The most irreverent arts festival round-up you’ll ever read

by Susannah Walker / 26 March, 2018
body Double

Body Double, performed by Karin McCracken, left, and Julia Croft. Photo/Tabitha Arthur.

A cheeky reveal of Metro’s Auckland Arts Festival 2018 highlights.

Most disturbing use of a chicken carcass: Body Double

Crikey. No one warned us about the chook – it wasn’t mentioned in the festival programme, or in Metro’s own preview of Body Double, which simply described the play as a fierce exploration of contemporary romance and desire, and acted like the debasing of a chicken carcass wasn’t even a thing.

So here we are, with a woman kneeling before us on stage, suggestively caressing a chook. After seizing one of the drumsticks in a vigorous simulation of jerking a guy off, she really gets down to business, running her fingers around the bum cavity before thrusting several fingers deep, deep, deeper inside. This is when you breathe a sigh of relief you’re not seeing this show with your parents.

The chook in question. Photo/Tabitha Arthur.

And there is more sighing – but not of relief – to come, as performers and co-creators (with director Eleanor Bishop) Julia Croft and Karin McCracken expose the absurdities of navigating sex and romance in the digital age as millennial heterosexual feminists. Of picking up men who want to play porn “in the background” while you fuck, of Tinder bros who assume – still! – that women want to be sent photos of their penises, of the emotional labour of educating men about consent. Of how much things have changed and how much they stay the same.

Using live cameras during a series of vignettes which draw on memoir, scientific research, romantic fiction and cheesy movies, Body Double is a timely commentary on some of the confusions of contemporary feminist experience, an insightful and at times earnest response (someone’s read a lot of Chris Kraus), both a wry laugh and a howl of rage.

Besides the chook, other highlights, in no particular order: a soundtrack heavy on Blondie’s Atomic; pubic hair poking out the sides of one performer’s togs-like body suit (a strangely heartening sight in an era when so many women expend so much time and money and suffering in the removal of their body hair); liberal and innovative use of whipped cream in a can to make points about all kinds of annoying sexist shit.

Most striking resemblance to a cult: Eru Dangerspiel

Perhaps you could blame our obsessive late-night viewing of Wild Wild Country (the new Netflix series about the Rajneesh cult) for matters a little bit culty currently being top of mind, but you also couldn’t deny the decidedly cultish look of the Eru Dangerspiel crew.

About 10 people filed on to stage at the start of this one-off show at the festival playground. Then came another 10, then another dozen or so, until the stage was crammed with musicians and singers, all wearing white (along with silly white hats, turbans and caftans, and a smattering of sequins).

Out front, percussionist and former Trinity Roots’ drummer Riki Gooch led his supergroup – everyone from Mara TK and Laughton Kora to Nathan Haines and Anna Coddington through a set of funk, soul, groove and weirdness like some mad conductor of a strange psychedelic choir. Also takes the Corey Hart award for most performers wearing sunglasses at night.

Alina Cojocaru in Akram Khan's Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo

Alina Cojocaru in Akram Khan's Giselle. Photo/Laurent Liotardo.

Best dancing with sticks: Akram Khan’s Giselle

As if the demands of dancing a classical ballet weren’t enough, some members of Giselle’s cast had to do it with long, thin sticks clenched between their teeth. “Dancing with sticks in their mouths!” snorted an audience member behind us on opening night. She seemed to be suggesting this sticks business was a load of old bollocks with no rationale behind it. We simply smiled in a superior fashion, because we knew better (but only because we had read in the programme that the bamboo canes carried by Giselle’s vengeful female ghosts represented weapons and the remnants of a pre-industrial past). And what fine dancing with sticks it was!

Exquisite technique was everywhere in this breath-stealing performance by the English National Ballet, for whom choreographer Akram Khan twisted the old tale of a woman wronged into a more modern conceit, with Giselle now a migrant garment worker and Albrecht, the lover who deceives her, from a wealthy family of landlords.

As striking as the sticks were the costumes. If you didn’t know Oscar winner Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) had designed them, you could be forgiven for thinking these ballerinas were born in the exquisitely simple pastel-hued gowns that rippled across their tiny bodies (because even poor factory workers get to be stylish in a ballet), while the outrageously lavish costumes of their evil overlords seemed to shimmer with menace.

Oh, the ambition of the thing: the elaborate “reimagining” of a classic ballet through the lens of globalisation and its imbalances of wealth, power and labour; the enormous, complex revolving set; the 50-plus performers on stage, accompanied by the APO. Compared with the scale of this production, dancing with a stick between your teeth would have been a doddle.

From Scratch. Photo/Stephen Langdon.

Largest number of plates spun simultaneously: From Scratch

Not that there were spinning plates in any other festival shows, as far as we know. “You had to be there, you can’t describe it,” said one audience member as he left Te Uru. But we’ll try.

Besides the plates – dozens of kitchen-variety ones, which whirled on the floor at the end of the show, creating a great bloody racket before spinning slowly into silence  there was a woman who resembled a human wind chime who turned round and round and round and round on the spot wearing a tinkling breastplate sort of thing. She was accompanied by layers of sound created by home-made musical instruments fashioned from simple everyday objects and given complicated names – the zitherum, the nundrum, the gong tree, the sprong.

