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.



Revolt. She said. @ Silo Theatre on International Women’s Day

I’m sitting naked on a beach enjoying the sight of a South American Rugby team, half of them striped off, nervously sitting in rows facing the sea. I’m also reading The Stories of Frank Sargeson, a (closeted) gay New Zealand writer covering the 30’s – 60’s, when my phone rings. It’s a local Auckland number.


A pleasant young sounding man – ‘Is this Christopher Preston?’

I’m cautious – ‘Yes.’

‘I’m Mark from iticket.’

I just bought a load of tickets from these guys for the Auckland Arts Festival. What’s gone wrong?

 ‘I noticed that you tried to book tickets for Revolt. She said, at the Basement Theatre.’

‘Yes, it didn’t work so I assumed it’s sold out.’

‘No, no, it’s not, there are tickets left.’

‘Oh, right. How did that happen?’

‘I think you tried to click through on a Silo Theatre email that was faulty.’

‘Oh.’ How did this guy get my phone number? Presumably all the data I entered is still floating around somewhere.

‘Would you like to book a ticket now?’

‘Um … I’ll have to look on my diary. Do you think I can do that while you are on the phone?’

‘Should be ok. I can take your credit card details.’

My credit card is sitting in the pocket of my shorts next to my towel. I attempt this new manoeuvre with my phone. ‘No, I can’t do it. I’m sort of on a beach.’

‘Oh, nice.’

‘Actually there’s no “sort of” about it, I am on a beach.’

Giggles from the young man.

‘I’ll have to do it when I get home what availability is there for Wednesday or Friday?’

I thank the young man and note that the Rugby team have relaxed and are now standing around with arms folded chatting to each other – some on the beach, others knee deep in the sea. Reg, a local in his late seventies, is watching with admiration.  I return to Frank Sargeson whose writing hints strongly of homosexuality. We were in those days, illegal.


It’s Wednesday evening and the tiny foyer of the Basement Theatre is filling up with anticipation.  Increasingly, my approach is to avoid too much research beforehand. By experiencing a work without expectations I’m more easily taken by surprise. It is enough that one of my favourite companies, Silo Theatre has produced Revolt. She said. Revolt again, but a number of my professional theatre associates have recommended this show on facebook, including my trans friend and theatre critic Lexi Matheson.

The stage area is scattered like ‘Tracey Emin’s Bed’ and props are visibly on display, encouraging speculation. The stage manager’s desk is also visible as there are no wings in this auditorium. The last few late-comers are ushered over the stage as the cast enter in overalls and clear up the ‘mess’ and proceed to set up for the show.  It’s all frantic activity, choreographed, watch-able and exciting. My expectations are aroused as backdrops are hung and a floor-cloth unrolled, ready for the show. It begins gently, with a scene where the token male expresses his sexual desire to a woman. It’s about gender language and when the woman joins in, his ‘penetration’ conflicts with her ‘enclosure’, so he has to adjust his vocabulary or it’s just not going to happen. The scenes progress with ‘him’ increasingly not able to understand or adjust.  Polynesian actor Fasitua Amosa looks like a gentle giant and shows just enough of his feminine side to make you think there might be hope. He feels like the failed protagonist, the antagonist in fact. But with the scripts that Silo Theatre produce, you can expect the unexpected. Failing to understand that his female employee really does just want Mondays off, he proceeds to receive a ‘No’ to his marriage proposal in the third scene.  Confronted with a melon-eating woman sitting in a supermarket trolley in the dairy isle, he retires from the fray.  A mother, carrying her damaged daughter, visits her cave-woman mother to confront denial of female history. ‘He’ makes a brief appearance as a loin cloth wearing cave man, hardly reaching the stage before being dismissed.  The structure breaks down to a chaotic and exuberant ending so that the three women might also be failed protagonists. There are strong performances all round from Sophie Henderson, Michelle Ny and Amanda Tito. I also enjoyed the performance by stage manager, Eliza Josephson-Rutter, who casually sits at her visible station, looking at her phone and eating snacks. She throws costumes and props on stage with indifference, leaving actors holding props too long and with impeccable timing runs her cues to the wire. The stage really is a mess at the end, but with it all rolled up in the floor cloth and backdrops torn down, the stage is bare for the bows.

There is no satisfactory ending, just a passing cry to ‘do away with men’ as they exit, pushing or riding a theatrical skip on what looks like it’s going to be a long journey to gender equality.

I’m used to no satisfactory ending these days – we’re supposed to think about it. Grabbing a programme on the way out gives me reading material on the ferry back to Waiheke and the first thing I noticed is that Alice Birch’s script was first performed by the RSC at The Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2014. That at least explains the bluebells.  Her inspiration for the play comes from the story of radical feminist, Valerie Solanas and her self-published SCUM Manifesto. ‘She then shot Andy Warhole and book sales went crazy.’ Um … does this mean with a camera?  So, typing ‘Who shot Andy Warhol’ into google, I find that he refused to make her film script as it was too dangerously radical, even for him, so she shot him with a gun. He was seriously wounded and never really recovered.  She went to prison and was diagnosed (conveniently?) as schizophrenic.

