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Birthday Book of Storms | Regional News

Birthday Book of Storms

Written by: R. Johns

Directed by: Jaime G. Dörner

Hannah Playhouse, 2nd Aug 2023

Reviewed by: Zac Fitzgibbon

There’s an ominous feeling when you walk into the Hannah Playhouse theatre, as Robin Kakolyris (Girl) stares out to the audience ­– a feeling much akin to the anticipation of a storm. What follows is a hurricane of poetry, heartbreak, and love so tumultuous that even as I am writing this review, I can barely do such tragedy justice. Birthday Book of Storms explores the many faces of the inextricably linked writers Sylvia Plath (Anita Torrance), Ted Hughes (Phil Roberts), and Hughes’ lover Assia Wevill (Tania Lentini). The play fictionalises Plath and Wevill’s cataclysmic undoing of their relationships with Hughes.

All of R. Johns’ sentences are crafted masterfully, with the play reading as a poem does. One could compare it to violently ripping a page out of Plath’s work. For me, the monologues are the most impactful aspect of the script. They uncoil the characters, revealing nuanced, wonderfully tragic human beings in their most vulnerable states. All the performers strike each word with utter conviction, revealing the bare bones of these damaged people.

It must be noted that Roberts looks strikingly similar to Hughes, as if his ghost is haunting us through the play. Torrance as Plath and Lentini as Wevill provide powerful depictions of these historical figures.

I find it clever how the lighting (designed by Natala Gwiazdzinski) emphasises potent emotions felt by the characters. I do however wonder if adding music to the heartfelt moments would add to the tension. I also feel that the production would benefit from an intermission to allow the audience to recoup their thoughts after such intensity, especially as there is a perfect moment in the narrative for this.

Carefully crafted, complex, contradictory, and compelling, Birthday Book of Storms has it all. This play doesn’t drizzle, it torrents – an intense tempest of the lives of such beautifully broken people. Make sure that you book tickets now before the storm passes.

Dirty Work | Regional News

Dirty Work

Written by: Justin Lewis and Jacob Rajan

Directed by: Justin Lewis

Soundings Theatre, Te Papa, 2nd Aug 2023

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Local choir Note Bene has turned up to Soundings Theatre without really knowing why. Indian Ink Theatre Company told them to learn a bunch of specific songs for a play, and when they arrive, they’re shown onstage and cast as office workers. Finding their way through the network of brightly coloured cubicles (set design by John Verryt), they sit down at their new desks and try to look busy until a cue from musical director Josh Clark means they can finally burst into song.

What a concept! Dirty Work is set in a modern-day office, where Joy (Catherine Yates) is cleaning in the wee hours before overzealous office manager Neil (Justin Rogers) arrives ahead of schedule. Next, Zara (Tessa Rao) walks in with the whole team (Nota Bene, with singers from other Wellington choirs) in tow. But Joy still hasn’t finished cleaning, all the computers are missing, and the company director (Jacob Rajan in a knockout audio performance) has just Zoomed in with a to-do list that’s way above Neil’s paygrade.

Remarkably, Nota Bene looks perfectly at ease – you can hardly tell they’ve got no clue what’s going on. Incorporating physical theatre into his performance, Rogers expertly portrays a subtle shift in his character’s perspective in the final scenes. Rao navigates a similar character arc with aptitude and aplomb, while Yates brings the house down as the lovable, no-nonsense Joy.  

You could certainly expect chaos incarnate from this play. But I leave the theatre marvelling at how cohesive it all is, how Rajan and Justin Lewis have entwined Dirty Work’s themes so seamlessly throughout, even how natural its absurdist elements feel (due credit here to director Lewis for conducting the action as masterfully as Clark conducts Nota Bene). This play doesn’t spoon-feed its audience pathos. Even with a choir, it doesn’t use music to tell you how to feel. It doesn’t hit you on the nose with its underlying message. With self-love as its beating heart, it’s an entertaining but tender exploration of finding your place, your worth, and your identity amidst the relentless grind of the nine to five.

Long Ride Home | Regional News

Long Ride Home

Written by: Jack McGee

Directed by: Jack McGee

Te Auaha, 2nd Aug 2023

Reviewed by: Stanford Reynolds

A story about a brother and a sister biking together to a party, Long Ride Home explores a complicated relationship between siblings who have had bitterness and resentment build between them.

