It wasn't meant to go like this. When Auckland Theatre Company first announced their Back on the Boards festival, the country seemed to have passed the worst of Covid-19 and they were just one of several companies planning their long-awaited return to the stage.
Fast forward three months and while they've raised the curtains at the Waterfront Theatre, the zoned areas and separated audiences were not what they had planned. Yet ATC proved they could innovate on the fly after staging The Seagull via Zoom during level 4, so it's no surprise they have adapted to our new-new normal, with a festival more socially distanced than expected but all the more welcome after such a long time away.
To ease back into the swing of things, ATC returns with a double billing of two-handers that could provide a blueprint for other companies in how to stage shows again in a turbulent environment.
Playwright Stanley Makuew's debut Black Lover suffered a truncated premiere season in March, and ATC has made a wise choice to resurrect it six months later. It opens with Cameron Rhodes' Kiwi expat Sir Garfield Todd under house arrest in 1985 Rhodesia, cut off from the country he once served as Prime Minister due to his 'radical' views on equality. Enter his chef Steady - marvellously realised by Simbarashe Matshe – who is trying to survive in a bitterly divided country.
While not originally envisioned to be staged during a pandemic, Black Lover still shows how seamless theatre can be in this time. The two characters rarely leave the stage, locked together for 75 minutes as they explore the tensions and friendship with their master-servant relationship. It's gripping to watch the two play off each other, director Roy Ward taking Makuew's tightly wound script and delivering a perfectly coordinated dance as Rhodes and Matshe move deftly between the complicated intricacies of their characters.
For a lighter touch, award-winning play Still Life With Chickens also makes a welcome return to the Waterfront Theatre, and it's clear immediately why it deserves an encore. It is a queerer combination, seeing Goretti Chadwick's lonely but upbeat Mama play against a vibrant chicken puppet operated by Haanz Fa'avae-Jackson, but every moment of D.F. Mamea's comic, soulful gem is pure delight.
Fa'avae-Jackson's puppet mastery is the star attraction, turning Helen Fuller's clucky creation into a real character that goes beyond its wireframe. Moa the chicken may be the play's quirkiest element, but Chadwick's charismatic skill and smooth interaction with her hand-crafted co-star is what ensures this goes works beyond a simple gimmick. Her comic timing is sheer perfection and still manages to draw a laugh as she slowly and subtly unpacks Mama's loneliness and regret. After the events of 2020, this is the perfect play to warm your heart and shake off those lockdown blues.
While the two plays tackle wildly different themes, they make a pleasant pairing, parallel in their stories of beings finding comfort and dependency in one other during times of duress. It would be easy to draw similarities between the plays and the country's recent experiences – Todd's house arrest, Mama's loneliness and desperation for company – but what's more striking about Back on the Boards is how it fits into our new normal.
As theatres globally fight to reopen, ATC shows how it can be done by resurrecting old favourites and keeping things simple, choosing two modestly staged but emotionally powerful stories of humans trying to find their place in the world that take on fresh meaning in a world flipped upside down.
What: Black Lover and Still Life with Chickens. Back on the Boards continues from September 16th with 48 Nights on Hope Street.
Where: Auckland Waterfront Theatre until Sunday, September 13th.
Reviewer: Ethan Sills