All this on International (at least in the western world) Women’s Day – a day in New Zealand when the news is full of a facebook post by Senior Wellington College school-boys, claiming that true WC boys should take advantage of unconscious drunk young women. We pretend to be shocked, some try to excuse but deep down we know there is a problem raising boys to men.  I wish I could remember and distill my mother’s method raising us. She claimed she always knew I was gay – I wonder if that influenced her. She was certainly always interested in diversity and difference.

It’s the small steps on a long journey which bring about change and there will be setbacks along the way. The courage of a Rugby team to go naked on a beach or attending thought-provoking theatre are such steps, but how do we erase phobias from human conditioning?




The James Plays & Nixon in China

My most eagerly awaited theatre experience were The James Plays by established Scottish playwright, Rona Munro and first presented at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2014 by the National Theatre of Scotland. Being a co-production with the National Theatre of Great Britain they were then transferred to London for a season, and now, here in the vast Aotea Centre for just nine performances (3 for each play) fresh from the Adelaide Festival.



I’d got a deal by booking all three plays on consecutive nights. I also decided to take the fold up bike, saving the run down Queen Street to catch the ferry.  So on the Wednesday, I carefully locked the fold-up on a cycle stand and treat myself to a dish of salmon tortellini and a glass of red wine at the Italian restaurant next to the theatre.  To my delight a crowd of my swimming buddies, also culturally voracious were seeing the show and I anticipated meeting up in the interval.  I knew nothing about the history of Scottish monarchy – there’s the unreliable tale told by Shakespeare in Macbeth – until the story of Mary spills into Elizabethan history and the subsequent merger of two countries with James VI.

James I was captured by the English as a thirteen year old and imprisoned for eighteen years, released after the death of Henry V (Eng) – another of Shakespeare’s great ‘stories’ – on the promise of a ransom.  It is no coincidence that these plays were first seen in the year of the Scottish referendum for independence and Munro would have been crafting her work during the lead up. Like Shakespeare, she has not let truth get in the way of a good story and her programme note admits ‘that some small liberties have been taken with known events in order to serve our stories.’  There are many comparisons with Munro and Shakespeare – bawdiness, violence, murder and betrayal.  Human nature is examined in all its flawed complexities, but in an absolutely contemporary vernacular, so Shakespeare it is not, nor does it aspire to be.

Henry V appears as a character in James I as a mentor psychologically controlling the young King who presents as meek and compliant.  On his arrival back in Scotland and confronted by his Uncle ensconced in the castle with wife and sons, he has to prove he is a Scott and force them to kneel to him as their King.  Munro writes great parts for the women so a lot of the action involves their stories.  It would seem that the women took an active role in the scheming and violence. Notable are: Isabella Stewart, a crusty and hate-filled character, who, after her sons and later her husband are locked up and killed by the King, is herself incarcerated.  She survives as a mad visionary for the future James II;   Joan, an English noblewoman, who’s marriage is arranged to James I is a pragmatist who tells her new husband that he can take a mistress if he likes and that she will manage the household accounts as she did at home.  Sadly she does not entirely reciprocate James’s deep love for her.

All three plays highlight the financial difficulties that monarchs face, how to fund their wars and lifestyles?  The answer is usually by taxing the Barons, but the difficulty is getting them to pay up.  It’s not a new story as we now charge multi-national corporations, politicians and the rich with tax avoidance.  It’s just that in the 15th century, more real blood was involved.  But each play takes a different view and if James I was mainly about power struggles and the necessity to survive by killing off relatives, James II investigates the psychological damage done by putting a six-year-old on the throne.  James, born with a large pink birthmark covering half of his face is further traumatised by the loss of his older twin brother.  Munro, has him constantly hiding in a chest to escape his fears and the power of the Douglas family who effectively ruled the country in the King’s minority.  Of course, James grows up to be yet another violent monster, wreaking revenge on the Douglas clan – killing off non-relatives.  With a fascination of explosives and canon, he is accidentally blown up by his own device, leaving another underage King of Scotland.

On both of these evenings, I was able to leave during the curtain calls, retrieve my fold up bicycle and pedal furiously down Queen Street to catch the 10.15 ferry.  James III turned out to be longer that the others and completely different in atmosphere.  This James was artistic, credited with bringing the renaissance to Scotland. He wants to have a choir accompany him wherever he goes, an expense he can ill afford.  His Queen, Margaret of Denmark brought with her, as dowry, The Orkney and Shetland Islands, which Munro uses as a running joke by the King, against her.  Initially devoted, the couple become estranged and the Queen retreats to Stirling Castle with their son and future heir, yet another James.  James III is decadent, arrogant, lazy and dangerous.  Although a good fighter, he loses control of his family and kingdom, taking to bed and battle his personal servant Ramsay.  In his final battle he is fighting his own people in a rebellion which included his own son.

