Triumph for outgoing director

By Paul Bushnell

The final week of the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts had some memorable moments, including the Hilliard Ensemble in a programme of contemplative church music drawn from various traditions, a vibrant performance by the Italian dance group Aterballetto with a virtuosic folk music quartet; a provocative reworking of the silent film The Birth of a Nation, and a semi-staged version of the Wagnerian opera Parsifal.

This was far better than anyone had a right to hope for. To only partially stage Parsifal seemed a distinct come-down from the triumphal, and fully realised Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg in 1990, but the drama was well-enacted and the riches of the luminous score were delivered in abundance.

It was a fine New Zealand performance, but many of the big festival drama commissions in the past have been less successful. Festival-goers expect to see New Zealand work which is not the usual run-of-the-mill production, but the history of the festival's development of large-scale works is patchy.

In 1996 the play Ricordi!, which explored the connection between the life of Katherine Mansfield and her writing, was widely disliked because of its baffling and pretentious production style.

Leah, in 2002, was based on the intriguing idea that Shakespeare's King Lear was a female character, Queen Leah, but it showed that those involved had lost their way and produced a show with little sense or style.

Then there are the single-event shows which have production resources poured into them to create an event which is so costly it will never be seen again.

In 1998, Alley was produced in operatic form, featuring complex staging, and performers from China and New Zealand. It has never been revived. Four years later Fane Flaws inflated his amusing verse for kids into overblown theatrical form in The Underwatermelon Man.

It was far too long and too elaborately staged to receive another showing after the follow-on performances in Auckland.

By contrast, over the years the festival has commissioned some outstanding small-scale productions such as Haruru Mai, Blue Smoke, Woman Far Walking and Waiora. But not this year.

Although it was patchily performed, Instructions for Modern Living had a core of fine comic writing but it was obliterated by the execrable Aarero Stone and The Holy Sinner. At least the former was small and short, although not short enough.

The Holy Sinner was a bloated, empty piece of theatre but how big was it? It looked expensive, but the festival has declined to reveal the budget on the grounds of commercial sensitivity.

Creative New Zealand, however, gave $75,000 to the show, and also included information about it in the organisation's Red Hot booklet listing productions which are keen to tour internationally.

It also gave $90,000 towards the developmental phase of New Zealand work, which included The Holy Sinner, a further $272,000 to develop and present all the New Zealand work for the festival, and umbrella funding of $400,000 to the festival organisation.

So, the budget for this show would have formed some undefined part of $837,000, supplemented by sponsorship from Sauce and input from the Inside Out production house.

By any standards, this was a well-financed production. That it all came out so badly is a problem which the next festival's director, Australian Lissa Twomey, will be keen to avoid emulating.

But in the meantime, Carla Van Zon leaves her post as artistic director after being involved with the festival for much of its 20 years.

Despite some inevitable miscalculations along the way, including a period a few years ago which featured far too many vapid international productions, she has cemented this event as the cornerstone of New Zealand's festival scene and an important event in the Australasian festival schedule.

The festivals with which Carla has been involved have brought some wonderful productions from overseas, such as the confrontational Giulio Cesare and the joyous Mark Morris Dance Group, as well as great local productions such as the superbly designed Simon Boccanegra.

In the afterglow of the radiant Parsifal which ended this festival, she can feel a justified gleam of pride at being able to hand it over to her successor in such good heart.

* Paul Bushnell was National Radio's reviewer of the New Zealand International Arts Festival.

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