The year of the goat

by Listener critics / 24 December, 2005
The best theatre of 2005, judged by Listener critics.

Natasha Hay - Auckland

The year was blessed with some terrific theatrical moments, but if there was one show that stood out from the rest, it was The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? at Silo Theatre. Productions as good as this only come along once every few years, if you're lucky.

No doubt about it, Michael Hurst and Jennifer Ward-Lealand gave the performances of the year, possibly of their lives, in Edward Albee's brilliant and confronting work about a successful architect who has fallen for a goat. Director Oliver Driver milked every drop of drama out of the crisis, highlighting the absurdity and Greek-like dimensions of the tragedy. The effect of Ward-Lealand unleashing primal howls while hurling crockery at the fallen hero was electric. Seated inches from the action in the brightly lit intimate Silo box, we, too, felt implicated.

Next best was the Auckland Theatre Company's feelgood comedy Niu Sila by Dave Armstrong and Oscar Kightley. The two-hander starred David Fane and Damon Andrews, who with wicked irreverence kept the laughs coming thick and fast by conjuring up hilariously sketched characters from 60s Ponsonby. And with a poignant twist at the end, delicately handled by director Conrad Newport, the payoff was deeply affecting.

Another excellent year from the Silo produced two more stand-out theatrical events, Neil LaBute's The Mercy Seat and retro 60s hit The Boys in the Band. In the first, 9/11 forms the background to an end-of-an-affair tale, played with just the right brittleness and cynicism by Alison Bruce and Craig Hall. In the latter, we eavesdropped on a dinner party, where the lives of seven New York gay friends are dissected. Bitchy, witty and perceptive, it was packed with one-liners, lasagne and superb performances from the all-male cast.

The boldest production was Colin McColl's Duchess of Malfi for the ATC. McColl consistently mounts challenging theatre, and there were some inspired moments in this stylish production. Notably, the best design of the year by Tony Rabbit, with his thrust sandpit stage and imaginative use of the Town Hall concert chamber, sumptuous costumes by Elizabeth Whiting, striking original music by John Gibson, not to mention another captivating performance by Hurst (as Bosola).

Other memorable moments: wacky Canadians Les 7 doigts de la main; the horses in Equus; Ben Barrington in The Return; and Andrew Laing's "Amsterdam" in Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.

Ultimately, though, 2005 was the Year of The Goat.

Harry Ricketts - Wellington

My most visceral theatrical moment of the year went like this: Cornwall gloatingly held up Gloucester's gouged-out eyeball and very deliberately squeezed it between finger and thumb, splattering the front row of the audience. That was at Chi-chester during David Warner's all-passion-spending King Lear. My equivalent local moment was in a quite different key: Peter Vere-Jones tottering on stage as the abandoned Firs at the end of Circa's The Cherry Orchard to universal gasps of "oh no".

The Wellington theatrical year was bracketed by two superb, no-frills Bacchanals productions at Bats, A Midsummer Night's Dream in January and Anthony Sher's ID in October. Both were adroitly directed by David Lawrence and featured the irrepressible Erin Banks in various roles, most notably as Helena in Dream. The fascinating ID presented a highly imaginative exploration of the life of the mysterious drifter and tapeworm host Demetrios Tsafendas (Malcolm Murray), who in 1966 assassinated South Africa's apartheidophiliac Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd and spent the next 30 years in a psych unit. Also memorable at Bats was the SEEyD Company's The Remedy Syndrome with Tim Spite and Danielle Mason as a vaccination-anxious couple.

Downstage mounted the year's most ambitious show, Katie Wolfe's stylish production of Clare Boothe Luce's 1930s smash, The Women. Eight actors played the 30 parts in a claws 'n' all catfight of frocks, divorce and double entendre. Better still was Downstage's 21st anniversary revival of Renée's wonderful Wednesday to Come about four generations of women in the sugar-bag years. Kate Harcourt (Mary in the original production) was quietly riveting as Granna, and Ellen Simpson shone as the young, awakening Jeannie.

Circa, too, had its stand-out productions. In the Studio, Nigel Collins and Toby Leach offered an even tighter version of their engaging backblocks comedy Wheeler's Luck, and Dave Armstrong's witty The Tutor hit the spot with its conscientiously non-PC squiz at NCEA and other assorted algebra. In the main auditorium, Stephen Sinclair's equally non-PC The Bach ostentatiously barbecued several current Pakeha and Maori pieties. More sombrely, Michael Frayn's Democracy, with Peter Hambleton brilliant as the East German "sleeper" Günter Guillaume, recaptured the complex allegiances of the Cold War. As a final bow, there was Roger Hall's hilarious panto Cinderella. Hall knows the genre inside-out, and he and a strong cast, led by Ellie Smith as the fairy godmother, delivered the perfect stockingful of slapstick, catchy tunes and spicy topical jokes.