The stage is empty except for two bicycles which are placed apart from each other, each facing the audience. They are held in place by devices clipped onto the back wheels (set design by Squash Co. Arts Collective with support from Sam Griffen). With a stage this empty, actors Anna Barker as Cate and Dylan Hutton as David do a great job setting the scene with their physicality as they ride the bikes in place, changing gears and straining to show when they are biking up a hill. The imitation of biking on a stage has comedic value, but more interestingly, it places the characters in an exposed situation where their frustrations can pour out honestly.

The scenery is further evoked by an effective soundscape of traffic noises (sound design by Esteban Jaramillo) and spotlights that rise and fall on either bike to show us when one of the siblings disappears from the scene, riding ahead or falling behind (lighting design by Squash Co. Arts Collective with coordination by Julia McDonald). The coloured lights and music in the background when the characters arrive at the party are also a nice touch.

While the brother and sister biking onstage together is an interesting image, I find myself wanting the performers to make more of the opportunities they have to interact with each other in the space, as many of the lines feel as though they’re being delivered inwardly rather than to their scene partner. However, Barker does a fantastic job of selling what her character is going through internally, particularly in her facial expressiveness in the awkward silences throughout the play. Hutton similarly peddles the right mix of cockiness and insecurity for his character.

Discord between adult siblings is a compelling motif, and Long Ride Home captures the relatable feeling when grievances get in the way of making amends, even with the people we’re supposed to be closest to.

Public Service Announcements: Election 2023 | Regional News

Public Service Announcements: Election 2023

Written by: Thom Adams, Johanna Cosgrove, and Jamie McCaskill

Directed by: Gavin Rutherford

Running at Circa Theatre until 26th Aug 2023

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Created by James Nokise and Anya Tate-Manning, Public Service Announcements (PSA) is Aotearoa’s longest-running political satire. When I caught my first one back in 2017, I was practically apolitical but still found it accessible because it’s totally nonpartisan and parodies every politician in da House. It sparked the conversation for me and my interest in New Zealand politics in turn. So, going into my third campaign (read: show) with a slightly firmer grasp, I agree with co-writer Johanna Cosgrove’s statement that each edition feels “more urgent and unhinged” than the last. Our political landscape is interesting right now, and for PSA, mistakes mean pisstakes.

In Election 2023, Carrie Green, Tom Knowles, Simon Leary, Jamie McCaskill, Sepelini Mua’au, and Tate-Manning bring MPs from Labour, National, Green Party, ACT, Te Pāti Māori, and New Zealand First to party on a stage resembling a grownup playground (a knock-your-socks-off set by Daniel Williams). Thanks to Helen Todd’s distinctive, RGBY lighting design and Williams’ costume design – the brilliance of which is highlighted in turbo costume changes during the final scene – audiences never lose sight of who’s speaking when. We do lose some lines on opening night however, so ear-splitting is our own laughter.

Onto the funny stuff then. (The whole show is the funny stuff, but alas, word count.) Oliver Devlin’s sound design sees the flighty Greens introduced to the White Lotus theme song, and Labour to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Red Right Hand (a stroke of genius). How did Leary’s lips chap instantaneously as Chris Hipkins? McCaskill’s Winston’s Song is still stuck in my head, as are Carrie Green’s hilarious outbreaks of Te Aroha as Debbie Ngarewa-Packer. Mua’au’s three-fingered “Hi”s as David Seymour; Knowles’ Sméagol-esque Christopher Luxon; Tate-Manning’s cannibalistic Judith Collins on mute… There are too many highlights to list, and they’re all fire. The meta references woven throughout, especially to Gavin Rutherford’s appropriately inappropriate directorial decisions, are the honey on the Beehive for me.

Whether you care about politics or you don’t give a coup, take a seat at PSA for a rollercoaster riot this election. They’ve got my vote.

The Sun and the Wind | Regional News

The Sun and the Wind

Written by: Tainui Tukiwaho

Directed by: Edward Peni

Circa Theatre, 30th Jul 2023

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

As a COVID lockdown project, author Tainui Tukiwaho set himself two wero (challenges) when writing The Sun and the Wind: make the hostage genre surprising again and find an interesting way to use a gun in a show. In answer to his pondering in the programme, I agree that he has admirably achieved both.