The final dramatic scene sees James IV strip down to put chains of repentance on his chest, over which the coronation robes are placed.  It was too late to cycle madly down Queen Street so I stayed to applaud the end of an exciting trilogy.  With time to spare before the last ferry at 11.45pm, I relaxed with a glass of wine and a bucket of chips down at the viaduct area of the harbour.


Nixon in China is one of those ‘modern classics’ I’d heard about but had never seen. For me Nixon is irretrievably tied to ‘Watergate’ and thus labelled corrupt and disgraced.  This ground-breaking visit by the Nixons predates Watergate and, engineered by Henry Kissinger, sought to find a solution to the Vietnam War.  Someone hadn’t done their homework had they?  When I visited Vietnam in 2011, I discovered that the country had been subjugated by China for a thousand years and consequently had no love for their former oppressors.  In fact Ho Chi Min went to Russia for help and advice as there was considerable animosity between the two communist giants at the time.   Nixon’s visit did have the effect of opening up dialogue between the US and the Soviets, but that did not end the war, it was Ho Chi Min’s intellect and determination.

American composer, John Adams had never written opera before and poet Alice Goodman was new to libretto writing, so this was a recipe for something innovative.  What came out was extraordinary and exciting music melding the big band sound of the period with strong influence from Philip Glass.  The score demands an extended brass and woodwind section plus the addition of four saxophones and an electronic synthesizer.  All this adds up to high volume, requiring the singers to be amplified.

I’d chosen to sit in the horseshoe shaped balcony of the Auckland Town Hall (Great Hall) in order to be closer to the orchestra and soloists in this semi-staged production.  Coincidentally this placed me nearer the speakers relaying the voices.  There’s not that much you can do in front of and behind an orchestra taking up most of the stage, so it was disappointing that sur-titles were not available.  Fortunately a couple of guys I know on Waiheke had warned me to look up the synopsis so I would be able to follow the plot.  Great advice and all was well with the dramatic arrival of the Nixon’s, met by the smooth baritone voice of Chen-Ye Yuan playing Chou En Lai.  The cast progressed through the stalls, the Freemasons Opera Chorus took up the choir stalls and a host of local Chinese New Zealanders played the media (taking pictures), the Red Army and citizens of Beijing.  In a very formal setting, the octogenarian Mao, played with some vocal power by Barry Ryan teetering on unsteady feet, seemed about to fall from his high platform at any moment, demolishing the brass section of the orchestra.  Act two, focuses on Pat Nixon (Kiwi soprano Madeleine Pierard) on her tour around the city, culminating in a performance of a revolutionary ballet directed by Madame Mao sung by Soprano Hye Jung Lee.  Pat is moved to intervene in the cruelty portrayed between the Kissinger like villain and the heroine/victim, breaking the convention of theatre and ending the show in confusion. This prompts Madam Mao to sing her ‘Queen of the Night’ like aria ‘I am the wife of Mao Zedong’.

Act three takes us into the interior thoughts of the main characters.  As they wait to leave in their hotel room, the Nixons reflect on their humble origins and Chou En Lai wonders ‘how much of what we did was good?’  Here the lack of a libretto was a disadvantage and I understand that at the last moment, permission to include it in the programme was denied by US copyright laws.  The Opera seems to fizzle out with no great fanfare as the Nixons leave. With the benefit of hindsight and the sense that Chou En Lai does have a vision of the future, there is a glimmer of hope.  For all the shortcomings, I found the music thrilling and if I couldn’t always catch Goodman’s poetic lyrics, it didn’t matter too much.  At three hours ten minutes long, the only option home was the 11.45pm ferry.  Unaccountably on this Saturday evening, my bar at the viaduct was closed by the time I cycled down the hill.  To compensate, I ordered a small bottle of Waiheke red wine on the ferry.

NZ Theatre and The Auckland Festival

Book of Everything
Book of Everything Jesus on Rt

A recent conversation with my friend Stephen Fisher in Palmerston North included a discussion of The Book of Everything, adapted by Richard Tulloch from the novel by Netherlander, Guus Kuijer, and produced by Silo Theatre.  I’d seen this excellent play back in February. Set in post war Amsterdam it’s about a young boy’s family experiences. A bullying father is trying to hold to his Christian disciplinary beliefs which are at odds with sensible child rearing and loving relationships. The next door neighbour branded a witch because she is different by the rest of the family, nevertheless becomes a fascination for the boy and eventually leads him to challenge his father, who is then redeemed. Ironically, the character of Jesus, who pops up in the boy’s head, is unable to provide any solutions.

I recommended that Stephen see the show when it came to Palmerston North, and I was quite relieved to hear that he had liked it. He didn’t however see the play in Palmerston North as the Regent Theatre asked him to review it in New Plymouth so there would have a better mid-week audience turn-out. It worked and the audiences came. Stephen and I then discussed the six million grant to Silo theatre for touring four North Island venues and was this pouring funds into Auckland Theatre to the detriment of Wellington Theatre?

