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Gods and Monsters

AUCKLAND by Natasha Hay

This was generally a solid year for theatre in Auckland, with the city being well served by dominant players Auckland Theatre Company and the Silo.

Taking the helm as ATC's new artistic director, Colin McColl asserted his directorial panache, most notably with Caligula. Design, costume, acting, and theatrical bells and whistles made for an impressive production, turning what could have been an arid treatise on French existentialism into a vivid piece of camp absurdism. His Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf was also an intelligent interpretation, drawing out strong performances from the cast of four and revealing the painful love story beneath the vitriolic game-playing.

The best acting belonged to Oliver Driver, who made a maniacal, mesmerising Caligula and was riveting as a meek, mixed-up Mormon businessman in Neil LaBute's Bash at the Silo. And Glen Drake was a satisfyingly sinister Ripley in The Talented Mr Ripley, seamlessly switching from nice guy to psychopathic fantasist.

The year saw the continued rise of the Silo, which has transformed from a predominantly writers' venue to an actors' one, amid some grumblings. Director Shane Bosher has opted to showcase actors in contemporary, often discomforting, foreign plays that strike a chord with the young crowd that flock there. It's now the place to see gritty intimate theatre (no longer so claustrophobically shabby), and although featuring little local work, there was much to celebrate; all the shows got down to business and did it well. Standouts were Claire Chitham, Jeff Szusterman and Phil Brown in the gripping American psychodrama Tape and Scott Wills and Sarah Wiseman (also excellent in Proof at the Maidment Studio) in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, a highly charged and perfectly pitched tale of dysfunctional Bronx lovers who find solace in each other. But for me it was The Women that trumped the lot there. Clare Boothe Luce's catty send-up of rich bitches in 30s Manhattan was a dazzling feast of frocks and witty repartee, the cast of experienced and unknown actresses skilfully directed by Katie Wolfe. Everything came together perfectly.

Though it was not a fertile year for new writing, the touring production of Taki Rua's The Prophet, by Hone Kouka, was a powerful and deeply moving experience. And the ATC's The Bach was hilarious and distinctly Kiwi. Stephen Sinclair's blistering exposé of the mid-life crisis of two brothers was a kind of dark Roger Hall, with balls, and is set for a rerun next year.

WELLINGTON by Harry Ricketts

2004, like 2001, was something of a Roger Hall benefit year. Again three new plays of his were staged; again there were two hits and a miss. Of the hits, Spreading Out, a lively sequel to Middle Age Spread, had the bonus of Grant Tilly, Ray Henwood, Dorothy McKegg and Jane Waddell reprising their original roles. The less said about Foolish Acts the better, but Taking Off was Hall in top form. Four fiftysomething Kiwi women head off to the UK on their belated OE, and the accounts of their adventures are stamped throughout with that authentic funny-poignant Hallmark.

It was in general a good year for comedy. Oliver Goldsmith's classic She Stoops to Conquer (with Tim Spite as a rustic, savvy Tony Lumpkin) scrubbed up well. From Ireland, there was This Lime Tree Bower (a promising debut from Richard Chapman) and Stones in His Pockets (Ross Gumbley and Tim Spite delivering a great two-hander). Closer to home, David McPhail gave his uncanny rendering of Muldoon, Joe Musaphia reminded everyone what a funny writer he can be in his geriatric bank-heist Ugly Customers, Erroll Shand sounded spookily like the great comedi-an in Philip Braithwaite's The Ghost of Woody Allen and, on the mordant side, Brian Sergent's The Love of Humankind celebrated (if that's the word) the wit and misogyny of two infamous Wellington "characters", Brian Bell and Mark Smith. Lynda Chanwai-Earle's Monkey exuberantly spliced a traditional Chinese legend with a contemporary story of Chinese immigration and produced one of my favourite audience reactions of the year, my great-niece Anna saying in a piercing voice: "That's not a monkey; that's a girl!"

Shakespeare took care of tragedy with two productions of Romeo and Juliet: Miranda Harcourt's at Downstage, pared-down and raunchy, and the Bacchanals' excellent, no-frills version at Bats. Bruce Phillips's Circa Macbeth had scary witches and in Carmel McGlone the best Lady M I've seen.

