Bouquets and brickbats

By Janet McAllister

Te Kohe Tuhaka and George Henare in the Auckland Theatre Company production Awatea. Photo / Supplied
Te Kohe Tuhaka and George Henare in the Auckland Theatre Company production Awatea. Photo / Supplied

A battle over minorities was centre-stage this year: gay people, disabled people, wimmin people and other Others - they/we were both celebrated and sneered at. Silo Theatre was the fantastic heavy-hitter in the left corner of this iPolitics theatre of war, coming out fast and funny with the star-laden feminist Top Girls, then Tribes (a beautiful delivery of a slightly undercooked script about deaf isolation), before moving on to the gay historical drama The Pride. This pointed troika was a bold piece of programming and Silo proved they had the production chops to pull it off, ensuring entertainment before earnestness.

Various minority reports also came in from Massive Company's upbeat true-story ensemble The Brave, while the Auckland Theatre Company (ATC) revival of A Frigate Bird Sings focused on the complications of life for a fa'afafine and her family. And Bruce Brown's 10-minute Boys' Outing was a sparkling diamond hidden under the Short+Sweet rug - one of the most adorable revelations of mutual attraction (gay or straight) I've ever seen, well played by young performers Graham Candy and Ryan Dulieu.

In contrast, I'm tired of cripple jokes, I'm tired of fat jokes, and I'm tired of older single women all being portrayed as desperately man hungry (in your dreams, elderly playwrights). Woefully, all the plays I saw which were guilty of throwing up such throwbacks were by New Zealanders. If I needed to see others disrespected for no particular reason other than to make me feel superior and to shore-up a receding patriarchal pecking order, I'd watch budget TV. (Although the single funniest moment in Auckland theatre this year was Gerry Brownlee being made to sit next to Jaime and Sally Ridge in the audience at the spectacular Mary Poppins premiere.)

The year was also full of delights and revelations. The scrunchie-licious Checkout Chicks - an ATC "Next Big Thing" musical comedy by Julia Truscott and Rachel Callinan set recognisably at your local supermarket - deserves a national tour for being awesome. Another, more substantial highlight was ATC's biggest risk: 20-something playwright Eli Kent on the main bill. Black Confetti was a triumph for cast and crew as well as creator - ambitious, atmospheric and theatrical, without taking itself too seriously. And A Midsummer Night's Dream's play-within-the-play showed ol' Shakespeare's still got a side-split or 10 left in him.

For the pointy-headed among us, (potent pause) Productions pleased with Pinter's The Birthday Party - it was a sublime consensual mind-muddle, as was Nisha Madhan's off-piste matching of Patti Smith and Sam Shepard's Cowboy Mouth with her own absurd Love It Up. Rachael Walker's very clever atom set for Copenhagen enhanced an already excellent production; and Michael Hurst is on to something with his mad-hero musings in Bard Day's Night. The New Performance Festival's Call Cutta in a Box (each one-on-one show was performed by a call centre worker in Calcutta) was a unique, impressive and thought-provoking experience.

On the acting front, although Stuart Devenie is already missed in his retirement, I'm continually amazed at the increasing number of excellent, committed, diverse performers who tread our boards. Character actor of the year goes to Keith Adams who mined the Caribbean for both frothy fairy godmother (Sinarella) and sinister demon (Black Confetti), and came back with the magic for both. And Julia Deans deservedly won Metro's sexiest woman title for her turn in Silo's Brel she had chutzpah, grit and charisma. Femme formidable as femme fatale. My kind of wimmin.

- Janet McAllister

The pervasive mood of austerity through the year has engendered a return to fundamentals among Auckland theatre companies, with the more successful productions displaying a respectful appreciation of tradition and a no-frills emphasis on the physical presence of living, breathing actors.

The back-to-basics ethos is also apparent in the way theatre venues are differentiating themselves and establishing a stronger sense of their own identity. This was most clearly shown by Tapac in Western Springs which, under Mary-Margaret Hollins' direction, has blended a commitment to grass-roots community theatre with an enthusiasm for innovative devised works. The authentic community focus was demonstrated in Culture Clash and Prayas' production of Rudali - The Mourner, while the avant-garde approach was on show with the Dust Palace's circus spectacular Love and Money.

For sheer volume of shows the Basement Theatre is in a league of its own - and this grungy inner-city theatre is the go-to place for edgy, low-budget, contemporary theatre. The more prosperous companies owe a huge debt to the Basement for making live theatre attractive to young audiences. Their shows are neatly attuned to recent international trends with notable productions including Eigengrau, a work by British enfant terrible Penelope Skinner, while the growing popularity of verbatim theatre in the United States was reflected in The Laramie Project - 10 Years Later.

The Basement is also ideal for original devised work as exemplified by The Pantry Shelf - a hilarious piece of madcap comedy from enterprising Kiwi partnership Team M&M.

Silo Theatre has copped some flak for neglecting New Zealand playwrights but the company's quirky interpretations of international classics have an indefinable Kiwi flavour that parallels the way Peter Jackson has subtly insinuated elements of our national psyche into his hobbits.

This weird inter-cultural alchemy could be discerned in the way Mia Blake somehow managed to bring an urban Pacific vibe to her take on decadent British aristocracy in Silo's stylish production of Noel Coward's Private Lives (Q Theatre).

ATC's brand of high quality professional theatre was tilted towards comedy and light entertainment this year but with Bruce Mason's Awatea (Maidment Theatre) the company uncovered an absolute gem of New Zealand theatre.

Productions from ATC, Silo and Peach Theatre provided a glittering showcase for New Zealand acting talent and among numerous fine performances my standouts would include Bronwyn Bradley's mesmerising portrait of a bitterly calloused working class mum in Silo's Top Girls (Q Theatre); Geraldine Brophy as the hard-case rural postmistress in ATC's Awatea (Maidment) and the incomparable George Henare who had a remarkably prolific year with stunning performances as the blind patriarch in Awatea and as Willy Loman in Peach Theatre's Death of a Salesman (Maidment).

For new work by New Zealand playwrights it is hard to go past Jamie McCaskill's Manawa (Basement) which brought a refreshing blast of humour to the minefield of identity politics.

Honourable mention should go to Geoff Allen's Mrs Van Gogh (Maidment) for a wonderfully idiosyncratic piece of expressionist theatre.

My choice of production of the year is The Maori Troilus & Cressida Toroihi raua ko Kahira (Town Hall Concert Chamber) - a truly remarkable event that was New Zealand's contribution to the Globe to Globe Festival which saw all 37 of Shakespeare's plays translated into 37 different languages. Director Rachel House's strikingly physical production of one of the more obscure plays stands as a remarkable testimony to the transcendent power of Shakespeare's art.

- Paul Simei-Barton

- NZ Herald

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