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Reviews

Victory: Khachaturian & Prokofiev | Regional News

Victory: Khachaturian & Prokofiev

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra National Youth Orchestra, in association with the Adam Foundation

Conducted by: Tianyi Lu

Michael Fowler Centre, 5th Jul 2024

Reviewed by: Ruth Corkill

This year’s impressive performance from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra National Youth Orchestra, Te Tira Pūoro Rangatahi, marked the NYO’s 65th anniversary and was attended by a packed house.

The musicians of the NYO are selected annually from auditionees and meet in Wellington for one week of intensive rehearsals ahead of concerts in Wellington and Palmerston North. The musicians are all under the age of 25, and the scheme provides an invaluable opportunity to play in a full orchestra with professional conductors and soloists. They also receive mentoring from the musicians of the NZSO, many of whom were seen in attendance on Friday night. Conductor Tianyi Lu took time to acknowledge the hard work of the 85 young musicians, and the support of their families and music teachers.

The short rehearsal period and the fact that these musicians are not accustomed to playing together made the ambitious scale of the repertoire all the more impressive. The evening opened with the world premiere of Jessie Leov’s Speculations on a Rainbow. Leov is the 2024 National Youth Orchestra Composer-in-Residence and will soon be travelling to Princeton University to workshop with the Edward T. Cone Composition Institute. Speculations on a Rainbow is a response to the work of Aotearoa New Zealand visual artist Judy Millar, and shifts deftly between radiant and reflective moods.

Aram Khachaturian’s piano concerto featured acclaimed 14-year-old Aotearoa New Zealand pianist Shan Liu as the soloist. Liu gave a characteristically virtuosic performance, followed by a generous encore. The final work of the evening, Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, provided opportunities for each section to shine, and the orchestra achieved a remarkably unified sound. I would like to echo Liu in congratulating everyone involved with the NYO, especially the young musicians. It’s wonderful to see that the future of Aotearoa’s classical music is in such capable hands.

The Classical Style | Regional News

The Classical Style

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 6th Jul 2024

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

There is possibly no work from the classical period of music more generally known and loved by audiences than Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor. But in the early 19th century, it broke some conventions of the symphonic form, particularly in that the fourth movement is a choral movement. Taddei noted in his spoken introduction that the work was consequential, influencing the development of music significantly.

The opera composer, Verdi, considered that Beethoven did not write well for voices. And truly, I have heard performances where both soloists and choir strain to meet the demands of the work. But on this occasion, my greatest pleasure was the work of the Orpheus Choir; they were terrific. So were the soloists, Emma Pearson (soprano), Margaret Medlyn (alto), Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono (tenor), and Robert Tucker (bass). If I had a quibble about this performance, it would be that Taddei perhaps drove it a bit too fast, at the cost of some beauty of expression. The audience gave it rapturous applause.

The other two items in the concert were 20th-century works that are neoclassical in style. Prokofiev set out to write his Classical Symphony as he thought Haydn might have written a symphony if living in the 20th century. Tuneful, playful, bright, cheerful, elegant: it was a delight to hear. Full marks especially to the pairs of flutes and oboes that featured in the fourth movement. What a gift for those players.

The third work of the concert was a piano concerto composed by Germaine Tailleferre, the only female composer in Les Six, an early 20th-century grouping of French composers. I particularly enjoyed the cross rhythms between the piano and the orchestra in this work, across a variety of moods – jaunty, spiky, stately, and gentle. Pianist Somi Kim was very assured, delivering both delicacy and power.

Jeanne du Barry | Regional News

Jeanne du Barry

(M)

116 minutes

(3 ½ out of 5)

Reviewed by: Alessia Belsito-Riera

Screening as part of the French Film Festival, Jeanne du Barry tells the story of the famous courtesan. Though intricate and exquisite, it paints only a partial portrait of a complex and extraordinary human.

Directed by mononymous French actress and filmmaker Maïwenn, the 2023 film Jeanne du Barry lavishly and intimately captures Jeanne’s story. Each scene (production designer Angelo Zamparutti) is beautifully bedecked with the cake-like interiors of the Palace of Versailles, each costume (Jürgen Doering) poised like the most decadent of desserts. Maïwenn harnesses Jeanne’s unconforming air in a performance that is both poised and cheeky. Contrary to popular opinion, I think her chemistry with Johnny Depp’s ageing King Louis XV is tender and emotionally charged. Any sex scenes are spared and left to the imagination of the audience, allowing intimacy to take on a different, less carnal, and distinctly European form, deepening the connection between the monarchical match.

