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Reviews

Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi | Regional News

Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi

Michael Fowler Centre, 4th Mar 2020

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

What is evident from Giddens’ New Zealand Festival of the Arts concert is a remarkable thirst for not only authenticity, but as a musicologist, a need to find a way of preserving the past with a nod to the future. This nod is presented by Francesco Turrisi and his bewildering array of instruments from the Middle East, many of which have roots in Africa and the slave trade to which Giddens is drawn to time and time again in song.

Tonight’s concert proves to be a spectacular event over two hours. Giddens is an excellent host with plenty of in-between bon mots about the songs. Some will say there’s too much banter, and I’m inclined to agree that the ad-libbing patter seems overlong. But, as serious as Giddens is, Turrisi proves to be the perfect foil. With his absurd sense of humour, which puts me in mind of British comedic sensibilities, Turrisi extols a lot of fun into the proceedings.

Some of the subject matter is alarming. Racism, lynching, murder, and persecution all get their due. Giddens will not shy away from uncomfortable truths and nor should she. But perhaps she could do a clinic on the subject instead.

Live concerts are always worth the punt if only to see if the magic created in the studio can be replicated on stage. With frame drum, accordion, piano, double bass, violin (fiddle), and banjo, the answer is a joyous yes.

Many songs stand out. Following the North Star is exquisite. The Jewish instrumental evokes the diaspora of the pogroms. The Irish instrumental, the frame drum echoing that of the bodhrán, is perfectly placed in the set. Sampling of Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust is magic. At the Purchaser’s Option is as chilling as it gets. Under the Harlem Moon proves Giddens can sing Broadway but not jazz. And an attempt at opera, in which Giddens sings Dido’s Lament from Henry Purcell, is a low point in an evening of highs.

The highly unlikely marriage of Americana mixed with the warmth of the Mediterranean leaves few unmoved.

Eight Songs for a Mad King | Regional News

Eight Songs for a Mad King

Directed by: Thomas de Mallet Burgess

Royal New Zealand Ballet Dance Centre, 2nd Mar 2020

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

This New Zealand Opera production of Eight Songs for a Mad King takes a big swing. Our audience experienced the short monodrama twice – once from the outside looking in, listening through headphones, and again indoors, in the midst of the action. The text is inherently engaging, amplified by Robert Tucker’s total commitment to his role as the titular King, but the experimental staging failed to add impact beyond its intriguing premise.

In Eight Songs for a Mad King, we watch and hear a powerful man break down – a King losing his sanity in the throes of modern-day greed. He climbs, convulses, and dances around a boardroom yelping discordant melodies that leap over five octaves.

This is a challenging show for all in attendance, from its solo star and the musicians who accompany him to the audience. Its libretto, written by Randolph Stow, is derived from the words of George III, paired with music that the British king attempted to train bullfinches to sing. With this in mind, the show works wonderfully as a voyeuristic experience. It is far from what one might consider a traditional opera – it’s a story told through ever-building tension, a character study without a clear narrative.

The musicians deserve as much praise as Tucker for their commitment to the piece. Led by conductor Hamish McKeich, the ensemble is required to act as well as perform a difficult score. The interactions between them and the King successfully distance us further from reality.

Sitting outside, observing what I could of the show through a window was interesting but not engaging. While the staging was a brave attempt to juxtapose our response to madness from a distance versus up close, I felt I was missing out on compelling visual elements and simply struggling to see. When it came time to watch from inside, I appreciated the text and the work of those involved much more, but it made the first viewing somewhat redundant.

Cockroach | Regional News

Cockroach

Written by: Melita Rowston

Directed by: Melita Rowston

BATS Theatre, 1st Mar 2020

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Cockroach is a response to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a Latin narrative poem writhing with tales of the rape and degradation of women. This New Zealand Fringe Festival show follows C (Leah Donovan), who wakes up one morning to find herself transformed into a cockroach. Now among the grossest but most resilient insects on the planet, C exacts revenge on #YesMostMen, responding to violence with more violence.

