Category Archives: The Arts

Cultural Fusion to end the Auckland Festival

Anything exploring the interaction of two or more cultures gets onto my list. AWA, a collaboration between the Atamira Dance Company and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra is a movement and music biography of Moss Patternon’s family. His dad worked on the Tongariro Power Scheme, damming central North Island rivers for hydro power. Years later he worked on the Yellow River, in China, where he died. His body returned in a closed coffin denying his family of Te Uru Rangi (a portal to heaven).

AWA – When Two Rivers Collide, uses Maori and Asian Dancers to create a beautiful tension between two cultures using Kapa Haka and Tai Chi to join the Waikato and Yellow rivers together to powerful effect. The string section of the APO is augmented with Taonga Puro (traditional Maori instruments) and Pipa a Chinese mandolin. Waiata Maori, performed by a children’s choir begins the performance and the focus is shared with a large Chinese choir. It’s an exciting mix, sliding between classical cultures which included Bach and Handel. The dance evokes the myth of Ranginui (Sky Father) and Papatuanuku (Earth Mother) being separated by Tane Mahuta. The dancers work in close contact like flocks of starlings, each dancer taking his turn to lead the conflict, constrained by a dramatic semicircle of cables around the dance area. At times I wanted the dancers to take flight up into the cables, escaping the primordial slime in order to free the spirits.  This is not possible with contemporary dance, however, and beautiful as it is, the dancers are limited to delving deep into the floor – grounded with Kapa Haka and Tai Chi elements from which it borrows.

AWA remains a mystery – moving and beautiful. Increasingly New Zealand artists are collaborating to explore cultural relationships as a time when China and Aotearoa are talking trade. This work was well attended and received by a multicultural audience. My hope is that this and similar work will help to break down still prevalent hostility and suspicion amongst Pakeha New Zealanders.

The Bone Feeder began as a play by Renee Liang which was produced in 2010. It’s based on the story of the SS Ventor which left New Zealand in 1902 carrying 499 coffins of exhumed Chinese bodies returning to their homelands in Southern China. The ship was wrecked off Hokianga, finally sinking near the harbour. Coffins and bodies swept ashore were kept by local IWI until a time when they could be claimed by their families. Renee has successfully written an opera libretto for composer Gareth Farr.  This is a first for both artists and augers well for future New Zealand opera.

Farr has drawn on his early experience with the Indonesian Gamelan and expanded his composition skills to incorporate Chinese classical instruments – flute, fiddle and zither. A violin, a cello, marimba and Taonga Púoro make up the orchestra.

Young Ben, beautifully portrayed and sung by Australian tenor, Henry Choo meets The Ferryman (Tioti Rakero) and asks to be taken to Mitimiti cemetery where the bones of his ancestor, Kwan and three of his countrymen are excited at the prospect of finally going home.  When Kwan sees his descendant, he is reminded of his New Zealand wife. Chinese workers were forbidden to bring their women to Aotearoa and some took local wives, occasionally travelling back to China with money and to produce more sons. Ben, however is part of his New Zealand family so there is a question in Kwan’s mind. Is it appropriate for his bones to return to China? The plight of his Chinese wife, Wei wei is delicately portrayed by Xing Xing, while Chelsea Dolman does credit to Louisa. Together with four other female singers, they create a fantastic and atmospheric chorus. There is a scene where Ben can, in a dream, see Kwan and he is persuaded not to dig up the bones but feed them instead.

Chinese came to Aotearoa with the gold rush and have been here ever since and almost as long as the Europeans. They worked quietly tending their market gardens and selling the freshest fruit and vegetables in small towns all over the country. When the UK joined the Common Market (as it was then) New Zealand looked to Asia for markets, beginning a new wave of immigrants. It is helpful for Pakeha and Maori New Zealanders to be reminded of this long history and to learn, at last, about another culture.

Ibsen and Garland Recycled

Recycled theatre – Peer Gynt for this century.

I thought it was time to re-acquaint with Ibsen’s episodic ‘masterpiece’ and ATC’s offering for the Auckland Festival provided an opportunity to experience Eli Kent’s updated version. Somehow Peer Gynt had eluded me – I know I’ve read it and imagine I’ve seen it somewhere and of course there’s the Music by Grieg and perhaps I’ve seen the Ballet.  Ibsen’s other work, I know and love: Hedda Gabler, The Dolls House, The Master Builder and Enemy of the People all have strong narratives and powerful sub-plots which collide dramatically. Ibsen emerges as the leading and enduring architect of the ‘Well Made Play’ and modern drama.

