New writing at the Auckland Festival

I wrote about Cellfish last year when part of it was presented as a work in progress.

Miss Lucy takes Shakespeare classes to a prison and has some remarkable and unexpected results.  Rob Mokoaraka, Miriama McDowell and Jason Te Kare have collaborated to forge a funny and moving script. The characters are introduced to Miss Lucy at a Powhiri (greeting) in the prison.  Some of the play is in Te Reo Maori and it is unexpected to hear the Prison Guard, leading the proceedings speaking Te Reo with an Indian accent. Mark Ruka and Miriama McDowell play all the characters between them often swapping over, though Miss Lucy is always played by Miriama. I still think that my question from last year stands, about expanding the cast to clarify characters. Audiences are willing to work hard but not this hard and some gems were lost, becoming a bit of a how – clever -are – the – actors exercise. The writing, sourcing heavily from Macbeth, draws parallels for the prisoners between their lives and the characters in Shakespeare. Miss Lucy has to overcome illiteracy, appalling family circumstances and damaged childhoods.  She also comes from a similar background but has found her salvation in Shakespeare.  Miss Lucy creates desires for the prisoners but she is drawn to one of the prisoners in particular.  He turns out to be the most damaged and seemingly un-redeemable, but he’s also her estranged younger brother. It seems she also had ghosts to confront. Cellfish confronts the undeniable prison statistics that Maori are three times more likely to be arrested, imprisoned and receive a longer sentence for the same crime.  You can more or less transfer these to black populations in the US and the UK and while Shakespeare may or may not be the solution, it’s pretty clear that some things have got to change with the system. There’s enough world-wide anecdotal evidence that The Arts can help, so it’s ironic that this production coincides with news that the National Endowment to the Arts in the US has been deleted.

Everything After by Shane Bosher is part of the RAW project.  Like Cellfish last year, it’s a work in progress. The War is over, Gay men no longer die from AIDS, or so it seems. Protagonist Nick has been through it all – friends and partner dying, making best friends with Nurse Mary on the AIDS ward and himself living with HIV. Things have changed rapidly in the last few years. People with HIV and on combination therapy live seemingly normal lives and most can be classified as ‘undetectable’. This means that the virus can not be detected in tests and the chance of infection is remote.  Additionally, something called PrEP is on the market so negative guys can take this combo of drugs and dispense with the condoms.  The psychology of HIV and AIDS is very complicated ranging from surviving partners deliberately going out to catch the virus (guilt?) to retiring from sex altogether (fear?).  Nick meets a younger HIV free guy and they really like each other, but Nick is unable to have sex and of course the relationship is short lived. He then descends into a Meth addiction phase and in the excerpt we saw engaged up in a blinding argument with best friend Mary.  The ending is not revealed yet, but clearly anything from redemption to death is possible.  This feels like it’s going to be New Zealand’s post AIDS answer to Angels in America. One to watch out for – next year perhaps?

The Biggest by Jaimie McCaskill is a story about Kiwi blokes doing what blokes do.  It’s not on the surface my sort of thing, but it’s new writing and it has Apirana Taylor (brother of my buddy Rangimoana) – two good reasons for seeing it. The first scene in the local bar confirms the blokey aspect and sets up the premise of three friends set out to win the Hauraki Fishing competition.  They want to replace the boat of their friend Stu who lost his in a road accident – cue for loads of jokes and abuse, especially as Stu has been confined to a wheelchair since the accident. Gradually I was drawn in by this story of male loyalty, love and identity. There’s an unexpected feel-good ending where paternity issues are sorted and although the mates don’t win the boat, Stu gets two surprises. The real ending however is the resolution of Poppa’s prostate cancer diagnosis and Mick’s return from Australia to embrace his Maori culture. I was disappointed that the Rangitira Theatre audience was sparse, but cheered by an older bloke who gave me the thumbs up on the way out.






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