An older couple, Hūkerikeri (Julie Edwards) and her catatonic husband Rangi (Tukiwaho) are having a lacklustre birthday party for their son. However, their son isn’t there and it quickly transpires that it’s the introduction to a murder-suicide pact between the couple. This is where the gun comes in. The hostage part begins when Hūkerikeri is foiled in shooting her husband by the sudden arrival of two young would-be thieves, Hihi (Joe Dekkers-Reihana) and Kate (Tuakoi Ohia).

As the following drama unfolds, laced with Tukiwaho’s trademark humour, many themes are revealed: grief and loss, childhood trauma and abuse, parent-child relationships, abandonment, guilt, jealousy, desperation, idealisation, and a spiritualism that raises the question of reincarnation versus simple wish fulfilment. It’s a lot to unpack in just 70 minutes, but the strong cast delivers this heartbreaking story with power and grace, each fully inhabiting their well-formed characters and delivering an emotional king hit.

The simple set (Tukiwaho) of two circles of flooring and a small dining table and chairs gives enough space and variety for the ebb and flow of the action, and is sensitively lit (Katrina Chandra). The sound design (Eve Gordon) is also notable with its poppy 60s music that has poignant underlying meaning and an ever-present thunderstorm rumbling menacingly under the action.

The Sun and the Wind is a challenging but compelling watch. The cleansing kōrero and karakia performed by the cast at the end is a beautiful touch and allows the audience to exit the theatre with a sense of relief from the confronting themes of the play. As all good theatre should do, it leaves much to digest, deliberate, and discuss.

Beethoven 5  | Regional News

Beethoven 5

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: André de Ridder

Michael Fowler Centre, 30th Jul 2023

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Da-da-da-dum. Da-da-da-dum. This famous start to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is often played portentously, seen as “fate knocking at the door.” In this performance it was over in a flash, signalling that this was to be a very high-energy version of the symphony. The rhythm of the motif is continually integrated throughout the first movement. It underlies or breaks into quieter passages of lyrical music which seem to wish to console the listener, only to be taken over by another strong and urgent climax.

In more subtle form, the motif continues through the other movements. The second and third movements are more lyrical but still punctuated by dramatic sections using the full resources of the orchestra. I feel like I hold my breath through these movements. Though quieter than the first, for me they have a suspense about them which is only resolved with the exuberant sense of triumph of the last movement.

At the same time as he was writing the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven was writing the Coriolan Overture. It also is a dramatic work with typical big contrasts of pace and power. It tells of Coriolanus, the Roman general who planned to punish his own people and sack Rome. His mother beseeches him to give away his terrible plans. The music beautifully contrasts his heroic and ruthless character with her gentle maternal entreaties. The work ends with his suicide.

Commissioned for Beethoven’s 250th anniversary, subito con forza by Korean Unsuk Chin completed the programme. Its opening copies the Coriolan Overture’s and then reflects an aspect of Beethoven which Unsuk Chin particularly likes: “the enormous contrasts from volcanic eruptions to extreme sensitivity”. The words beautifully sum up the concert.

I’d think that Maestro André de Ridder is a wonderfully dynamic and demanding conductor to work under. The ever-good NZSO was in especially excellent form.

Marsalis: Blues Symphony | Regional News

Marsalis: Blues Symphony

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: André de Ridder

Michael Fowler Centre, 29th July 2023

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

While not generally a fan of jazz, I thoroughly enjoyed the jazz idioms of this concert. From the enthusiastic applause throughout, I’d say the whole audience absolutely loved it.

The concert evidenced an attempt by American composers over many years to achieve some integration of the spontaneity and soundscapes of traditional American jazz and blues music with classical forms. The concert opened with Bryce Dessner’s 2020 work Mari, followed by George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and Wynton Marsalis’ Blues Symphony (2009).

Mari (Mari being the Basque forest goddess) was notable for its textures and sonic washes punctuated by small bites of more distinct sound, the whole evoking a forest, peaceful but teeming with buzzing, budding life. Rhapsody in Blue starts with a stunning glissando on the clarinet, which is then joined by trombone, horns, strings, and saxophone before the piano makes its entry. These beginnings are magical and the magic never stops. The music is, by turns, teasing, marching, thundering, lyrical, luscious, and spunky. It is irresistible. The piano soloist was Australian Simon Tedeschi, romantic, nonchalant, and virtuosic to suit the moment.

