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Style and Substance | Regional News

Style and Substance

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Gemma New

Michael Fowler Centre, 6th Aug 2022

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Part two of the three-concert series featuring violinist Hilary Hahn lived up to its Style and Substance title. A combination of the substantial Violin Concerto in D major, Op.77 by Johannes Brahms and the very well-balanced and expert performances of Hahn and the NZSO made for a stylish rendition of a favourite and familiar piece. Hahn’s clarity and expression were matched by the full and satisfying sound produced by the orchestra. Hahn’s playing was exquisite and so impressed the audience, many broke into applause after only the first movement. Although a concerto for violin, Brahms wrote equally demanding passages for the orchestra and the NZSO proved more than equal to the challenge.

Tabea Squire’s Variations were a great treat. Ordinarily the theme is stated up front and followed by the composer’s variations on said theme. Squire turned the form on its head and gave us the end at the beginning. The variations were a series of wonderfully modern and complex interpretations of the 14th century pavane theme. We were cleverly led back there by some fine and very enjoyable playing of interesting orchestration. This was a very smart piece of music.

I had high hopes for John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony. Drawn from his opera of the same name, the symphony aimed to tell the story of the development of the first atomic bomb in Los Alamos – the incredibly destructive power conceived by scientists under the leadership of Robert Oppenheimer, who was terribly conflicted by the apocalyptic potential he had created. I suspect Doctor Atomic makes a better opera than symphony. Although there were some prominent solo passages, all played excellently with the brass enjoying the best opportunities to shine, the narrative was missing something and that was most likely the opera. Without a human voice, the symphonic form seemed to lack something of the emotional impact of the real story.

Apartment | Regional News

Apartment

Written by: Tama Smith

Directed by: Tama Smith and Belinda Campbell

Gryphon Theatre, 3rd Aug 2022

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

Set in April 2020 during the first nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, Apartment centres on a disparate group of tenants in a Wellington apartment block as they negotiate life, relationships, and work during an unprecedented period of social isolation.

After a rather slow start with three lengthy monologues, the pace, energy, and humour kick in when young supermarket worker Hendric (a charming Austin Harrison) catches a ride home with Uber driver Ben (Tim Gruar). A shoutout here to whoever built Ben’s car, which was the highlight of a clever, multi-level set design (Tama Smith), excellently and effectively lit by Scott Maxim.

From there, the various characters talk to each other or directly to the audience about their experiences of the pandemic. Particularly touching is nurse Marissa (Helen Jones) who trudges exhaustedly between home and work and receives disturbing voice messages from the UK where her elderly mother is gravely ill with the virus.

Apartment bills itself as “A play about us, two years ago” and that is exactly what it delivers. However, I would have been more interested in a less literal take on this concept given we’re still well inside the pandemic and a good chunk of the audience was wearing masks, unlike the actors in the supermarket scenes who oddly weren’t.

The play shines brightest in the scenes of absurdist humour, such as Adele (Lucy Fulford) venturing to the supermarket in ridiculous homemade PPE to sort out the delivery failure of her online shopping order, and her and Hendric meeting unmasked in the apartment block elevator.

At almost 90 minutes, Apartment is long for a one-act play. More character development and funny moments would turn this into a successful full-length play that allows for a toilet break and more time to reflect on the themes being canvassed.

All power to Smith, co-director Belinda Campbell, and their cast and crew for taking on these themes and to Wellington Repertory Theatre for taking a punt on a new work.

Cinderella | Regional News

Cinderella

Presented by: Royal New Zealand Ballet

St James Theatre, 3rd Aug 2022

Reviewed by: Leah Maclean

The Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB) makes a long-awaited return to the St James Theatre with the Ryman Healthcare Season of Cinderella. Choreographed by Loughlan Prior, with music by Claire Cowan and costuming by Emma Kingsbury, this ballet is ambitious with shades of a Baz Luhrmann epic.

Prior and his cohort of co-creators have taken the traditional Cinderella story and given it a modern twist. It explores the familiar plotline of navigating love and the social constructs that come with it, but in this iteration Prince Charming and Cinderella are not the power couple. Instead they are forging separate relationships, Cinderella with The Royal Messenger and Prince Charming with a prince from a neighbouring kingdom. Perhaps Prior and RNZB have taken a gamble with this interpretation for ‘traditional’ ballet audiences, but it absolutely works and is a welcome shift into the contemporary space.