Peer Gynt doesn’t behave like any of these works and yet it has a protagonist who, Odysseus – like, sets out on a journey. Gynt leaves home to wander the world, abandoning his mother and Sol, the woman he loves to seek (mostly) sexual adventure.  Much of the original narrative is lost in the recycling, replaced by Eli Kent as a character, sub-plot or even Troll, discussing with the audience and himself the process of writing and self-analysis with the aid of his projected mother and short-time girlfriend. Kent brings the landscape up-to-date beginning with Gynt’s seduction of his ex prior to her wedding to ‘The Batchelor’. Wherever you go with Ibsen, Trolls are not far away and topically, Gynt has a narrow escape from his next sexual conquest, the daughter of the Troll King. He can’t return to  Sol and so travels to America to seduce the leader of a strange yogic sect and again, narrowly escapes death. Years later and with a change of actor, he’s in Dubai with his ghost writers in a book deal. Milo Yiannopolous is also there for the party. An indentured Starbucks worker breaks in and shoots everyone except Gynt. It’s become clear now that he’s a survivor but Kent has meanwhile ‘given birth’ to Ibsen who protests about cuts and tries to take over the play. A lot of philosophy ensues and difficulty for Kent when the Actress playing Sol, refuses to wait for her love – thus scuppering the ending. Meanwhile, Gynt is judged by the Button-maker, not good enough for heaven or bad enough for Hell and is designated for recycling.  In the wake of a shipwreck Kent changes clothing and identity with Gynt in an effort to avoid his fate and the writer is left alone on stage waiting for a miracle to close the play.

At times it’s edge of the seat stuff, though the author’s navel gazing and sexual problems verge on the embarrassing – a significant number of the audience left at the interval – the wait was worth it. A mostly older crowd – the audience seemed bemused and possibly offended by the crudities and sexual references. The men in particular were uncomfortable. But that is what theatre should do isn’t it? There was an underlying feeling of gladness that they had taken this risk and were slightly liberated. Or did it remind them of their own younger selves in the 60’s and 70’s? Personally, I could have done without the angst ridden Eli Kent’s non character and wanted more of the Gynt story which was beautifully performed by the ensemble.

Rufus Wainwright recycles Judy with opera as a starter

I’d  heard of  Rufus Wainwright and knew that he’s a singer songwriter. I didn’t know that he writes opera and that’s what attracted me to this event. Only an email reminder from the Auckland Festival pointed out that he would be ‘Doing Judy Garland’ in the second half.

Prima Donna (the visual concert version) has come from the Adelaide festival. Actually only Rufus and his conductor plus the video have traveled. The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and New Zealand singers have put this together. The Story is about an opera singer who lost her voice years ago in the opening night of ‘Eleanor of Aquitaine’. Madeleine Pierard was in fine voice for this role. She’s announced in the press that a revival is planned and she’s found her voice, but the real test will be in the theatre.  Supporting roles are the maid, Marie, a girl from Paiccardy finding Paris so … different. Madison Nonoa has a high pure soprano, whilst tenor Filipe Manu gives the romantic interest singing about love in the garden, his best shot. Both of these young singers will be ones to watch in the future.  The music is beautiful and soars against a video backdrop where film artist Cindy Sherman, dressed in a costume worn by Maria Callas, silently plays the diva.

An opera audience is quite different from Judy Garland fans, except that there were a significant number of gay couples of a certain age who might get off on both. Judy has never really done it for me, though I’m semi-familiar with many of the numbers. I don’t think I’ve got the ‘Judy gene’ which gay men are supposed to have.  Rufus has a powerful belt to his voice and at times sounds a bit like Judy in her later years, particularly when he sings Do It Again in her original key. He works hard – too hard – I don’t like to see performers work that hard and then to let us know how hard it is going to be before or after a number. He’s got a good voice, but sadly it’s unremarkable. Fortunately he slipped in one of his own compositions, Forever and a Year from the excellent Australian gay film Hold the Man.  I would have liked to hear more of his original stuff.



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.






Bowie Connolly Labyrinth and Me

A friend has just reminded me about the film Labyrinth and just maybe, it’s time share my David Bowie story … again.