Returning to live performance after a 15-year break from bashing lengths of PVC pipe with jandals to make melodic noise, From Scratch and founder Phil Dadson kicked off with rhythms on the rooftop before moving performers and audience progressively through several gallery rooms during the 90-minute show. Also takes the award for most complicated clapping sequence performed by four men while standing around a small square table.

The late Mahinārangi Tocker.

Most aroha in the room: Love Me As I Am

There were people there who loved Mahinārangi Tocker and people who only knew her in passing, people who loved her music, and others who only knew it in passing. What brought you to this show at the Town Hall didn’t matter – together we celebrated Mahinā and her music, 10 years after she died at 52 after a severe asthma attack.

Plenty of her musical admirers are acclaimed musicians in their own right, which meant the show was something of a star-studded tribute whose highlights included Nadia Reid, Don McGlashan, Charlotte Yates, Shona Laing, Anika Moa, and several songs performed by Tocker’s daughter and two of her sisters.

Funny, vulnerable, insightful, creative and prolific (Tocker wrote more than 1000 songs and poems), the show was also testament to a life lived on her own terms, and her courage in publicly fighting for gay rights and understanding of mental health issues in a less receptive time. As her friend and the show’s creative director Tama Waipara said, Tocker was “a bright, blazing light”. Love Me As I Am was a tribute not only to her music but to how much she was loved. You didn’t need to know her to be moved to tears.

The Naked Samoans Do Magic. Photo/John McDermott.

Biggest collective crack up: The Naked Samoans Do Magic

We giggled, we guffawed, we cracked up, we shrieked – certain audience members may even have screamed – with laughter. Twenty years after The Naked Samoans made their stage debut, the comedy troupe returned with a deeply silly caper involving a Ponsonby villa haunted by a creepy-looking white rabbit, a dead magician named Sionedini, a fast-changing set, a whole lot of tricks and a wand’s-wave of magic.

Starring Robbie Magasiva, on a break from his long-running role as a guard in Aussie prison drama Wentworth, Oscar Kightley (Hunt for the Wilderpeople et al) and fellow Nakeds Dave Fane, Mario Gaoa, Ia Heto Ah Hi and Shimpal Lelisi, the show was co-produced by The Conch, who in 2016 brought us Scribe’s life story in the extraordinary White Guitar. The boys behind Bro'Town and Sione's Wedding were hampered by a script which sagged in places and faded away at the end. But when it sparkled, it shone – it was playful and fun and sometimes that’s more than enough.

Jack Charles. Photo/Bindi Cole.

Most rewarding tale of personal redemption: Jack Charles V The Crown

Jack Charles is part of Australia’s Stolen Generation, forcibly taken by the state from his Aboriginal family as an infant. He grew up in a boys’ home, where he endured years of abuse, not knowing his culture or his people. Hardly surprising, then, that he later became a heroin addict, a prolific burglar and a jailhouse regular who also endured periods of homelessness.

Somehow the celebrated stage and screen actor, now 75, survived all of that to perform this one-man play about his life, an eclectic mix of archival video footage, court documents, monologue, pottery class and music, courtesy of his outstanding three-piece band. All this likeable little rogue wants now, he says, is to show that even hopeless cases like him can be reformed – and to look after his hopelessly drug-addicted elderly brother. Give that man a round of applause.

Cutest cat ears made out of human hair: Tank and The Bangas

Oh boy. Tank and The Bangas realllllly stretched our patience, keeping us waiting and waiting and waiting for nearly an hour for their set. “School night!” we screeched, to absolutely no avail. The problem was, we had already enjoyed a set by local lad Teeks, followed by soulful New York roots-pop-indie-infused native Emily King in her second magical AAF appearance – the drawcard of this triple bill as far as we were concerned.

Mildly curious about Tank and The Bangas’ “swagalicious, gumbo-flavoured grooves,” as they were described in the festival programme, we thought we may as well stick around for the New Orleans outfit’s first NZ appearance. It seemed, with the lights and the smoke machine and the build-up music, that Tank and co were trying to whip up some excitement about their set. Instead, it created a lengthy lull in the proceedings which just pissed us off.

When the six band members finally appeared, there was a sound problem, so they started the first song over. And then? And then everything was gloriously forgiven. Forgiven because they had extraordinary stage presence and energy and range and they were just so damn good and heaps of fun. Because their funky, jazzy, spoken-wordy theatrical set felt like a sweet celebration of simply being alive that made all of us leap to our feet and dance. And because charismatic lead singer Tarriona "Tank" Ball had fashioned her hair into an unmissable pair of cat ears. Really.

Yves Jacques in The Far Side of the Moon. Photo/Sophie Grenier.

Most magical, subtle, all-round beautiful thing: The Far Side of the Moon

A gently glowing jewel of a play, The Far Side of the Moon is a study in the power of restraint. Ostensibly a reflection on the 1960s space race between the Russians and Americans – a newly relevant relationship, albeit sans shuttles, thanks to Trump v Putin – it tells the story of grieving brothers Andre and Philippe and their oppositional views on the mysteries of the universe.

Both roles are played with sweet nuance and understatement by Canadian actor Yves Jacques, who also takes a turn as the siblings’ late mother in this one-man work by the celebrated Robert Lepage. Jacques is accompanied by strangely human-like marionettes, mirrors, a shapeshifting ironing board and technical wizardry which imbues the whole magic-carpet ride with beauty and quiet wonder. We loved every last thing about it.


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