Donovan is a relentless machine, embodying the hurt of a victim in the crick of her neck, the rage of a generation in the snap of her spine, the wrath of a gender in the guttural contraction of her vocal cords. Her repeated transformation into a cockroach is vivid and visceral, raw and wrenching. This is an unapologetic show created by unapologetic collaborators, and for that I am infinitely glad. But at this stage it feels like an experiment; a series of good ideas held together by the boundless energy and passion of a performer. Unfortunately the staging choices often work against her.

For example, there are two recordings of Donovan vocalising a sexualised murder fantasy on the telephone during a blackout. These non-live elements feel out of place and could be better utilised in other scenes. There are a few moments when Donovan must rattle off an exhaustive list while barely breathing, building her voice to a crescendo that would have hit harder with the support of an overlapping recording or soundscape. The use of the microphone is inconsistent and doesn’t contribute much when Donovan is already such a proficient vocal performer. Adding a loop pedal or distortion could achieve the desired effect and would also widen the channel of communication between the performer and the composer and live musician, Benito di Fonzo. As it stands, his grungy score sometimes takes over and I would love to see Donovan equipped with the tools to match him in sound, not just volume.

The script has all the bones of brilliance. A more cohesive staging approach would add the flesh Cockroach needs to reach its full potential.

2020 Visions (If I Hadn't Gone Blind) | Regional News

2020 Visions (If I Hadn't Gone Blind)

Created by: Tom Skelton

BATS Theatre, 28th Feb 2020

Reviewed by: Nova Moala-Knox

Tom Skelton is blind, or as he says in the first 10 minutes “a VIP – visually impaired person”, and the concept of the show is “What would life have been like if I hadn’t gone blind?” I thought this was a good idea that you could do a lot with, but for me, the concept was underused.

Skelton relies on puns for a lot of the humour, and though puns may do it for some, they don’t do it for me. I come in hoping to learn something about the experience of being blind but I leave feeling like I haven’t really learned anything. Skelton encourages the audience to relax, to feel comfortable, and not to worry about being offensive when we laugh along with him about what life is like being blind. But for me, I don’t see why a lot of the things he says are supposed to be funny. It feels like they are normal parts of life, and being blind is normal. And that’s not to say you can’t get comedy out of normal life, but I find Skelton’s delivery doesn’t succeed in doing so.

Skelton has a very likeable personality, which comes through. As soon as he starts the show I like him, I’m rooting for him, but as the show goes on I lose hope that this show will be either informative or entertaining. In saying that, most of the audience is in fits of laughter from beginning to end so I suppose it is a matter of taste. But I do leave wondering how I would feel if someone who shared a similar life experience to me, who was a part of the same demographic as myself, were to stand on stage and tell an audience “it’s okay to laugh at us, because I said so” and continue to tell a series of – well, Dad jokes that don’t really speak to our experience at all.

In Search of Dinozord | Regional News

In Search of Dinozord

Created by: Faustin Linyekula

Soundings Theatre, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 27th Feb 2020

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

In Search of Dinozord does not exhibit a piece of rehearsed theatre so much as a raw and necessary retelling of horrors that may otherwise be forgotten. The performers are in pain, reluctant, and in its final moments, the show’s creator Faustin Linyekula appears drained. It wasn’t a piece they wanted to perform, but that they had to.

In Search of Dinozord haunts us with stories of past friendships shadowed by political upheaval in Zaïre, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The show opens with a hair-raising crescendo of clashing sounds as Linyekula loudly chants, his cries drowned out by the assaulting noise. Linyekula tells us about a friend who died of plague, a writer with a dream whose work now overflows from a dishevelled tin suitcase. Actors Papy Maurice Mbwiti and Antoine Vumilia Muhindo share their experiences also – Muhindo through crushing lyrical memoirs and images taken in prison projected onto a large wooden panel at the back of the stage.

In Search of Dinozord is an obstructive show. The story is sometimes overshadowed by dramatic movement or the imagery pulls our attention from the fragments of spoken word. At times, seemingly by design, this sense of constant crosscutting makes it tough to follow and digest. However, for me this works to fuel an emotional experience in which pulsating movement, shadows, sound, and sparse but powerful visuals layer to give the jumping story resonance.