It was around ’86 and I was a struggling actor in London.  An advertisement appeared in the trade paper the Stage & Television today looking for ‘Actors/Actresses who can waltz’.  I’d learnt to waltz as a child, by standing on my father’s shoes on our kitchen floor.  On the rare occasion when we were listening and dance music came on the radio, Mum and Dad would push the table and chairs to the side of the room and dance.  Next it was the kid’s turn and I’d managed to polish up those skills at Drama school in period dance classes.

Every dancer in London came to the open audition and we all waited patiently until called into a small dance studio, paired up and, to the music of an accordion player, waltzed around the room.  As eliminations proceeded I found I was being kept on and some of the female dancers, spotting this, tried to manoeuvre themselves into my arms.  When it comes to ballroom dancing however, I can be a bit choosy and soon found myself coming back to recalls over the next few days.  I got the job as a dancer in the masked ballroom scene of Labyrinth staring David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly, directed by Kermit the Frog alias Jim Henson.

It turned out that I was the only actor in the group which was otherwise made up of dancers from the Royal Ballet and West End shows.  We had two weeks to rehearse the dancing and it also turned out that Bowie (who wrote the music) was a stranger to ¾ time so we had to make it all look like a waltz.

If you look at the clip, fairly early on (0.07sec), there are two shots of me, with horned mask and a partner in an apricot ball gown.  Bowie remarked to me during shooting, that he was in danger of getting his eyes poked out by my horns.

The other challenge I remember was the set.  Ballrooms are usually flat – this one was all up and down stairs and on different levels.  Now, dancing with a show girl partner in this situation is difficult, because they don’t understand that they have to follow.  In the end I had to clutch her tightly, whisper urgently in her ear.  ‘We are going up and down stairs and I’m the only one who can see where we are going. Follow me.’ In the final cut, for some reason, we got more shots that the star couple form the Royal Ballet.

My memory of David Bowie (that’s the point of this piece) is that he was an ordinary bloke, who came out of his dressing room in a break to ask if any of us knew what the cricket score was – no one did. My other memory is of the teenage Jennifer Connelly (now an award winning actor) looking fantastic in her cellophane ball-gown.  She would emerge from her school lessons to do a scene, briefly pausing to allow us to take photos with her before returning to study.

At the time, it was the best paid work I’d ever had, especially as it over ran by a week and I could afford the air fair to come home to New Zealand for the first time in seven years.  Thanks David, Jennifer … and Kermit.

ANZAC Arts on Waiheke

After the emotionality of the ANZAC service at Ostend, Waiheke Island, then retiring home to listen to the live radio broadcast of the dawn service at Gallipoli, it seems madness to attend ‘War is and Avalanche’ in the evening at the Waiheke High School Hall.  I’ve booked a ticket and feel obliged to now turn up and support local composer and lyricist, John Mckay.  He has been awarded a grant fro the Waiheke Local Board to compose and perform a contemporary song cycle based on letters from ANZAC soldiers at Gallipoli.

War is an Avalanche
War is an Avalanche

First impressions of the Hall are one of austerity, with very hard seats and no ambience.  The Narrator of the piece, Pat Urlich, a well known local vocalist, is sorting out his spotlight with the lighting box when I arrive.  There’s a band comprised of: John Mackay on keyboards, supported by guitar, base and drums.  As the lights go out, the poor ambience of the hall fades as suddenly we are engaged by the rich tenor voice of young Maori professional singer/actor Rutene Spooner. Pat Urlich isn’t singing tonight (except in some pre-recorded vocals), he’s showing of his deep chocolaty speaking voice to great effect in the telling of the Gallipoli Story.  There’s no sentimentality here, he tells it as it is.  Rutene is joined by Mezzo, Eve-Marie Hess, who has a most unusual quality to her voice. In some numbers it’s like a choir boy, opening up to a full chest belt (musical theatre style) when required.  The cycle is nine songs accompanied with fantastic graphic images, by Bruce Woods, projected onto an up-stage screen. The songs cover a range of themes, beginning with the horror of it all in A Hole in Hell. Sexual tension and frustration between soldiers and nurses is explored in I’ve Got an Itch and party mentality on leave (because tomorrow we may die) gets the treatment in Paint the Moon.  The last song tells of a field of ghosts in Here is Tehono-i-wairua.  It’s the first time I’ve heard that over eighty thousand Ottoman Turks were killed here, some of them as young as fourteen. In the second half, soprano Rose Myer joins to make up a trio, adding a very high pure layer to the vocal mix.  There’s been no schmaltz or emotional manipulation here and the musical styles have ranged from contemporary lieder through the modern musical, jazz and an anachronistic slice of rock and roll.  We’ve been transported with delight by professional talent and the audience stands in ovation at the end.  The Waiheke Local Board has spent wisely here.