Taking a deep breath, I pointed out that six million dollars wasn’t actually that much to tour a cast of eight, stage management, set and costumes to large scale venues (No 1 Tour in the UK) around New Zealand and that Kiwis often complain about everything being expensive – they don’t want to pay for quality.  But on a really serious note, it does seem that Auckland Theatre is in the ascendancy now. Stephen felt that Auckland might have better actors – they’ve re-located now that Radio Drama has joined TV drama production in Auckland. I chipped in to say that historically, employers here refused to hire actors unless they were already living in the area.  I found this to be the case in 1987 doing the audition rounds. Everyone asked, ‘how are you going to make a living when you are not acting?’ None of your business.  ‘Where are you going to be based?’ I don’t know and does it matter? So it’s no wonder that the main centres still do not exchange artists and give their audiences some new faces from time to time.

There were plenty of new faces during the Festival this year and early on, deciding what to see, I eliminated all the One-person-shows.  They seldom work for me and their proliferation is symptomatic both of the Kiwi ‘get up and give it a go’ mentality and the ‘we can’t afford to pay for more than one actor’ attitude. The result is a lack of real tension such as you would get in a dialogue between two actors. So, my first outing was a 2 pm matinee of Marama, Polynesian physical Theatre by Nina Nawalowalo at the large auditorium at Q Theatre.  Marama employs six women performers plus two animators operating puppets and other effects.

The Conch -Marama
The Conch -Marama

It’s visually stunning, magical and slow, like the themes it embodies – climate change and deforestation in pacific Islands.  There is a place in the forest where women can go and be safe, but that space is diminishing taking with it cultural values and a way of life.  Out of the stage mist and darkness, women emerge from the forest floor; objects magically appear and recede back into the void.  I know it’s done with the armoury of theatrical tricks, but don’t want to dwell on the technicalities, just enjoy the magic.  It’s a visual treat for those with a good attention span and not in need of an afternoon nap as the gentle music and Waiata (song) is rhythmic and lulling.

Always keen to see what New Zealand playwrights are up to, I managed to squeeze in two of the four Raw performances. These are works in progress shown to a live audience for the first time.  Making the most of my ferry journey from Waiheke, I’d managed to swim at Newmarket then a cycle up and over to Q theatre in Queen Street. Waiting to go into Cell Fish, I found myself half recognising Murray Lynch. We’d been at Massey University together in a drama course and at the time, I’d been envious of him running off to join a professional theatre company – something I managed to do three years later. Cell Fish, devised, written and performed by Miriama McDowell and Rob Makaraka – direction by Jason Te Kare – is centred around Miriama’s  experiences teaching Shakespeare to Maori men in prisons. The two actors play all the characters in the prison drama group, often swapping roles. The result – partly in Te Reo – is often hilarious, but there is a serious message to be had from these damaged characters who may or may not be rehabilitated to the ‘outside’.  We got act one, so this is one to watch as it develops.  Murray and I had forty years of catching up to do over a drink in the bar waiting for the next show. Murray now runs Playmarket – unique in the world as the only organisation that works as a playwright’s agency and library/archive, actively developing new work.


Tea by Sri Lankan Kiwi, Ahi Karunaharan had a cast of fifteen. Set against the backdrop of the history of tea, its colonial plantations in what was then Ceylon, the struggles for worker’s rights and conditions plus women’s emancipation, Tea tells an epic story. I was unsure about the first scene which seemed to be between god-like beings, but as we were presented with only act one, I’m sure this will become clear. I was quickly drawn into the narrative of the different characters and look forward to the spectacle of so many South Asian actors in employment.  Ahi was the producer of the Short & Sweet Festival last year and was a great help to me, so it was good to briefly hug and say ‘Hi’, after the show. My fold-up bicycle was waiting for me, tied to a balustrade in the Q Theatre Foyer.  It was bliss riding down Queen Street to catch the ferry.

Pop up globe
Pop up globe

Not part of the Auckland Festival, but very much in the centre of theatre-land is the Pop-up Globe Theatre, erected with scaffolding and corrugated iron (Kiwi iconic building material) in the car park to the rear of Q Theatre and in front of the Basement (Fringe venue). Celebrating the 400 years of Shakespeare, it offers a resident company plus guest companies presenting plays plus workshops and schools matinees throughout March. There has been much chatter about competition for audiences with the Festival and the added complication of the Biennial NZ Festival in Wellington covering similar dates. My choice of Henry V was entirely due to the fact that Lexie Matheson was making her first stage appearance since transitioning to female fifteen years ago.  We’d worked together at Theatre Corporate in 1977 and it was fantastic to reconnect.