In Search of Dinozord ends with a solo dance set to Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile, which breaks from the abrasive choreography into a beautiful, hip-hop infused finale. This leaves a hopeful taste in our mouths and brings the show full circle.

Linyekula describes his search for beauty and his dream to change African theatre and literature with real pain. To him these dreams are essential to life. While I can’t promise you will follow every step of his journey, you will certainly react to it, and you will not be able to look away.

The Lighthouse | Regional News

The Lighthouse

(R16)

110 Mins

(4 out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

A week on from seeing Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, I’m still struggling to gather my thoughts on it. Was it mesmerising? Yes. Devastatingly beautiful? Yes. Upsetting? Hell yes. But some may leave the cinema wondering what the film was trying to say.

The Lighthouse stars Robert Pattinson as Ephraim Winslow, a lighthouse ‘wickie’ on a barren island in the late 19th century. His mentor Thomas Wake, played by Willem Dafoe, is a veteran of the trade. The men slowly slip towards insanity when Winslow’s stay is extended by a vicious storm that leaves him stranded.

Eggers has created a film that could not be defined under any one genre. Its imagery is simultaneously random and purposeful, which adds to the sense of confusion that is felt by the characters and shared by the audience. As the characters sink into alcoholic tendencies, hallucinations of mermaids and sea monsters leave us uncertain and untrusting.

The film is shot in black and white at an almost-square aspect ratio; making it any other way would feel inappropriate. Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke manage to visualise a time period without either character having to utter a word of exposition.

The fact that Dafoe did not receive major awards recognition is a crime. The chemistry he and Pattinson share ventures down strange paths, from anger and frustration to close friendship and sexual tension. And yet, it never feels unnatural, even as the actors adjust to deliver poetic dialogue in old-timey pirate voices. Moments between them will make you laugh, empathise, and wince in horror.

Many will leave The Lighthouse unsatisfied. While it clearly tackles masculinity and isolation in an utterly unique way, it asks more questions than it answers. But madness is often intangible, and Eggers dies by the laws of show-don’t-tell cinema. Don’t expect to be told a story here, expect to be sucked into one and spat back out a little more unhinged.

القدس Jerusalem | Regional News

القدس Jerusalem

Concepted by Lemi Ponifasio

Directed by: Lemi Ponifasio

Opera House, 22nd Feb 2020

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

I’m not going to pretend I know what القدس Jerusalem is about. The words ceremony and ritual come to mind, but I didn’t pick up on one narrative – just one throughline: the terrible cost humanity must pay for its own actions.

Nine performers – Rosie Te Rauawhea Belvie, Tame Iti, Kawiti Waetford, Ery Aryani, Terri Crawford, Anitopapa Kopua, Manarangi Mua, Rangipo Wallace Ihakara, and Helmi Prasetyo – take turns emerging from the back of the cavernous stage, from the pitch black, as if by magic. They cross the stage in slow motion and return to the darkness, sometimes singing, sometimes shrieking, sometimes silent. Always, there is asymmetry. A breathtaking lighting design by Helen Todd frames each action, creating arresting stage pictures at every turn. Ponifasio’s discordant, piercing sound design overwhelms at times, while Waetford’s performance of opera in Te Reo Māori astonishes.

القدس Jerusalem is inspired by the poem Concerto al-Quds by Adonis, excerpts of which are beautifully projected onto the back wall during one scene. Because the writing appears in fragments, this doesn’t help me attribute meaning to the production. Rather, words and phrases detonate in my subconscious. I see blood and rotting fruit in my mind’s eye. This brings me to my next point: القدس Jerusalem is outstanding, but it is not easy to watch.