Cinderella is danced deftly by the ever-graceful Mayu Tanigaito, while Prince Charming is performed by Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson, who demonstrates tight technique and balletic discipline. Laurynas Vėjalis and Shae Berney are cast as the love interests, Vėjalis as The Royal Messenger and Berney as Prince Dashing. Both prove excellent partners to Tanigaito and Guillemot-Rodgerson. Entwining and connecting through ethereal choreography, the pas de deux between Guillemot-Rodgerson and Berney are particularly touching. Prior’s artistry and sensitivity shines brightest in these duet sequences.

There is a lot to absorb throughout the performance. Orchestra Wellington performs Claire Cowan’s dynamic composition with panache; however, there are times where the symphony overwhelms the dance, and I miss key moments of magic trying to study Emma Kingsbury’s elegant costuming. But I have never sat in a ballet audience that has whooped and hollered quite like Cinderella’s audience.

There is beautiful synergy between the dancers on the stage, who look like they are genuinely having fun – although some seem to struggle with the more choreographically loose scenes. It’s not easy to ask a ballet dancer to fall over on purpose. Prior’s retelling of the classic tale holds you captive and breathes fresh air with clever comedic marks and energetic, modernised choreography.

The Phantom of the Open  | Regional News

The Phantom of the Open

(PG-13)

106 mins

(3 ½ out of 5)

Reviewed by: Harry Bartle

One of the best feel-good films in a long time, The Phantom of the Open is a cheerful crowd-pleaser for the whole family. A comedy/drama that strays a bit far from the true story it is based on, it remains a worthy watch thanks to some great performances and its emphasis on fortitude, family, love, and of course, golf.

The Phantom of the Open tells the true story of Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance), a dreamer and unrelenting optimist. Despite never playing a round of golf in his life, the 47-year-old crane operator from Barrow-in-Furness managed to gain entry to The British Open Golf Championship qualifying in 1976. He quickly became a folk hero and, more importantly, showed his family the importance of pursuing your dreams.

Rylance delivers a fabulous performance as our unlikely hero, using his Oscar-winning talents to provide an authentic representation of Flitcroft. From his amusing mannerisms through to his familiar stutter and phrases, the role seems tailor made for Rylance. Playing Flitcroft’s ever-sweet and supportive wife Jean Flitcroft, Sally Hawkins does a great job balancing the hilarious and sentimental moments. This balance is also a strength of the film itself. Flitcroft’s antics on the course leave you chuckling while his oldest son’s (Jake Davies) inability to believe in his father is frustrating. This all comes to a climax in an emotional and uplifting finale where you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Was there anything new in The Phantom of the Open? No, not really. It follows a very similar arc to other uplifting feel goods such as Eddie the Eagle and it also could have investigated why exactly the crane operator had a sudden ambition to take up the sport a bit more. As well as this, some significant alterations have also been made to the story, making for a slightly looser adaptation of the Maurice Flitcroft tale than some would have hoped.

At its core, The Phantom of the Open is a touching film filled with solid laughs that encourage viewers to never give up on their dreams. It isn’t quite worth my standing ovation, but I definitely walked away with a smile on my face.

Girl From the North Country | Regional News

Girl From the North Country

Written by: Conor McPherson

Music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

Directed by: Conor McPherson

The Opera House, 23rd Jul 2022

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Girl From the North Country weaves more than 20 Bob Dylan songs into the lives of 13 wayward souls living through the Great Depression in Minnesota, 1934. Nick Laine (Peter Kowitz) and his wife Elizabeth (Lisa McCune), who suffers from dementia, their alcoholic son Gene (James Smith), and their adopted, pregnant daughter Marianne (Chemon Theys) live in an old guesthouse. Characters from all walks of life wander through: the formerly wealthy Mr and Mrs Burke (Greg Stone and Helen Dallimore) and their son Elias (Blake Erickson), who has a cognitive disability; the widow Mrs Neilsen (Christina O’Neill); the corrupt Reverend Marlowe (Grant Piro); and a young boxer by the name of Joe Scott (Elijah Williams). Narrating the crossroads and intersections of their lives is the Laine family physician, Dr Walker (Terence Crawford).

With so many characters to factor in, some storylines aren’t revisited and don’t resolve – like an instance of blackmail against Mr Burke and the ill-fated love of childhood sweethearts Jean and Katherine Draper (Elizabeth Hay). Nevertheless, I’m invested in everyone onstage. Some characters I hate, like the predatory Mr Perry (the oft-hilarious Peter Carroll), while some I love – especially Elizabeth thanks to McCune’s brilliant comedic timing and vocally unbelievable performance of Like a Rolling Stone.

