Theatre Preview: The End of The Golden Weather, Maidment Theatre

By Dionne Christian

Keisha Castle-Hughes and the cast share the narrative and also play inanimate objects. Photo / Richard Robinson
Keisha Castle-Hughes and the cast share the narrative and also play inanimate objects. Photo / Richard Robinson

On a night where the weather could be best be described as magical - it snowed a little, but snow in Auckland nonetheless - eight young actors and director Murray Lynch faced a small audience of enthusiastic theatre-goers.

They braved the cold to hear Auckland Theatre Company's artistic director Colin McColl, Lynch and the actors discuss staging one of our most famous plays, The End of the Golden Weather.

Playwright Bruce Mason first took his solo show on the road 50 years ago, performing the coming-of-age tale 986 times in venues as diverse as small-town theatres and country shearing sheds and at the 1963 Edinburgh Festival.

While cancer cut Mason's life short - he died aged 59 in 1982 - his influence on New Zealand theatre has never waned. Indeed, it seems stronger than ever as ATC prepares to open its "company version" of his most famous work.

McColl toyed with the idea of programming a play about rugby during the Rugby World Cup, but decided it would better serve local audiences and visitors to perform one of our best plays.

"It will give people something other than rugby to look at - and what a beautiful piece of theatre to see."

It is an apt time to programme the piece, as part of the REAL NZ Festival, and not just because of the sports event. Two years ago, ATC broke its own box office records when 9500 people went to see Mason's 1955 (and far less known) drama The Pohutukawa Tree.

While The End of the Golden Weather is usually performed as a one-man show, most recently and regularly by actor Stephen Lovatt, ATC's version features nine emerging young theatre-makers: Nic Sampson, Tim Carlsen, Sophie Roberts, Dena Kennedy, Fern Sutherland, Elliot Christensen-Yule, Byron Coll, Matariki Whatarau and Keisha Castle-Hughes.

For Castle-Hughes, it's a move from the big screen to the stage. While she appeared in Nga Manurere two years ago and has taken a turn in Christmas shows at the Basement Theatre, this is her first fully professional stage role.

"I am feeling very nervous about the show as I'm not used to performing to a live audience, but I am also very, very excited," she says. "It definitely felt like a natural transition to begin exploring into theatre.

"My history in theatre is not extensive at all, but I find it is always good to continually challenge myself as an actor. I'm really enjoying the entire process. There's a lot for me to soak up and learn. I'm taking each moment as it comes."

Despite the passage of time, McColl sees parallels between the cast assembled for this production and Mason.

"Bruce demonstrated the 'great New Zealand do-it-yourself ethic' in that he realised if he wanted to work as a playwright and actor, he had to make his own opportunities. So he wrote his own show and took it on the road.

"That's rather like the young people gathered here. They often write their own material, put on their shows and make work for themselves and others - and they're busy. Nic [Sampson] has been in two shows - one which he wrote - during the rehearsal period and Tim [Carlsen] couldn't stay tonight because he's performing for Silo Theatre."

It's just as well the cast are adaptable because this telling of The End of the Golden Weather asks them to work in ways they - and audiences - may not be used to. For starters, the actors have no fixed roles.

When they auditioned, or were invited to join the cast, they were handed the script written for a solo performer and told the narrative would be divided among them.

It means they may take turns to play the same character and also share in playing inanimate objects: a curtain, furniture and, in one scene, a pile of rocks.

To immerse themselves in the era, the actors were assigned homework before rehearsals started. Each was given a topic - from law and order to cooking and domestic life - and told to present their findings to the group. It's a collaborative approach which demands maturity and generosity.

The End of the Golden Weather is set in the 1930s when a boy on the cusp of adulthood is enjoying an idyllic summer at the beach. His world is innocent and magical, but times are changing.

The Great Depression ushers in unemployment and increasing poverty leading to riots on the streets - and then the boy meets Firpo.

Firpo is an outsider who dreams of winning an Olympic medal. Believing anything is possible, the boy sets out to help and ignores his father's rebukes and community ridicule. Thus the eternal optimism of childhood is confronted with the harsh pragmatism of adulthood.

Lynch adapted the piece for an ensemble cast in 1987 when he founded Tantrum Theatre in Auckland. Three years later, he took another group of promising young performers - among them Theresa Healey, Cliff Curtis, Stephen Lovatt, Robyn Malcolm and Michaela Rooney - and staged a production at Wellington's Downstage.

As a young theatre-maker, Lynch stage-managed Mason's performances of four of his solo works so he got to watch the master first-hand.

Even with an enlarged cast, Lynch said it was pivotal to focus on the story so the richness of the language in conjuring up detailed and evocative imagery was not lost.

"By dividing up the narrative and not having fixed roles, the story becomes paramount rather than the performances. The story and the language are so beautiful that it would be a shame to have them upstaged or distracted from by the performance of it."

Lynch doesn't think there's a danger the method could inadvertently overwhelm the message.

"What theatre can do better than film or television is stimulate the imagination. In film, things are often quite literal - and there's nothing wrong with that - but with theatre, we can make the imagination work a bit more. That's a thing we have over other mediums."

Sampson, who plays the boy most frequently, agrees with Lynch. He said the method and style of performances were established early in the process.

"It's a different beast to what I normally do but, having a month to rehearse, allows us all to really explore the piece and the characters and the era. It's a fantastic opportunity to learn, to be challenged and to be part of such a beautiful play."

Performance

What: The End of the Golden Weather

Where and when: Maidment Theatre, to September 24

- NZ Herald

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