Lexi as Alice
Lexi as Alice

In this all female production, Lexie played Alice, the French maid like a grand, but kindly duchess with a sense of humour. Lexie was a centred planet around which the delicate Princess of France flitted and her hat in the final scene was a triumph. It occurred to me that I’ve not actually seen a live production of Henry V before though I’ve studied the play and used one of the Chorus speeches for drama school auditions. It was disappointing, therefore to find the acoustics of the Pop-up Globe less than ideal. Sitting to one side, it was difficult to hear the softer unsupported voices of this young ensemble unless they were facing in my direction. Within this corrugated iron ‘O’, the sound does not bounce around the auditorium as it does in the wooden Bankside reconstruction.  Ironically, the groundlings got the best sound here. The cast were nevertheless, valiant with particularly fine performances from the Eponymous hero (ine) and opponent Dauphin, although I could have done with less macho pacing up and down and around the stage. Also worthy of note was the hilarious Fluellen forcing the rascal Pistol to actually eat a leek – drawing a round of applause.  With an eye on the ferry timetable, I was able to extricate myself from the after-show melee, but had to run down Queen Street. The bus ahead of me kept stopping, spurring me on, but I never quite managed to catch it.  Fortunately the 10.15 sailing was late arriving.

Next time: The James Plays from The National Theatre of Scotland and Nixon in China







Gay Pride in Auckland

Considering that New Zealand passed the Homosexual Law Reform Bill as late as1986, the celebration of Pride has leapt ahead.  By contrast, London Gay Pride’s attempts to turn into a parade or carnival, have failed.  It has remained essentially a march, albeit a huge one, with an after party in Trafalgar Square or in a club of one’s choice, all happening on the one day.

In Auckland, celebrations now go on for two weeks, beginning with a huge cultural offer which, quite frankly, puts London to shame.  Covering exhibitions, film, Literature, Theatre and Comedy, there’s also the Heroic Garden Festival where you can meet the gay garden owners.

I manage to get off Waiheke Island to a couple of the theatre shows in town.

Chris Parker in No more Dancing in the Good Room

Chris Parker’s No More Dancing in the Good Room is a coming out one man show indulging Chris’s desire to dance ballet.  There’s not quite enough material to make the show work but the finale where Chris dances a duet with a home movie of his younger self in the kitchen is very moving.

Living on an Island, I make the most of time in the city and see The Legacy Project in the same evening.  Here, six emerging queer writers, present short plays.  Things are looking good for the future of queer theatre writing, particularly with the introduction of Trans issues.  Trans (male to female or female to male) is the new frontier to be won and two of the plays bravely make a start on what proves to be a rich subject and hopefully work for trans performers in the future.  The Pronoun Game was the most confrontational and experimental of the six plays.  The premise is the cleaning of a bedroom, but the subtext delves into gender identity and Trans/intersex possibilities.  Clad in a flesh coloured body stocking the protagonist seems asexual but  several conversations with friends and colleagues later conclude that being naked might have been an even bolder decision.  My favourite, however, is Sean Carley’s The Last Date.  A man in his fifties wants to try sex with a man before he dies.  Bedevilled by inaccurate on-line dating information, neither man is what the other expects.  This chimed with me in my current dilemma, to date younger men or continue looking for that elusive companion around my own age.

Hard working Proud to Play Organisers Craig (Centre) and Dion (R) with Volunteer Marjo
Hard working Proud to Play Organisers Craig (Centre) and Dion (R) with Volunteer Marjo
Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse
Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse

My main focus at this time is on swimming. I’m on the committee organising the Swimming Competition, part of the Proud to Play sporting festival. I end up with two contrasting tasks, organising a voucher system for volunteers to get a filled roll (ham or egg) from the pool café and inviting the Deputy Mayor, Penny Hulse to open the event.

The Voucher job involves contacting the café manager for a quote and designing the voucher – easy.  Inviting the Deputy Mayor involves getting her contact details off the council website, calling her mobile number to leave a message with a follow up email.   She replies almost immediately with a yes and there follows an event sheet from her office to be filled in and returned – almost as easy as the vouchers. I can’t imagine the Deputy Mayor of London being so accessible or available.

Kevin and Elizabeth from TAMS get ready
Kevin and Elizabeth from TAMS get ready

I also volunteer for the Ocean Swim event. This is an opportunity for Proud to Play to combine with the Bean Rock swim starting and ending at Mission Bay on the Saturday.  Taking my fold up bike on the 8am ferry, I cycle around the harbour.  My job is to tick the Proud to Play swimmers off the list, get them to sign a waiver form and issue a purple/blue swim cap so we can identify them as they come in. My choice of UK English is picked up by a couple of cute American Guys who read ‘tick off’ as ‘told off’. They like that.   The distance out to Bean Rock and back is 3.2K and around the half way buoy 1.6k.  Two of us ‘check off’ (US & Kiwi English) the purple caps as they come in, for place and time.