Faith Oxenbridge - Christchurch

Peninsula was the highpoint of both the Christchurch Arts Festival and the Court Theatre's 2005 line-up. Nothing much happens in the rural settlement of Duvauchelles on Banks Peninsula in the 60s: Gary Henderson's characters work, play and dream, while their secrets and longings whisper and sigh around them and every so often threaten to blow. There's an ethereal quality to Henderson's beautifully understated new play, but his characters are all convincingly flesh and blood.

Peninsula effortlessly embraces both the particular and the universal and the playwright certainly has a way with words, but this production's eloquence had as much to do with what is not said. Chris Ward's stunning filmic soundscape heightened and tightened an already powerful narrative, while Henderson's direction was as quietly intelligent as his writing.

The Court's Suddenly Last Summer was another highlight and Eilish Moran's sultry Catherine had a lot to do with this. Moran made madness and torment look almost tempting as she collided with the hypo-crisy of Southern morals and Tony Geddes's apocalyptic metal set with the force of a meteorite, leaving a shell-shocked audience to wonder why we don't see more of this actress on the stage.

We've seen plenty of George Henare on stage, but never quite like he was in the Court's Oliver. Henare enchanted and stole more than a heart or two as Fagin, Oliver's loveable and mercenary mentor.

The Night Season was a first production for new professional theatre company A Different Light. The play was good, but the production was even better. Director Tony McCaffrey guided his enthusiastic cast right to the wistful heart of this lyrical Irish play, without losing his head. Toni Jones was unforgettable as the eccentric grandmother Lily, and set designer Paul McCaffrey's cluttered, memorabilia-filled living-room was as poetic and poignant as the play.

Other memorable theatre this year was supplied by the Christchurch Arts Festival: Beth Kayes's A House Across Oceans was an original, exuberant and heart-warming piece, and the charming Canadian production Lauchie, Liza and Rory created a rich theatre experience from a sparse set and just two resourceful actors.

Anna Chinn - Dunedin

Appraising starving actors seen in 2005 and clearing space in my pantry were the tasks I had on the day of writing, so I decided to combine the two. This year's accolades are therefore matched with exciting food prizes ...

It was a great year for the macabre in Dunedin theatre. Auntie & Me, Daughters of Heaven, Lulu and Hamlet all told entertainingly of attempted or successful murders, and the Fortune threw in a haunted-theatre tour for luck. Macabrest of the macabre, though, was the Globe Theatre's disturbing Daughters of Heaven. Blood running down the walls of a sparse, dark set, combined with the mystery of mime, lent creepiness to the true story of Christchurch's Parker-Hulme murder case. This show wins a jar of green curry paste - so hot right now - which director Corey Anderson can share with his talented cast and crew. Jackie Winchester and Prue Clark (who played Parker and Hulme respectively) are best newcomers for their unforgettable depiction of folie à deux. They each receive a tin of dolphin-friendly tuna.

Bag of tapioca for best female performance goes to Louise Petherbridge, who played a bedridden, devious old dear in Auntie & Me. In essentially a silent role, Petherbridge could have been obscured by her speaking co-star Jeremy Elwood, but the actress deftly ensured she was yin to his yang.

Elwood, the yang, wins beef-flavoured rice risotto for best male performance, as the psychopathic Kemp. A naturalistic actor might have stumbled, but the stand-up comic easily made hilarious the peculiar situation of hovering gleefully over a deathbed.

Packet of ground nutmeg for female runner-up: a seductive Carol Smith as Mrs Robinson in The Graduate. Sachet of instant pumpkin soup for male runner-up: Matt Wilson as the lead in an excellent Hamlet ensemble.

Best director, large cast (tin of sweetened condensed milk): David O'Donnell for Hamlet. Best director, small cast (tin of caramel creamed rice): Lisa Warrington for Auntie & Me.

Special awards. Macabre merit (can of Haast lager each): Hilary Halba and Patrick Davies, as cartoonish weirdos, and Colin Kitchingman as Jack the Ripper, in Lulu. Steamiest scene: was in The Seagull, with Arkadina "slithering all over Trigorin", to quote reviewer David Eggleton. For that, Terry MacTavish wins a sachet of tandoori chicken marinade and to Mark Neilson I pass the black-eyed peas. Actors and directors wishing to claim their prizes can email me at

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