After watching the movie, I too, like the king of France, was besotted by Jeanne. A pants-wearing, powerful woman from the 1700s who refused to lower her gaze sounds like a feminist icon from a fairytale. However, upon further investigation I realised the film portrays an idealised version of Madame du Barry. Neither her social influence nor her more political actions were touched on. I feel that by capturing her wholly, her shortcomings and her strengths, rather than as either a victim like in the film or a conniving and calculating courtesan like in many history books, Jeanne could have been more humanised, and her legacy honoured better.

Jeanne was a woman of duality. Maïwenn refers to her as a “magnificent loser”, while her contemporaries called her a silly creature. She spent lavishly in a time of political turmoil, but in doing so supported the arts and intellectuals. She made a name for herself, taking the future into her own hands, but potentially and unwittingly inciting the French Revolution in the process. She walked a fine line, where every action had its equal opposite reaction. She, like all of us, was flawed, complex, and inherently contradictory. For this she was beautifully human. She was herself, in an era of conformity, against all odds.

I recommend this enchanting drama, but suggest you get to know Jeanne du Barry for yourself first.

Heartbreak Hotel | Regional News

Heartbreak Hotel

Written by: Karin McCracken

Directed by: Eleanor Bishop

BATS Theatre, 18th Jun 2024

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Well, since my baby left me… I found a new hormone hell. At least I think that’s what Elvis said.  

Created by EBKM (Yes Yes Yes, Gravity & Grace), Heartbreak Hotel infuses scientific facts with gut-wrenching personal anecdotes to examine what actually happens to our bodies when we’re heartbroken. Karin McCracken stands at the centre of this production, playing a woman in the eye of the storm of a painful breakup. Her ex-boyfriend is played by Simon Leary, who takes on multiple additional roles as Everyone Else, including her doctor, new and unpromising love interest, and gay best friend. Leary’s rockin’ and rollin’ performance of the latter is a show highlight.

I have taken liberties to best describe Heartbreak Hotel by breaking it into three segments, which I’ve called Facts, Songs, and Recollections for ease of reference. In Facts, McCracken delivers scientific, TED Talk-like lectures directly to the audience, her synth behind her, gently humming its pre-programmed tracks (exceptional sound design by Te Aihe Butler). In Songs, McCracken stands at her synth, accompanying herself on this newly learned instrument. Here, she chats – more informally, more personably – with the audience and sings reimagined breakup tracks like I Can’t Make You Love Me. In Recollections, she and Leary enact past encounters, not in chronological order, that together tell the story of the breakup and its aftermath. As the show goes on, these segments become less distinct as the waveforms between them fuzz and distort. Polyphonic overlap, if you will.

I find Facts endlessly fascinating; Songs funny, tender, and well performed; and Recollections both relatable and devastating, particularly in the hands of these gifted actors. The breakup and prelude scenes are incredibly written, wrought with language that speaks a thousand words a sentence and builds a complete picture of a six-year relationship in a mere handful of pages. This is where I caught myself shedding a tear or three.

Filament Eleven 11’s production design sees fluffy pink carpet underfoot and striking LED lights running across the sides and back of the stage. These are cleverly utilised but directly facing the audience, which makes them too bright at times. Equally, the sound levels sometimes result in jarring bursts of ear-splitting club music. These technical hiccups aside, what a show! Heartbreak Hotel will break your heart and comfort it in equal measure, letting you know you’re not alone as you learn, laugh, and just maybe, dare to love again.

The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan | Regional News

The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan

(M)

121 minutes

(4 out of 5)

Reviewed by: Alessia Belsito-Riera

Oui, oui, c’est magnifique! Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel The Three Musketeers has been brought to life anew in this rambunctious and rollicking romp across the big screen. What’s more, the journey does not end when the credits roll on The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan, because part two – The Three Musketeers: Milady – is also screening across the region as part of the 2024 French Film Festival.