Purple caps ready for the off.
Purple caps ready for the off.
Off they all go. Green caps n the 1.6K Yellow caps for those who are nervous
Off they all go. Green caps n the 1.6K Yellow caps for those who are nervous

Later we have our own medal ceremony and I get to award the guys – medal over the head and kiss on the cheek.  I then cycle off to do a final swim session in the 50m pool at Newmarket before our meet on Monday.  Standing on my feet all morning has taken its toll and after doing a sedate 1,400m I can hardly move my legs. The ride from the pool to downtown is all

TAMS medal winners Jeremy, David & Cynthia
TAMS medal winners Jeremy, David & Cynthia

down-hill and one of my favourite freewheeling journeys, so my legs come back to life and I arrive at Silo Park down by Auckland harbour all ready for the games opening ceremony.  A powhiri (welcome) from the local Maori has been organised and we, the people of Auckland welcome our visitors onto the land.  I’m always moved by this part of our culture and am pleased that it has become so much a part of tradition in Auckland.  Local ‘out’ lesbian MP Louisa Wall, who promoted the gay marriage bill is there along with the Mayor of Auckland Len Brown accompanied by his ‘Rainbow Advisory Board’.  It’s a great opening event and to my delight Trans activist and academic, Lexie Matheson is on that board.  I’ve not met up with her since we worked together as Actors in 1977 – a lovely reunion.

Maori Warriors stand guard
Maori Warriors stand guard
The guests approach
The guests approach

Sunday is Big Gay Out at Coyle Park, Point Chevalier.  For me, this is another volunteer job on the Proud to Play tent.  BGO is the usual info and merchandising tents with bars and a music stage with live acts.

The Haka
P2P volunteers release the rainbow balloons.
P2P volunteers release the rainbow balloons.

It’s become a tradition for the Prime Minister of the day to attend, but this year apparently, Prime Minister John Key got booed off the stage.  He hasn’t had a good month as reaction to the Trans Pacific Partnership kept him a way from the annual Waitangi Day Celebrations.  I miss all the drama – too busy sorting out registrations for gay athletes and by 4.30 I’m ready to cycle off to the ferry for an early night on Waiheke.

Waiheke Playwrights Festival

The Waiheke Playwrights Festival is now in its 4th year and I’ve got two contributions in the programme. Festival-email-promo I was attracted to The Other Flag by Mano Pratt and John McKay because of its subject, The Treaty of Waitangi, something which rumbles around the New Zealand news and media seemingly without resolution after 150 years.  The script reveals things I didn’t know about or had forgotten, buried under white mythology and justification.  On returning to New Zealand I found that people have stopped listening, even though the issue is not going away.  I was also interested in composer John Mckay, whose War is an Avalanche I raved about in ANZAC Arts back in April. John has contributed to the text and written the final song.

Mano and Richard with Te Kara
Mano and Richard with Te Kara

The performers are musicians Mano Pratt and Richard Cannon who play two guys jamming. John can’t get his tongue around Moko’s name and has to have lessons.  This leads to him learning how to say his own name in Te Reo Maori and then to a discussion about the Treaty and onward to the Maori flag, Te Kara.


I wrote a version of The Four Horsemen back in 2012 for something called The Clash Project under the auspices of London New Play Festival.   Back in 2009 I directed the first plays to be written, when writer/ musician, Cheryl White, a fan of the Punk Band The Clash had an ambition to present a programme of short plays, each inspired by a track of their album, London’s Calling.  I had a cast of four actors to do all the plays which played in a fringe theatre above a dodgy Irish pub in Kilburn, West London, one of the few remaining rough spots in town.

By 2012 there were nine short plays ready which we presented as script in hand performances over two evenings.  I’d originally been interested in The Right Profile – an unexpected lyric about the pain suffered by gay actor Montgomery Clift  after his car accident. Someone else had got there first so I went back to the album lyrics and found The Four Horsemen which begins with a rant about grapes and wine leading onto harder stuff and attracting

The Four Horsemen
The Four Horsemen

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, straight from St John’s book of Revelations in The Bible.  Again, this is astonishing material for a punk band to be singing.  That was it – I had to write about Death. I set the original play on an island, using Waiheke Island (New Zealand), a landscape I knew well so it was appropriate to submit the play for consideration here.  I set about cutting more than a minute out, a curiously satisfying exercise, leaving the play with the essentials to reduce it to ten minutes. I have handed the play over to director, Louise Roke, who was very enthusiastic about the play and, more importantly, understood it.  I went to a rehearsal last week and the two guys playing the gay couple are excellent.  It’s shaping up to be a moving performance.

We’re opening at Piritahi Marae on Friday 9th October and again on Saturday 10th @ 7.30pm  bookings at Tickets $15



From Page to Stage Short & Sweet Theatre

My friendship with writer Judith Cowley grew during the rehearsal period, what with skype and mobile phone conversations, we discovered that we agreed on so much relating to script development and with the input from actors Sheena and Mike, the text came alive for us more or less in the way I’d first imagined it.

Mike Howell & Sheena Irving Photo by Shouik Nandi
Mike Howell & Sheena Irving Photo by Shouik Nandi

There were nuances which the actors discovered without my help and underneath the layers there were more delights to discover.  We explored the emotional journeys of the two bereft characters June and Bevan moment by moment throughout rehearsals.  They’ve lost their son Cody through addiction to sniffing spray cans and their relationship is in tatters.  Bevan visits with an important objective, but he’d also like to move back in, even if it’s only in the Sleep-out.  Bad idea, that’s where Cody slept and died watched by his dog.

