Theatre: 13 and Eigengrau

By Dionne Christian

John (Jordan Selwyn) in the local production of 13. Photo / Supplied
John (Jordan Selwyn) in the local production of 13. Photo / Supplied

The best of British is on show at the Basement this month, with works by two of its hottest young playwrights. Mike Bartlett's 13 and Eigengrau by Penelope Skinner are both set in London and aimed squarely at those trying to get a toehold in the murky swamp of the modern world.

Written last year - the year of the London Riots - 13 is the more overtly political of the two. Across London, people wake from an identical and terrifying dream. At the same moment, a young man named John returns home after years away to find economic gloom, ineffective protest, and a Prime Minister about to declare war. But John has a vision for the future and a way to make it happen.

No prizes for guessing John is a messiah-type figure, meant to be the catalyst for far-reaching social and political change, but can he bring together the disparate factions of the popular protest movement?

13, directed by Sophie Roberts, is performed by graduates of the Auckland-based The Actors Program. With Sam Neill as its patron, The Actors Program is a privately run one-year acting course which counts among its tutors the likes of Sara Wiseman, Michael Hurst, Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Michele Hine, Cameron Rhodes, John Callen and the Basement's Charlie McDermott.

The 14 soon-to-graduate students chose 13 because, says Jordan Selwyn, who plays John, it resonated with all of them.

"We put it down after a read-through and said, 'what do we think?' Just a week or two before, a couple of my friends had been roughed up during the student protests at the University of Auckland - and there are scenes in this play similar to that - so I said, 'we have to do this'. It might be set in London, but the issues it talks about are happening here."

Bartlett's early works have become fringe favourites in Britain, leading to commissions for the National Theatre and BBC. In 2007, he became the Royal Court Theatre's writer in residence, and in 2010 he was awarded a Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre for the play Cock.

Meanwhile, the Basement is also the venue for Penelope Skinner's Eigengrau - German for intrinsic grey, the colour the eyes see in perfect darkness. Shades of grey indeed when Rose (Michelle Blundell) brings home Mark (Calum Gittins), whose attitude towards her the next morning horrifies Rose's feminist flatmate, Cassie (Chelsea McEwan Millar). It's game on as Cassie - with a secret of her own - and Mark seek to outwit one another, while Mark's hapless flatmate Tim (Simon Ward) takes a shine to Rose and is willing to do anything for her.

Written for a four-person cast, Eigengrau focuses on the ramifications of casual sex and transient relationships, while it also considers the legacy of 70s feminism.

The play is being staged by acclaimed independent theatre company (potent pause) Productions and directed by Paul Gittins, who acknowledges the company has been largely associated with small-cast classics, particularly works by Harold Pinter.

"Doing Eigengrau is a conscious choice to try and make younger theatre-goers aware of our company and the nature and standard of our work," says Gittins.

"When you go to the Basement there is always the potential to see something very contemporary, exciting and different. Eigengrau is definitely all of those and while being very funny some of the humour is quite black with a couple of edgy moments."

- NZ Herald

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