But, for me, the two outstanding theatrical events of the year were undoubtedly Neil LaBute's witty and tantalising The Shape of Things (Ross Jolly, Circa) and David Edgar's challenging Albert Speer (David O'Donnell, Bats). In the first, art and life collide as Adam (Simon Vincent) finds himself the unwitting subject of a total makeover by arts student Evelyn (Danielle Mason). In the second, William Walker and Paul McLaughlin give wonderful performances as Hitler and his architect in a play whose moral dimensions grow as Speer's guilt is gradually, inexorably revealed.

CHRISTCHURCH by Faith Oxenbridge

Best play: I loved Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain, mostly for the smart, incisive dialogue and neurotic characters, but also for the inventive twist in the second half that has the characters play their parents and unlock secrets of the past to uncover the wounds they nurse in the present. The acting, and Cathy Downes's direction, was as sharp and certain as the playwright's pen.

Best production: Sue Rider's intimate and understated production of Nicholas Wright's play, Vincent in Brixton, was as illuminating and mysterious as a Van Gogh painting. A strong cast, lifelike set and intelligent direction kept the potential for melodrama - the play is about the coming together of two tortured souls - in check.

Bravest production: Peter Evans's King Lear was bold and inventive, if not entirely successful. There were some inspired moments in his stylish production and the set, costumes and Shakespeare's nastiest characters - Goneril, Regan and Edmund - all dripped with depravity. Evans's low-key, ironic spin on Shakespeare's darkest play was a gamble that almost came off.

Best actress: Cathy Downes's portrayal of Ursula, the terminally miserable woman to whom Van Gogh could have lost his heart, in Vincent in Brixton, made melancholy seem alluring and acting as easy as breathing.

Best actor: Gareth Reeves in anything, as anything - the embittered Walker, in Three Days of Rain, and equally convincing later, as Walker's taciturn father, Ned; the honest and honourable Edgar in King Lear and funny, too, as the fatuous poet, Versati, in The Underpants.

Best set: Paul McCaffrey's surrealistic take on Jean Genet's The Maids was a work of art worthy of the Venice Biennale. Women's shoes spewed from a hole in a white wall and flowers preserved in glass jars hung askew from the ceiling, adding dimension and drama to Genet's twisted treatise on repression and desire.

Best bums on seats: the show that time will just not forget. The Court Theatre's The Rocky Horror Show, running now and through January, is worth seeing just to watch George Henare strutting in heels and fishnets and Rima Te Wiata's wonderfully wanton Magenta.

DUNEDIN by Anna Chinn

Much this year has inspired awe, but all production values considered - set and lighting design, acting, concept, direction, attractiveness of seats to bums - Othello was the best play seen in Dunedin. Yes, rumours flew of a backstage meltdown, but what happened out front was a fine piece of theatre. The designers applied a postmodernist touch with great effect, and Martin Howells correctly cast Simon O'Connor as a riveting right-bastard Iago, to make Othello also the most-attended play of 2004.

Best new work was Home Land. The result of Gary Henderson's year in residence at Otago University slipped through the reviewing net because it was part of the overwhelming Otago Arts Festival, but it was nevertheless a totally defibrillating thing. The topic of Henderson's exquisite script was essentially that old people have feelings, too, and we should reconsider shutting them in retirement homes. The central octogenarian was unforgettably played by Simon O'Connor; tears streamed through wrinkles audience-wide on the night I went.

Best actor: O'Connor, obviously. People will forever think of him as either evil or eightysomething, despite his mild middle-age. Peter Hayden runs a close second, for his disturbing immersion in the wouldn't-want-him-for-a-father role of Dan Moffat in The Daylight Atheist.

If you have a vivid memory of characters but not of who played them, it's probably evidence of great acting. Hence, best actress goes to Hilary Norris, for giving lifelike existence to a nurse, a hen-keeper, a slimy doctor, a cantankerous mother and more, in local one-hander White Shoes. Best newcomer was Kendall Forbes, as a believably damaged young nun in the gripping Agnes of God.

Another excellent year from the Globe has produced a winner in the best designer slot: Andrew Cook, who makes sets you want to explore after the play.

Best director was Lisa Warrington, on two counts: The Daylight Atheist and Cherish. Warrington consistently chooses to mount intelligent theatre and this year proved that, whether working within a minimalist or a realistic set, with one actor or a cast, she can always make powerful, significant stuff.

Finally, a special award for best comedy moment goes to a scene in a Pride Week production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The "hole" in The Wall through which lovers spy each other was, as Shakespeare likely intended, not made by finger and thumb at all but by the more obvious orifice. I still laugh to think of it.