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Something in the Eyre

Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre was undoubtedly the most polished of the four local theatre productions included in the Otago Festival of the Arts.

Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre was undoubtedly the most polished of the four local theatre productions included in the Otago Festival of the Arts. We saw Laura Hill, in a decisive departure from Toni off Shortland Street, bring a perfect blend of ethereality and barely repressed sensuality to the lead role. Anna Henare, in a decisive departure from Detective Inspector Wade off Shortland Street, flung herself like a possessive demon into the form of Bertha, the woman in the attic. In Polly Teale's adaptation of the classic novel, Bertha can also be taken for Jane's passionate self, whom she confines during her childhood, so kudos to Henare for that interpretation, too.

And Mr Rochester? Alas, how quickly forgettable performances are forgotten, but memorable were Sia Trokenheim as a charming and amusing Adèle and Malcolm Murray as a pleased-with-himself Robert Brocklehurst.

Set, costumes (Victorian yet practical!), lighting and sound were skilfully designed in-house at the Fortune and contributed a gothic aura to this riveting production.

That said, it is doubtful to include Jane Eyre in a review of Otago theatre. It was a British play directed by someone from up north and featuring nary a south-dwelling actor in a cast of eight. And yet, of the shows covered here, Jane Eyre will have easily benefited the most from local arts funding - quite possibly at the expense of the others, all of which needed further development.

Not an auspicious way to introduce Emily Duncan's Palliative Care, which premiered at the Globe, though it was just a workshop away from a satisfying play.

Set in Alexandra in the 1990s, it tells of a family distorted, if not quite rendered dysfunctional, by distance and alcohol dependency. Ron (Chris Horlock), the patriarch, is undergoing palliative care for chronic physical pain, while the vaguely Chekhovian characters visiting him spend their time palliating their own emotional pains and/or caring for him.

One of the work's strengths is Duncan's flair for credible yet original dialogue. On chewing gum, for example: "It used to taste like spearmint but now it tastes like a tyre."

One of its main weaknesses is the sense of mistiming, in terms of dramatic trajectory, that accompanies the sudden death of one of the young characters.

This production was well directed by Richard Huber, who emphasised spatially the emotional distance between people, and well performed by a confident and talented ensemble.

With Things I Hate About Mother, playwright Sarah McDougall again displayed the restlessness of her pen, also witnessed in last year's Hairway to Heaven.

While brief encounters with concisely defined characters were justified in the latter work, which was set in a salon, Things I Hate intersperses random monologues by or about mothers with a light central plot in which mother Olive sits down to dinner with her adult son James. Initially, I thought the peripheral characters were the ghosts of Olive's gossip and therein found their cues, but it turned out they were unrelated either to each other or to the dining pair.

Lack of cohesion aside, Things I Hate featured frequently funny dialogue, handled expertly by the likes of Hilary Norris and William Arthur McDougall, who played a couple of the compact characters I wanted to see in their own full-length plays, including a disarmingly self-aware depressive on the benefit.

This show, too, was well directed, Julie Edwards having transformed the sterile environment of a Dunedin Public Art Gallery lecture room into a slice of New Zealand through the addition of flax bushes and a washing line that ringed the traverse set.

The Cape, a Kiwi road-trip play by Vivienne Plumb, left me cold. It has divided opinion since first being staged last year, and I have to put my bean in the "No" column of that particular poll. In the production at the Playhouse, the young actors showed some promise but too often seemed self-conscious, perhaps struggling to identify with the improbable teens they portrayed.

JANE EYRE, adapted by Polly Teale, directed by David Lawrence; PALLIATIVE CARE, by Emily Duncan, directed by Richard Huber; THINGS I HATE ABOUT MOTHER, by Sarah McDougall, directed by Julie Edwards; THE CAPE (until October 25), by Vivienne Plumb, directed by Simon O'Connor; Otago Festival of the Arts, Dunedin, October 3-12.