Photo by Shouik Nandi
Photo by Shouik Nandi

The dog is the only connection Bevan has to his son, so he want’s desperately to get him out of The Pound, but June hasn’t the money and has had enough.  They reminisce, enjoying the happy times but it soon comes down to reflection of their failure as parents.  June struggles to keep in control, only just managing to send Bevan away to sort himself out before breaking down to deal with her own grief.


Photo by Shouik Nandi
Photo by Shouik Nandi

It might have been a risky thing to put in front of an audience, expecting them to love it, but they did, and you could hear them listening.  Four plays from week one were chosen to go through to the final Sunday gala performance, two from the Judges and two from the audience choice. To my great surprise, we made it on an audience vote.  It just goes to show that audiences can be discerning and recognise quality writing.  The other audience choice was the hilarious Threatened Panda Fights Back.  The poster boy for the WWF refuses to mate, until confronted by a pair of reconstituted Dodos about to lay eggs.


Photo by Shouik Nandi
Photo by Shouik Nandi

We had a week off, though I continued to travel to Auckland to see theatre and swim.  I’d entered the Taupo Masters Swimming Brown Trout meet which meant catching the early car ferry and driving to Taupo for a 1pm start.  I stayed the night in a motel, swam an 800m freestyle race in record time (for me) then drove back to Auckland in time for a 1pm rehearsal of In the Pound at the theatre.  The judges judged the plays (6 from week 2) at the 3pm performance with me watching from the lighting box.  At 7pm, we had the final show followed by the prizes.

Photo by Shouik Nandi
Photo by Shouik Nandi

Sadly we didn’t win anything but we did explore white heterosexual working class social realism – currently under represented.  Judith Cowley came up to Auckland for the second time and loved that the play had grown so much since the opening night.  Thanks to my theatre friends, Liz, Richard, Raymond and Johnny and Elizabeth, who gave us such positive feedback.

The team: Mike Howell, Sheena Irving, Judith Cowley, Christopher Preston
The team: Mike Howell, Sheena Irving, Judith Cowley, Christopher Preston


Festival-email-promoWhat now?  Well, I’m already into the Waiheke Playwrights Festival, directing The Other Flag and my play The Four Horsemen is in the programme.  Just to show that I am into diversity, The Other Flag is about Maori issues and Four Horsemen in about a gay relationship.

The Winter Theatre Season

Theatre-going in the summer can be a bit of a chore, eschewing the long hours of daylight better spent working in the garden or cooling of in the waters of Rocky Bay and Palm Beach.  It takes something very special to lure me onto the ferry from Waiheke to New Zealand for a summer evening and after the show, there’s that rush down to the ferry to catch the 10.15pm if you are lucky or the last sailing at 11.45.

As I still don’t have a television here and the garden is more or less under control (swimming in the sea … in the winter?) I’ve set about investigating New Zealand theatre.  Auckland seems to be thriving these days and in particular, Auckland Theatre Company seems to be shunting out a continuous stream of product.

Rupert: Photo Michael Smith
Rupert: Photo Michael Smith

Rupert by Australian writer David Williamson was a rush through the life and business acquisitions of monster Rupert Murdoch.  Not well written and I felt no empathy for the central character even though Stuart Devine tried to make him cuddly.  The cast acted their socks off, having to work too hard to make the show work for me.  Lysistrata by Aristophanes, adapted and directed by Michael Hurst, was by contrast, joyous and outrageous.  This is the unlikely story of Greek women going on sexual strike to force their men to stop going to war.  The women are all glamorous and sexy while the men, poor things are plain, over weight, or decrepit.  One of them is in a wheel chair and smoking.  Once stripped down to their non-designer white underpants and displaying painful erections it all becomes totally farcical.  I remember having such fun in an Edinburgh Fringe Festival production many years ago.

Heroes: Photo Michael Smith
Heroes: Photo Michael Smith

 Last week I took myself off to see the ATC production of Heroes by French writer, Gerald Sibleyras (translated by Tom Stoppard).  What bliss to see three of New Zealand’s senior actors George Henare, Ken Blackburn and Ray Henwood having such fun with these damaged World War One veterans in a rest-home.  This is West End standard theatre, not cutting edge or confrontational, but gentle humour that sends you away with a warm feeling, ideal for a winter evening.  That was Wednesday and the 6pm performance allowed me to get the 10.15 ferry home.

Grt American ScreamThursday took me out to New Lynn and Te Pou Theatre to see my friend Johnny Givins’ return to the stage as GranPapa in The Great American Scream by Maori writer, Albert Belz.  Set in New Jersey on Halloween evening1938 when Orson Wells’ radio production War of the Worlds created pandemonium in the population.  This seemingly wholesome American family are sent into panic mode and, believing that they will all die, begin to reveal their shameful secrets.  The play reveals the power of the media and fear of deviating from the accepted norm.  Chatting with Johnny afterwards, it dawned on me that Albert has written a ’well made play’ with every character harbouring secrets – a little touch of Tennessee Williams and well worth the journey.  Best of all I made the 10.15 ferry again.