Gentler Than a Rifle Butt by Dean Parker

Gentler Than a Rifle Butt
Gentler Than a Rifle Butt

I know nothing about the play or the playwright, Dean Parker, except that this local production is an adaptation of his radio play.  To my embarrassment, I find that Dean’s been around writing since 1974.  Playmarket provides me with a list of his titles, some of which I have heard of. Nevertheless, it’s smacked wrists for me.

I’m attending the penultimate performance at the Omiha Hall in Rocky Bay, because I support the Hall and I can be ‘environmental’ and walk.  Walking down the hill on a damp, dark Friday evening in May at 6.30 is a challenge.  It’s been raining all day and although there is a gap, drops are still dripping from the trees, so that my umbrella is up.  Darkness between the sparsely spread street lighting necessitates the use of my wind up torch, requiring two hands.  This is particularly important going down ‘Agony Hill’ – a steep walkway with irregular steps.

The adaptation imagines the Narrator from the radio play as an academic lecturer with a slide show of images from Gallipoli and of the Protagonist poet, Rufus Dewar.  We are told that while he is not the best New Zealand Poet, he is (arguably) the most important in that he changed the course of poetry in this country. Rufus is an ex Auckland Grammar School boy (part of the establishment) and initially a war enthusiast.  Dylan Hinchey is almost perfect for the passionate poet who quickly gets a reality check.  Although he’s slightly too old for the part, he’s very sexy and disbelief is willingly suspended.  Predictably, he is wounded and ends up in hospital in Alexandra, a very angry man, ranting against the war and it’s waste of life.  His nurse, Cissie Kerrisk, intelligently played by Renee Cassely is initially horrified by his unpatriotic behaviour, but is gradually won over and they begin an affair.  Rufus posts all his poetry to his Mum and the lovers escape on a ship to America on the same day the ANZACS withdraw from Gallipoli, defeated.  Mrs Dewar tries to get the poems published, but they are deemed too unpatriotic and contrary to the war effort.  A small left wing printer takes up the task, but the book is immediately banned by the Government.  The printer, seeing an opportunity, prints more copies to distribute clandestinely.   Rufus and Cissie return to New Zealand to become the darlings of the growing anti war movement.  They are pursued around the country by a police officer, Arthur Craven, humorously played by Rocky Bay’s Grant Lilley.  There’s a revelation that in retrospect, makes sense.  Rufus is having an affair and Cissy finds out.  Rufus is bisexual (most gay men in New Zealand before 1986 were) and his lover might be the bachelor leader of the Labour Party, Joseph Savage.  Proof is offered in the form of the inscription inside Savage’s copy of Rufus’ war poems.  There is a peace rally due at the Auckland Town Hall, but the way is blocked by the police.  Rufus appears like a saviour and to the awe of the protesters and police flings open the doors of the hall.  The only character not in awe, Arthur Craven, pounces and kills the messianic poet with his kosh.  The Narrator tells us that on the 24th April 1916 Savage’s Labour Party swept to power and on the 25th the troops were recalled from the Great War.  It is here that knowledge of New Zealand history is needed because Dean Parker is a great story-teller, going to some length to suggest verisimilitude. He relies on the atrocious inattention by the New Zealand curriculum, which left generations ignorant of our heritage, preferring to dwell on British monarchs, European wars, the now discredited hero Edward Gibbon Wakefield of the New Zealand Company and a cute view of pre European Maori.

This is a ‘what if’ story.  By basing Rufus on the British War poets Parker has cleverly made them part of us.  Having caught us in his hook and reeled us in, he suggests that the reason for celebrating ANZAC day should be the recall of the troops home, not some landing on an isolated coast in a disastrous campaign ending in withdrawal.  The ending however, is too prolonged with the Narrator and the now dead Rufus in a duet of If you want to know where the Private is, which clearly is there to make the play the required length for the radio.

Makes you think, this sort of stuff, doesn’t it?  This may have been the last year I will attend and ANZAC parade.