The Blues Symphony is something else again. It is huge: seven movements, an hour long, and alive every minute. It traverses several aspects of American music – jazz, blues, rag, and Latin dance. Horns, trumpets with wah-wah mutes, bassoons, saxophones, clarinets, and a variety of percussion, including hand clapping, provided much of the colour and drama. The strings were less dominant than in most classical compositions, but the double basses were in the thick of it and looked like they were having a ball.

André de Ridder was vigorous, emphatic, and expressive in his conducting, and a joy to watch as he danced his way through the programme. He could be well pleased with the orchestra’s performance.

Become Ocean | Regional News

Become Ocean

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: André de Ridder

Michael Fowler Centre, 28th Jul 2023

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

The opening notes of Tōru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree ringing delicately through the blue light bathing the stage set the scene for a beautiful and evocative programme. The tuned bells, each allowed to resonate in response to each other, signalled the moment rain began to fall. The bells gradually gave way to marimba, xylophone, and vibraphone, sometimes solo, otherwise in combination, suggesting the different patterns and sounds of rainfall on leaves, or creating ripples in a pond, or a more intense shower hitting the ground. Under changing lighting effects, the three percussionists had the stage to themselves yet filled the auditorium with highly picturesque sound.

Continuing the visual element of the concert, conductor André de Ridder described John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean as “an art sound installation with an orchestra”. de Ridder explained the orchestra was organised, more strictly than is usual, into three distinct sonic groups. Firstly, the strings, augmented with four harps, piano and celeste, then woodwind, and lastly the brass, the density of the sound they would produce being essential for the composer’s intentions.

While the work itself is highly structured, the impression on the listener was much closer to the experience promised in the title. The layers of music surrounded us with waves growing and breaking, a strong undertow and incredibly deep water, ripples on the surface, light moving across the distant view, conflicting energy where currents run in different directions, the rise of the waves before they break, and the rolling, barely restrained energy of a deep ocean swell.

They say we all associate with one of the elements. I think those of us who are water people were truly at home in this piece. It was an immersive and all-consuming experience. The mathematical precision of the composition perhaps evidence of the theory that all things in nature, including the sea, have an order we can describe in art.

Home Kills | Regional News

Home Kills

(Not rated)

110 minutes

(3 out of 5)

Reviewed by: Alessia Belsito-Riera

When you’re drowning in debt, struggling to keep the whānau ‘home kills’ business alive, starting a family, and don’t even have money to buy toilet paper, you resort to drastic measures. In Haydn Butler’s Home Kills, screening this Whānau Mārama International Film Festival, brothers Tom (Cameron Jones) and Mark (Josh McKenzie) find a solution by switching livestock for human lives.

I have to be honest and say that Home Kills didn’t feel like a comedy to me. I’m a huge fan of dark comedies, so it’s not that I just didn’t get it. I’ve seen almost every Coen Brothers movie, I watched In Bruges with utter glee, The Banshees of Inisherin was delightfully unhinged. I went into Home Kills thinking it belonged in the genre, and while the central premise is great and there were a few funny lines, I just didn’t catch myself laughing all that much.

Perhaps it’s because I didn’t feel much sympathy for the protagonists? Though that’s common in the genre. I felt for Tom in the beginning since he was dragged into the mess by Mark, but by the end I think I wanted them both to pay their dues. That said, I’m not mad that I disliked them. McKenzie’s Mark is possibly one of the most unsympathetic characters I’ve ever encountered… and I kind of loved it. He truly has no redeeming qualities. He’s selfish, irritating, infuriatingly impulsive, and McKenzie does a bang-up job.

I was also struck by Alex Jenkins’ cinematography. The film is beautiful both in composition and setting, the light captured as brilliantly as the grungy, dank shadows. Furthermore, there were some innovative shots and angles. In a scene where the brothers flee a bar, the camera angle looks as though Mark is holding a GoPro up towards his face, the action in the background. It’s exquisitely stressful and adeptly builds tension.

Home Kills is a fresh romp through rural New Zealand from a different perspective. It was a bit grim at times and would have benefitted from more tongue in cheek, but it’s another quality Kiwi caper to add to our already impressive books.