Vocally unbelievable suitably sums up the entire cast and ensemble. Theys’ Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love?), Williams’ Slow Train, and O’Neill’s Pressing On leave me shaking my head in disbelief, while Erickson’s Duquesne Whistle is both shocking and phenomenal.

The production strikes an interesting balance between the over-the-top stage theatrics that come with a show of this scale, juxtaposed against a neutral, grubby palette and of course, the pensive poetry in motion of the great Bob Dylan. This results in moments of softness and stillness that I often crave but rarely get from a big Broadway musical.

Girl From the North Country paints a deeply affecting portrait of loss, hardship, and resolution – humanity’s innate capacity to persist, survive, against bleak odds. I’ll remember it for years and years to come.

The July Project | Regional News

The July Project

Presented by: WITCH Music Theatre

Directed by: Greta Casey-Solly with musical direction by Hayden Taylor

Te Auaha, 16th Jul 2022

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

The July Project is a theatrical concert performed by a cast of 14, many of whom play instruments, and an excellent band of four – conductor Hayden Taylor (keys), Bec Watson (percussion), Steve ‘Shack’ Morrison (guitar), and Logan Hunt (violin). While some songs are softer and sweeter than other rowdier ones, they’re all big, with a large portion of the setlist comprising musicals like Waitress, Into the Woods, and Songs for a New World.

The two pieces from Groundhog Day: The Musical are among my favourites for their comedy. Aimée Sullivan gives a masterful performance of One Day, while Stuck, featuring a large ensemble centred on Jackson Burling, has the audience laughing out loud – and loudly at that. Third up on the bill, Stuck is where The July Project starts to really shine.  

The setlist order means sometimes the energy is brought up by a raucous number like Hundred Days performed by Aine Gallagher and William Duignan, the memory of which still brings a grin to my face as it circles around my head, only for a power ballad to swoop in (Jade Merematira’s unbelievable My Future) just when the audience is getting ready to boogie in their seats. That same juxtaposition plays out earlier in the electric Over and Done With, followed by Cailin Penrose and Ben Emerson’s Simple and True, which envelops me in whole-body chills. ‘Scuse me while I pick my jaw up off the floor. On that note, a special mention to the te reo rendition of Don’t Dream It’s Over by Merematira, Burling, and Mia Alonso-Green for the shivers it shoots up my spine.

There’s a 70s aesthetic I don’t quite understand (although it makes for a colourful picture), nor am I clear on the theme or what ties the songs together. But ultimately, this is all small fish for a show that makes us feel part of something special, where a radiant cast fizzes with genuine camaraderie and more talent than you could slap a banjo at. Thanks to WITCH Music Theatre for an utterly joyful experience.

Wonderkind | Regional News

Wonderkind

Created by: Timothy Fraser, Emma Rattenbury, Ana Lorite, and Kerryn Palmer

Directed by: Kerryn Palmer

Circa Theatre, 9th Jul 2022

Reviewed by: Tania Du Toit

A magical way to kickstart the school holidays is to go see Wonderkind! Tim (Timothy Fraser) and Em (Emma Rattenbury) take you on a magical journey exploring the deep oceans, the hot savannah plains, and even the abyss of space – all while remaining in one room. Their friendship and imaginations inspire their young audience to join them on their adventure, which excites the children and parents alike.

The play emphasises visual and sound effects that can be understood by various age groups. The sound effects and music by composer and sound designer Craig Senglelow are on cue with the lighting (AV and lighting design by Sean Coyle), enhancing the different scenes. The well-executed combination of the lights and music transports you to where the characters are, taking you to the imaginary world that Tim and Em envision. The props really surprise you at how simple, everyday objects can be anything you want them to be.

Puppet designer and performer Ana Lorite is brilliant. The puppets are so well designed and portrayed that you barely notice her in the background. They really enhance the imaginary worlds and have the children laughing at their silliness. The shadow puppets give a different visual effect to the physical puppets, adding mystery and flow to the many environments that are explored.

Along with the other children, my three-year-old son was excited and captivated throughout the whole show, giggling away and commenting on all the wonderful discoveries in the play. He loved the puppets and was in awe of the light show that changed with the different scenes. The performers kept him and others engaged and involved with interaction. I asked him what his favourite part of Wonderkind was and he commented that he loved the animals, the planets, the music, and the dancing – so our overall experience is that it is definitely worth a watch.

Come Together – Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours | Regional News

Come Together – Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours

The Opera House, 7th Jul 2022

Reviewed by: Graeme King 

When Julia Deans wandered on stage and announced that she had the “first-gig jitters”, the almost full Opera House audience erupted with laughter, and the tone was set for a night of fun and partying Wellington-style!

