has not aged well.

The vacancy at its heart was not concealed by the lavish smoke, wind, rain, snow and fire effects, nor the frenzied and repetitive action of the cast which throws itself into the doomed enterprise with the same spirit that saw the 400 once ride into the valley of death.

Lacking sense, audibility, and artistic discipline or direction, the production resembles 60 special effects in search of a play. That so big a budget could have been squandered in so profligate a manner is an indictment on everyone concerned.

By contrast, the show which opened a day later showed what "epic" truly means. The Dragons' Trilogy is by Robert LePage, whose seven-hour Seven Streams of the River Ota was one of the greatest events the International Arts Festival has staged.

Although this production does not have the grandeur and emotional force of Ota, it is still extraordinarily impressive.

Its saga of Chinese and Japanese families who live in Canada spans 75 years, but there is never a moment when the production doesn't seem real and specific, whether the action is tragic or amusing.

Although many of the staging ideas are risky and unashamedly theatrical, the result is a gleaming, burnished production which exemplifies the way in which theatrical action can meld with script and performance to offer an experience film cannot: the knowledge that this magic is being summoned for you in this audience, at this particular time.

Still pleasing, though at a rather different level of theatrical achievement, were two small theatre shows. Page 8, from Australia, explored the early life of David Page, growing up gay and Aboriginal on the outskirts of Brisbane.

Although it was occasionally too cute and audience-pleasing, it provided a disarming night out, being full of all kinds of theatrical diversions.

The same could hardly be said of Instructions for Modern Living, by Duncan Sarkies and Nic McGowan. Almost defiantly anti-theatrical, this concert came across more like a piece of performance art than anything else.

But although the musical mood was soporific, and Sarkies' voice has little range, the writing and music explored the sad lives of inarticulate characters with considerable comic flair.

The Spanish dancer Eva Yerbabuena provided the most extraordinary flamenco I have seen - an austere, aggressive display which bordered at times on the ugly.

Coolly self-possessed, Yerbabuena danced with a ferocious energy and discipline, moving into a realm of abstraction far from the conventional image of flamenco as a cousin of the tango, something best for representing in mannered form the relationship of men to women.

Orchestra Baobab provided a sunny concert of Cuban-infused music from Senegal which had the audience dancing on the floor of the Wellington Town Hall.

In a more sedate mode, Tuwhare appealed to those who had come to hear the next instalment after Baxter, in what seems to have become a franchise of New Zealand poetry set to contemporary music.

In the festival's single NZSO concert, the contemporary composer James MacMillan conducted the classical programme's most challenging concert.

By all accounts, the event was a great success, particularly for the rendition of MacMillan's choral work Quickening.

Classical music climaxes this weekend in what will be the finale to the whole festival, a concert version of Richard Wagner's opera Parsifal.

Now there, at least, is a festival commission which is likely to have something to say.

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

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