There is one scene that is particularly horrific, and in this one I see many audience members leaving. A man covers himself in mud and crawls around the stage, his face contorted in grotesque gestus, while a woman films him and screams. Watching this scene drains the last of my emotional resilience. We are then gifted an uplifting waiata performed in five-part harmony. This would be the perfect conclusion, only it’s not – there is another half an hour. I have gone through the wringer and I’m now exhausted not elated, enduring not enjoying, surviving not thriving. I understand that we were never meant to feel comfortable watching القدس Jerusalem, but I do believe there is only so much a person can take.

Chosen and Beloved | Regional News

Chosen and Beloved

Presented by: MAU Wāhine and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Kristan Järvi

Michael Fowler Centre, 21st Feb 2020

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Curated by Lemi Ponifasio, one of the New Zealand Festival's three guest curators, the combination of Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3 Symphony of Sorrowful Songs and Ponifasio's creative elements was a stunning experience.

Ponifasio's reflection on our “increasingly fragmented and technologically saturated planet” was a masterful blend of minimal movement, simple costuming, and women’s voices, accompanied by the orchestra and soprano Racha Rizk's expression of the utter sorrow of Górecki’s composition.

From the outset it was clear the role and situation of women was to the fore. Ponifasio's company, MAU Wāhine, emerged from the darkness, four kaikaranga calling across the auditorium. Once on the stage the small company set about building a stronger sense of the sorrow to come, chanting a mōteatea written by Ria Te Uira Paki, one of the company.

The orchestra filed in, settled lightly in their seats, and softly changed the soundscape from the strong voices in chorus to the quiet of the strings. The major themes of the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs are motherhood and the sorrow of separation. Polish lyrics from three different texts are each accompanied by a slow movement. The orchestration, tone and volume, and the vocal line and effects combine to build and engulf the audience in the sadness. The meaning of the lyrics is explained in the programme notes, but it is not necessary to understand the words to understand the mood. Clever changes in Rizk's position around the gallery, behind the orchestra, among the orchestra lent weight to the drama and added visual interest to the performance. Rizk's singing was beautiful. Her voice floated above the orchestra, neither dominating the other, ably guided by conductor Kristan Järvi.

An expression of the plight and predicament of women, Chosen and Beloved was a courageous choice and a powerful production for the opening night performance of the 2020 New Zealand Festival.

Wonderful | Regional News

Wonderful

Written by: Dean Parker

Directed by: Conrad Newport

Running at Circa Theatre until 7th Mar 2020

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Brother Vianney (Andrew Laing) is a Marist Brother teacher at a boys’ school in Napier, 1959. Over the course of one lesson, audiences (who are positioned as his students) discover how this loving, kind, extravagant man came to be a devout Catholic. We don’t do much schoolwork though! Instead, Brother Vianney treats us to belting renditions of Broadway classics and wistful waltzes, action-packed re-enactments of Hollywood movies, and dewy-eyed glimpses into his past life in showbusiness.

This glorious character is clearly gay, but Dean Parker’s script doesn’t really delve into the conflict between homosexuality and religion. I think a deeper exploration of that would be a sequel – a Wonderful 2.0. What we have here is a palatable (and rather delicious) 80 minutes of madcap entertainment that still packs an emotional punch. It’s a perfect storm of comedy and pathos.

Brother Vianney’s mind moves a mile a minute. Strengthened by Conrad Newport’s exemplary direction, Laing’s natural sense of comedic timing accentuates Parker’s best lines – of which there are countless. It’s a masterful one-man performance, and not just for Laing’s faultless delivery of a jaw-dropping volume of dialogue. It’s his obvious respect and love for the character, shared by the writer and director, that moves us. His escape into the role is so complete that it enables ours.

Inspired by an original design by Bonnie Judkins, Tony Black’s lighting design is the ending’s pièce de résistance, with changes executed at such a gradual pace, the eyes adjust before the lighting state does. This means that, for me at least, Brother Vianney is framed by an angelic halo that serves the script beautifully. In these final moments, Laing’s performance is raw and resonant, electrifying the audience with an emotional charge that continues to crackle after the lights fade out.

As Brother Vianney so delightfully says, “use the word once today and it will be yours for life.” What’s the word for this production? Wonderful!