In its first French cinematic treatment in over 30 years, The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan rivals the already impressive ranks of film renditions. Set in the early 1600s, the battle begins with increasing tension between the ruling Catholics – helmed by King Louis XIII (Louis Garrel) and the power-hungry Cardinal de Richelieu (Eric Ruf) – and the rebellious Protestants. The spirited young swordsman Charles D’Artagnan (François Civil) dreams of joining the king’s elite swordsmen known as the Musketeers. Narrowly escaping death on multiple occasions but plunging headfirst into a deep-seated scheme and the fangs of Milady de Winter (Eva Green), D’Artagnan befriends three of the most formidable Musketeers: Athos (Vincent Cassel), Porthos (Pio Marmaï), and Aramis (Romain Duris). Soon he will find himself at the heart of a royal conspiracy upon which hinges the fate of the entire kingdom.

It’s no wonder this was France’s highest-grossing film of 2023. The script? Génial. The sets? Magnifique. The costumes? Trés chic. The performances? Éclatant! Director Martin Bourboulon’s extravagant €70 million production cuts no corners when it comes to depicting lavish courts or swashbuckling battles, but at the same time does not compromise on either subtleties in dialogue or nuances in performances. In fact, the film strikes the perfect balance between the robust ebullience of a Hollywood blockbuster and the delicate subtlety of a French arthouse picture.

The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan advances first with intrigue, parrying with romance and using humour as a feint, before delivering a final blow through unrestrained and exceptionally choreographed action. Dumas’ sharp text slices through The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan, with contemporary touches slashing across the screen to formulate a perfectly coordinated attack au fer. Strike while you can, and allez to The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan!

FWB: Friends with Boundaries | Regional News

FWB: Friends with Boundaries

Written by: Regan Taylor and Leona Revell

Directed by: Lizzie Tollemache

BATS Theatre, 11th Jun 2024

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Leona Revell is an improv legend from Palmerston North. Regan Taylor is one of The Māori Sidesteps who, surprisingly, has never been on Shortland Street. The newly single 40-somethings had never met… until they swiped right on each other. Before their first date, though, they each accumulated some truly heinous dating stories thanks to the infamous platform that is Tinder.

In FWB: Friends with Boundaries, Revell and Taylor share these encounters in extreme, explicit, exquisite detail. There’s the usual: fake profiles, men proudly displaying the deer they’ve slaughtered, unsolicited pics, and the like. Then there’s the specific, like Lycra-clad cyclists who finish the race in record time, and men with little to no understanding of a woman’s anatomy. No, nothing is “geometric” down there.

And then there’s the deeply personal. In contrast with the rest of the wild romps recounted, Revell and Taylor provide honest and brave glimpses into their past relationships and trauma. The script is perfectly devised – no doubt with support from director and dramaturg Lizzie Tollemache – to incorporate these stories at just the right moments, providing pathos, then comic relief when it is needed most. A more muted, gentler delivery of these vulnerable moments of direct address would imbue FWB with even more emotional resonance.

However, the heightened performance style is hysterically funny when the gifted actors, who sizzle with chemistry on stage, physically reenact their past encounters. With a glint in his eye and an innate sense of comic timing, Taylor gets some of the biggest laughs of the night just from throwaway, unassuming lines thanks to his chef’s-kiss delivery. Revell’s improv background shines through in her charisma and confidence on stage.

Stellar production design decisions made by the ensemble include the use of two suspended frames behind which the performers enact outrageous Tinder profiles, plus a banging playlist featuring a lot of Spice Girls (hallelujah), adding yet more thrill to this rowdy roller coaster ride. Put it all together and you have a production that is at once hilarious and heartfelt, titillating and tender.

I Carried This | Regional News

I Carried This

Written by: Nicola Pauling

Directed by: Jacqueline Coats

Hannah Playhouse, 5th Jun 2024

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

Verbatim or documentary theatre, in which the dialogue is drawn directly from interviews with real people, is a powerful medium for telling unknown or forgotten stories. I Carried This illuminates the harsh adoption processes of the 1950s and 60s and their lifelong impact on the young, unmarried mothers who were often coerced to give up their babies. Interviews with several women have been distilled into five dramatic accounts of the grief, loss, anger, and guilt felt by this generation of New Zealand mothers for whom the ripple effects of their past are still in motion.

These women’s stories are told on a spare stage of white cloth hangings with a shallow set of steps and two moveable set pieces, a bar with two stools and a bassinet. These are employed beautifully to inform the movements of three accomplished actors, Wise (Hilary Norris), Middle (playwright Nicola Pauling), and Young (Mycah Keall), representing the seasons of the women’s lives. The lines are split between the three, who work expertly and seamlessly together to form a coherent and unified whole.

