Pure and Deep - reviewby James Wenley
written and directed by Toa Fraser
November 15, 2014
When we last saw Venus and Dave, she was a gym bunny reunited with her dying grandfather; he was a movie attendant applying for a job at Burger King. Their love affair was most memorable for their sexual encounter where he pretended to be James Bond and she encouraged him to “touch my quads”.
This was in Bare, the play Toa Fraser wrote aged 23 when he was finishing up his undergrad at Auckland Uni and was himself a movie attendant at Village 8 on Broadway. With follow-up Pure and Deep Fraser has done a Linklater. Venus and Dave are 16 year older, but perhaps not much wiser. She’s a yoga instructor searching for tranquility, he’s a transmedia guru recently returned from New Zealand to London searching for meaning.
The playwright is also 16 years older. It’s been a long time between theatre-foyer drinks for Fraser. Village 8 has become Event Cinemas Newmarket, currently screening Fraser’s own movie The Dead Lands. Bare was a break-out hit, the exciting debut of a young man flexing his talents and discovering his voice. Pure and Deep is wiser, or at least grasping for wisdom. The play is moody, sombre and darker than you might expect. Whereas Bare is an all-out celebration of Auckland, Pure and Deep is more critical of this place.
If you remember the original Bare, the revival in 2008, or the star-studded fundraiser for Christchurch at the Civic Theatre, you’ll be familiar with the form. While the publicity has focused on Venus and Dave, there is once again an eclectic array of character monologues performed by actors Ian Hughes (the original Dave) and Mia Blake (who featured in Fraser’s film No 2).
Tina from Bare also sneaks back in to begin the play and there are new characters too: Dead Lands/Vodafone star James Rolleston and Paul Henry’s giggle cameo via Hughes. Fraser’s a master of managing these voices; cinematic cuts have always been a feature of his theatre work. So too is his insightful ability to evoke the experiences of living in this city. When Dave reminiscences about taking Venus to the “bench above the Parnell pools”, he sits us down there too.
Venus and Dave’s connection is rekindled when Venus attends an Auckland TEDx conference that Dave presents at, and she tweets about it afterwards. In a brilliant stroke of meta-marketing, Dave (on Twitter, @D_immersion) did actually do a TEDx talk at the recent Auckland conference, and Venus (@VenusYoga) did actually tweet about it afterwards. In the programme, you can find Dave’s business card and Venus’ yoga flyer.
For those who have been following the Twitter-handles, this is the greatest transmedia campaign Auckland theatre has ever seen. When Toa Fraser tweeted the name of the play’s title, Venus replied saying that she hoped it was a “nature documentary”, causing Fraser to fret, “oh man I might have to change the title". When Fraser put his worry out to his followers, other (real) people suggested it meant something a little more adults-only.
Turns out the title neatly encapsulates (perhaps too neatly) the chief concerns in the play, as the characters struggle for clarity against the clutter of the 21st century. At a “Mt Raskil” poetry jam, Tina slams about likes, comments and social media overload: “what a f**king noise”. Dave in his transmedia talk suggests that the world has changed and has already entered a “post-digital era”. He says audiences are looking for stories that “go deeper” and have a “purity of expression”.
Fraser gives us characters obsessed with buzz-trends like cross-fit and advice that “sitting is the new smoking”. A recurring character is an international movie star infamous for taking a naked selfie. It all feels very of this moment. But Venus in Bare also wanted to get rid of the artificial stuff in her life. These are the same worries, in the new form of a mid-life slump. Venus offers one escape to all this, in yoga’s flow, where the “mind is free of the noise”.
Piha becomes another symbol for possible escape. Pure, beautiful, it’s the Piha of the lion rock and the café controversy (the locals just wanted a “nice latte”). There’s also a darker side. The presence of a Piha resident who complains about being punished for being poor, troubles the picture. An alternate Piha emerges where it’s hard in the winter, and the beach becomes haunted by people lost to its waves through shark attacks, drowning and suicide as escape.
So there’s troubled water in Pure and Deep, but it’s not all gloomy. While there’s nothing quite as iconic as Bare’s sex scene, Fraser gives us plenty of laughs, including a guffawing scene where Dave reels off all the sex positions he tried with a former partner, and there’s lots of fun to be had in Venus’ yoga class. While Hughes needs to rev up his character switches to keep up with the luminous Blake, the actors’ connection as Venus and Dave feels real and earned.
Like Bare, Pure and Deep doesn’t call out for much design work; the less the better, really. The work of John Verryt (set), Elizabeth Whiting (costumes) and Jeremy Fern (lighting) is functional, but also rather beautiful, particularly the warm glow cast on the finely finished wooden panels on the stage.
At the end of Bare Tina says, “that was my song”. Pure and Deep is a symphony. Fraser wants to talk about us, and the direction New Zealand is heading. He has serious things to say about the country’s masculinity, society and environment. Reflective and brilliant, he reminds us of what can make this place special, but also what can stop it from being so. In film and once again theatre, Fraser really is one of this country’s most important storytellers.
Until November 23.
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