As our theatres begin to reopen, it seems inevitable that we will begin to see work shaped by our current pandemic. No other event has had such a seismic, global impact this century, and given the harsh effects it has had on live theatre, it is no surprise that we'd see that transferred to the stage.
For the Auckland Theatre Company's first commission post-lockdown, they've gone back to the Plague for inspiration. 48 Nights on Hope Street is inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron, a 14th century storytelling epic where seven women and three men, sheltering from the Black Plague, swapped stories every night for a fortnight.
Here, the ATC has assembled five cast members (Carrie Green, Trae Te Wiki, Ravikanth Gurunathan, Jess Hong, Patrick Tafa) to play with the words of five young writers (Freya Daly Sadgrove, Leki Jackson-Bourke, Nathan Joe, Ana Scotney, Cian Elyse White), drawing inspiration from the 10 days that made up Boccaccio's work.
Mercifully, Covid has little to do with 48 Nights. The staging may be socially distanced – the audience is spread across the Waterfront Theatre's stage, rough platforms scattered throughout the crowd as a makeshift stage – but that is the only sign of a post-pandemic work. Rather, the playwrights have generated nine pieces that shine a new light on the big debates that continue to simmer away beneath this pandemic – racism, sexuality, class, religion – creating one of the most energetic, engaging and hilarious hours the ATC has ever produced.
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With so many voices involved, an anthology work like this could have easily devolved into a tonal mess. But all nine pieces, stitched together by director Jane Yonge, remain on the same wavelength throughout. Opening gently with White's Wish Upon a Star, the tone is set by Nathan Joe's frenetic How to Write a Love Poem in 2020, a madcap opener that sets the early energy that slowly winds down as the pieces progress, until we reach Ana Scotney's quieter but no less thought-provoking Nathan.
In the middle, Jackson-Bourke's sole contribution, From Mc'Sausage to Mc'Muffin, stands out as the best combination of 48 Nights' many disparate elements. All five stars get to shine in his madcap, comedic gem about sexuality and suspicious lovers, aided by designer Alison Reid's most vibrant costumes, while Kevin Greene's lighting makes full use of the dispersed staging.
Sadgrove brings a similar vibe in Mr Wee Hat, a tightly crafted piece on religious absolution. Trying to single out any one of the five actors seems derivative when each one brings something unique to the many roles they portray, but Green and Tafa's back and forth during Wee Hat as a compulsive liar fooling a priest is a stand out.
Ultimately, every element in 48 Nights delivers, from Yonge's brilliant staging through to Kenji Iwamitsu-Holdaway's ever present but never overwhelming score. It's hard to imagine this being delivered any other way, and I hope that ATC takes note of how brilliant this commission is. As the company, and others, works to rebuild after 2020, they would be wise to use 48 Nights as their foundation, a genius piece of post-lockdown work that shows how to address the elephant in the room without ever speaking its name.
What: 48 Nights on Hope Street
Where: ASB Waterfront Theatre, until September 20th
Reviewer: Ethan Sills