The actors not only voice the women themselves but also the men in their lives and the judgemental parents who sent their daughters away to farms or homes for unmarried mothers. The voices of the adoption agencies are represented by a recorded male voice (Regan Taylor). This creative device cleverly divorces the cold institutional tones of authority from the warm passions of these very real women.

As well as internalising the heart-rending loss of their babies, all the women experience some form of contact with their grown-up children. These stories are in some ways more poignant than the beginnings of their journeys as they grapple with expectations met or variously challenged.

I Carried This is a compelling and affecting record of a period in time that seems almost unbelievable now and of the women whose lives continue to be buffeted by the waves of past choices and their consequences.

Confessions of a Sleepwalking Insomniac | Regional News

Confessions of a Sleepwalking Insomniac

Written by: Helen Vivienne Fletcher

Directed by: Emma Katene

BATS Theatre, 5th June 2024

Reviewed by: Stanford Reynolds

Based on playwright Helen Vivienne Fletcher’s own experiences, Confessions of a Sleepwalking Insomniac is a solo show about the challenges of living with parasomnia, a sleep disorder involving sleepwalking and night terrors. The character Briar, played by Pauline Ward, lives with this condition and is now also juggling a new relationship, a sick mother, and her best friend living on the other side of the world.

Ward uses excellent physicality to depict what Briar is going through. Dreams and nightmares are presented as palpably real as she somersaults across the stage, her sleeping mind consumed by visions. One particularly distressing scene shows Briar on the floor, panicking as she is unable to move, and Ward’s thoroughly convincing depiction of this moment is evocative and heartbreaking. At times Ward’s narration of the story is a little rushed, the character’s frenzy in relating her experiences losing some of the intent behind the lines, perhaps needing clearer demarcation between ideas to get them across. Similarly, the delivery of humorous moments in the script doesn’t initially engage the audience. However, as the performance continues, Ward’s interactivity is so compelling that her pleading and questioning elicits audible responses from the audience, who are gripped by the emotions of the character.

Mention must be made of the excellent sound design by director Emma Katene, as the tightly cued soundscapes add texture and believability to the events happening on stage. The boxes that make up the set are unified by a pastel palette, and colourful lighting (design by Kate Anderson) is also used effectively to accentuate changes between dream, nightmare, and the different characters that Ward embodies.

I highly recommend Confessions of a Sleepwalking Insomniac, a powerful play that provides a window into understanding the life of someone who experiences a sleeping disorder. The story is moving and imparts great insight. An excellent variety of accessible performances in the show’s season are also available.

Femme Natale: The Queen Years | Regional News

Femme Natale: The Queen Years

Directed by: Fingal Pollock

BATS Theatre, 30th May 2024

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

What happens after happily ever after? This is the question posed by Femme Natale: The Queen Years and the answer is an R18, mirth-filled catalogue of the woes of child-rearing and sex after 40. It’s co-written and performed by a talented cast of director Fingal Pollock, April Phillips, Jeremy Nelson, Tracey Savage, and Piers Gilbertson. Special guest Megan Connolly greets us when we enter the auditorium as a yawning and grumpy sanitary pad (used) handing out programmes.

A series of short sketches, the production jumps from patronising and competitive soccer mums with kids called Jupiter and Monty to a clever reverse wedding in which the vows become the tenets of divorce, a medieval version of parental angst over technology, a poetically frustrated flight attendant dispensing tea and coffee, and songs about online dating, head lice, and a joyous lack of parental guilt and regret.

Having had more than my fair share of mammograms, I got a big laugh out of the excitable mammary pair (Phillips and Savage) getting their first breast test and squeezing as many boob jokes out of it as possible. The desperate vulva (Phillips) who appears as an interlude between sketches becomes progressively more hilarious as she cavorts with a multi-function pink vibrator (Gilbertson) towards a spectacular climax to the disappointment of her husband’s real, but sadly less performative, genitals (Nelson). Guest writer Pinky Agnew’s contribution delivers one of the funniest sketches of the night in which a grandchild-obsessed nanna peddles plastic toys, Nerf guns, and sugar.

All the performers take on their varying roles with gusto and a complete lack of shame. They are clearly channelling elements of their personal experiences and having a great time doing it. Supported by an effective lighting design (Malcolm Gillett, who also co-wrote a sketch) and some choice music, this is a highly entertaining hour of fun for those post-40 or for younger ones yearning to know what they have (not) to look forward to.