Bill Massey's Tourists
Bill Massey’s Tourists

No ferry ride was required on Friday as this was the only date I could see Jan Bolwell’s one person show Bill Massey’s Tourists at the Artworks Theatre, Oneroa.  Her publicity leaflet featured a generous quote from my old theatre director, Raymond Hawthorne, so I quizzed him about it and got a whole-hearted endorsement.  Jan had booked her show into the Artworks Theatre, Oneroa for three performances so it was lucky that I could only attend on the first night as the other two were cancelled due to lack of bookings.  Playing both granddaughter and grandfather, Jan told a moving story of a young girl prizing out a story of the First World War.  Of course, he was reluctant to say much, but Jan has filled in the details from meticulous research.  She’s touring around the country with this show, so I wish her well.

No Holds BardRichard Howard suggested I join him to see Michael Hurst’s one man show, No Holds Bard at the Tiny Theatre at Garnet Station, Westmere.  Hurst and a team of writers have put together a gripping and hilarious evening.  An Actor, playing Hamlet returns to his flat to end it all.  His personal life is in tatters and, on the brink of madness, inhabits not only the Dane, but Macbeth, Lear and Othello.  It kind of helps if you know these plays, but not essential as Hurst is a consummate performer.  His fight between Hamlet and Macbeth is astonishingly athletic and funny – lovely to see this up close in a full house of thirty people.

The EventsBack to the big space in Q Theatre to see Silo Theatre’s production of The Events by Scottish playwright David Greig.   Tandi Wright plays a liberal, lesbian priest who has survived a horrific attack on her local choir by a disaffected young man.  Her journey to understand and forgive him culminates in a face to face meeting in a prison.  Beulah Koale not only plays the young man, but all the other characters, including Claire’s partner.  Each performance welcomes a different local choir onto the stage.  The choristers have not seen the play previously, so their reactions to the events are spontaneous.  There’s plenty to think about in this 80 minute piece.  As an added bonus, the 7pm show got me onto the 8.45 ferry without too much running down the hill.

The Events2



Short & Sweet Theatre

Short & Sweet Theatre Festival – Auckland

I’ve been writing, developing and directing new plays in the UK for many years now, so it’s with considerable excitement that I find myself directing a short play in New Zealand for the first time since 1976.

I’d heard of the Short & Sweet Festival and duly did the google thing, sent in a brief list of directing and dramaturgical work and was delighted to be asked to join the festival.  The next thing that happened was the arrival of a zip file containing 28 ten minute plays to be read.  My task was to choose five plays and list them in order of preference and to my surprise my first choice came back to me.


Judith Cowley
Judith Cowley

In the Pound by Judith Cowley spoke to me so strongly that whichever way round I arranged my list of five plays, this one always came out at number one.  Another google and I found that Judith has just completed the MA in Script Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University, Wellington.  Here’s what she wrote at the beginning of the course.

My family have always been story-tellers. A family motto could be ‘Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.’ Although my head was filled with stories, I avoided the call to write for years. The call, like a determined suitor, didn’t give up. I gave him many excuses. I am too busy, too tired. I have to have a real job. It is not my forte. He waited, watching from the other side of the dance floor.

A year ago I fell over a cliff. My injuries were minor, scratches and mild concussion. But the fall woke me up. When the call to write next came, I took his hand and said, ‘Let’s dance.’

In the Pound is indeed a dance.  The ties that once held Bevan and June have broken.  The characters dance around their emotions which rise and fall as they argue, laugh and cry. Can Bevan charm his way back with memories of the good times or will their failure as parents win out?

It’s a privilege to be directing this first play by a new writer, because I know Judith is going to be an important voice in New Zealand’s cultural future.

Sheena Irving & Mike Howell play June & Bevan
Sheena Irving & Mike Howell play June & Bevan

Casting actors is always a tense time.  Will I get the right ones? Will they be available?  Short & Sweet organised audition sessions according to age so I went to two, Men over 40 and Women over 35.  It was slightly strange; directors sitting in a row watching actors come in, introduce themselves and perform a monologue.  Ahi, the co-ordinator got them to do the monologue in a different way, to show off versatility and ability to take direction.  There weren’t many actors, but amazingly the two I needed turned up.  I offered and they accepted.  We are now in the rehearsal process, delighting in Judith’s characters and dialogue.  Everything we need to know is in the text and we’re all looking forward to the performances.

The way it works is that there are two groups of plays.  In the Pound plays in week one and if we get enough votes from the audience, we will join the best of week two on the Gala Night.

 Here’s how you can help.

If you are in Auckland, book tickets for any date in week one & vote for In the Pound.

If you know anyone in Auckland or nearby, forward and share this post.

Visit the Short & Sweet Facebook Page . In the Pound will soon have it’s own page with info, pix and stuff (if I can manage the technology).