Rumours is one of the best-selling albums of all time, but this concert was of two halves. The first combined the early blues-driven Peter Green-led Fleetwood Mac, as well as the biggest singles from their other albums. 

Brett Adams’ eerily bird-like slide guitar was a clever intro to the soothingly beautiful instrumental Albatross also featuring the second guitarist and MD Jol Mulholland. Black Magic Woman featured the charismatic and talented Laughton Kora on vocals and extra guitar.

Then it was the women’s turn: first up it was Mel Parsons channelling Christine McVie with Little Lies, then Dianne Swann with Landslide and Deans following with Gypsy – each dressed in Stevie Nicks’ impeccably iconic fashion style. Initially there was the odd wrong note, but these artists owned them, and with the interplay were having so much fun between themselves that it was infectious! 

The format of switching eras was a masterstroke – it meant that we got Peter Green’s Man of the World (Adams), the bluesy Stop Messin’ Round (Kora), and Need Your Love So Bad (Mulholland) interspersed with Seven Wonders (Deans), Rhiannon (Swann), Say You Love Me (Parsons), and Sara (Deans). Big Love, featuring Kora’s dynamic vocal range and Adams’ and Mulholland’s breathtaking acoustic guitars was a highlight, rousing the biggest applause of the first half. 

For the second half it was yet another costume change for the ladies, with Deans quipping that, with this being the first of three concerts in a row, the audience were “testing the outfit changes”, and that “the men just change their guitars”!

Then it was the whole album of Rumours in order, from Second Hand News through to Gold Dust Woman. Never Going Back Again had Kora joking that he “wished he could play it”, to which Mulholland wittily replied, “I got you bro!”

It was a surprise when Matthias Jordan abandoned his keyboard duties to join the performers centre stage, saying that “they’ve let me off my leash” to take lead vocals for Go Your Own Way – but not before pointing out his family members in the audience! 

Deans was next with an achingly beautiful and spellbinding version of Songbird, including an outstanding piano intro by Jordan.

The Chain featured the superlative bass of Mike Hall and the searingly gorgeous harmonies of all three women, and it was breathtaking – they were now relaxed, in total control, and well engaged with the audience.

First up for the two encores, Oh Well featured the blistering guitar and vocals of Adams, which led straight into the last song Tusk. This showcased the finesse and very solid drumming of Alistair Deverick, and by this time most of the audience was either up dancing at their seats, in the aisles, or at the front of the stage. 

Liberty Stage have to be congratulated for bringing another stellar concert in the Come Together series, featuring some of New Zealand’s top singers and musicians performing much-loved classic albums to a very appreciative audience.

 

The Stasi Poetry Circle | Regional News

The Stasi Poetry Circle

Written by: Philip Oltermann

Faber & Faber

Reviewed by: Margaret Austin

No, the title of this book is not a joke! But can you think of a greater incongruity than that between members of the Stasi – East Germany’s secret police of the 1980s – and an interest in lyric poetry? Or does that question expose my ignorance of the cultural climate of the times and the German fanatical attachment to all such things?

To say that this book was a revelation – albeit an uncomfortable one – is an understatement. Author Philip Oltermann spent five years rifling through Stasi files, digging up lost volumes of poetry, and tracking down surviving members of this Red poet’s society to uncover the little-known story of the famously ruthless intelligence agency’s obsession with literature.

Why had the Stasi set up such a thing as “the working circle of writing Chekists”? Oltermann’s interviewees provide a range of answers, all of which make for fascinating reading. The group’s leader, “the thin man with the thick glasses”, was Uwe Berger, a man of reputedly “monkish asceticism” who had somehow avoided becoming a political tool, and instead used his role as poetry tutor to carry out a “personal mission as a living link to Germany’s darkest hour”.

One of the poems that made it into the Red booklet was called Come. It consisted of an appeal for honesty and comradeship, yet contained the lines “Come…but not just to complain / because then / You had better not come at all”.

Germany’s descent into a paranoid culture war is well charted. Were writers indeed embedding subversive ideas in their work? Annegret Gollin, a young woman who could be described as non-conformist, was ultimately arrested, and her poems seized. During interrogation, she was asked to explain and interpret her own poems!

Oltermann has employed literary terms as chapter headings. Some, such as sonnet, metaphor, and persona would be familiar to readers. Less familiar though would be consonance, bathos, and dissonance. Each title introduces content bearing on the author’s remarkable account.

Weaponising poetry – who would have thought it? Only the Stasi surely – or am I being naïve?