Covid has not been kind to the Auckland Arts Festival. Border closures were already wreaking havoc on last year's festival before lockdown put a stop to the events entirely. This month was meant to be the great comeback, but the first week of events was written off by Auckland's latest lockdown.
Level 3 was just the latest setback the festival has faced, but through this adversity has come the opportunity for change. Only a small number of shows made it to the stage under level 2, but two local productions stood out in a line-up that has a renewed focus on New Zealand talent - and closed borders mean the festival can use venues in exciting new ways.
In years past, Heavenly Bodies likely would have ended up in the Spiegeltent that normally dominates Aotea Square during the festival. Instead, an unused Civic Theatre is the centre of this year's festival – and although lockdown meant the original intention of flipping the perspective and putting the audience on stage couldn't happen, Heavenly Bodies was still able to soar – and reached heights previous Arts Festival cabaret fixtures were never able to meet.
The rag-tag assortment of cabaret and circus performers were tied together around the theme of celestial bodies, but the real glue was the MC skills of host Lizzie Tollemache, whose gentle wit guided audiences through the disparate performances.
Her own circus tricks added to the surprising variety of the show. There were breath-taking aerial performers and mesmerising gymnasts, but the addition of breakdancers, a Vitruvian Woman and a dubstep Star Wars performance livened up what can be a by-the-books type of show.
Despite The Civic's size, it felt profoundly more intimate than the Spiegeltent ever has, the unhindered view and the vast stage allowing the whole audience to be drawn into this world. Local boylesque sensation Chris Oh! made the most of that space to give a sensual solo performance, before returning for a mesmerising, joyous group performance that mixed The Eurythmics, French aristocracy and voguing.
This cabaret-in-residence slot would normally be taken by an international act – but the many parts of Heavenly Bodies made a strong argument that future festivals should look locally in future.
The other major premiere last week was Sing to Me.
This modern retelling of the Māori myth of Pania sees sea maiden Whetu fall madly in love with optometrist Ata, despite not being able to live on land during the day. As the two fall deeper into their connection and become parents, their love is tested by external and internal forces.
Written by Alex Lodge and directed by Miriama McDowell for Taki Rua Productions, there is a lot to love in this romantic, challenging story. The slower first act is largely comedic with hints of musical theatre, brought to life by the powerful vocals of leads Emma Katene and Rutene Spooner, and narrator/music director Te Aihe Butler. Jane Hakaraia's inventive set brought a touch of the ocean to Q's Rangatira theatre while serving as an adaptable canvas that helped the small-scale production burst with energy.
The second act takes on a darker tone and quicker pace as the grand ambitions of Sing to Me unfold. Cultural differences and mental health move into the focus, all set against a backdrop of climate change and our relationship with the ocean.
A lot of story is packed into the second act – and the audience is expected to be invested in plot points that aren't given proper room to develop - but the talented cast remains engaging throughout, building towards a rushed but bold climax that brings every strand together to make for a gloriously wild piece of local theatre.