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Theatre 2006: Kiss the Hand That Feeds You…

Jules van Cruysen



Overall, it has been a good year for theatre in Wellington, but there have been two particular trends that I find most worrying. The first is the insistence of our very best theatres and festivals in presenting plays that are no more than second or third rate garbage, and the second is the reviewers who, chummy with the actors, directors and writers, insist on short changing their readers by printing uncritical and overly favorable reviews of what one Salient reader described as “unmitigated tripe”.
Both of these practices need to stop. 2006 was very different to 2005. Last year there was a little bit of good stuff, a little bit of bad stuff and a whole raft of theatre which was mind-bogglingly average. This year it was far more bi-polar, most of the theatre was either brilliant or awful, with very little in the middle. But luckily, there was more good stuff than bad stuff. We began the year with a bang, the bang being the annual New Zealand Fringe Festival. Because it is an annual event (and because the New Zealand Festival is biennial), the Fringe Festival is only a true Fringe Festival, in the sense that it is on the fringe of a larger festival, half the time.
The concept of Fringe started in 1947 with the Edinburgh Fringe, a response to the elitism of the ‘high art’ Edinburgh Festival, with the irony being that over the years the Edinburgh Fringe has become more important and of a higher profile than the Edinburgh Festival. It was an excellent festival with a lot of highly accessible (cheap and free) good theatre, dance, music and arts. The Fringe were good to Salient and we responded by providing extensive coverage of the festival. The highlight of the festival was undoubtedly Heavenly Burlesque, a risqué midnight variety show.
This was followed by the New Zealand International Arts Festival 2006 (The New Zealand Festival), the decidedly more elitist and highbrow affair. We at Salient (despite publishing numerous features running up to the festival) were only able to cover the bare bones of the festival. Why? We were only given a couple of shows to review because it was obvious that students were not the target market for the festival (and to be realistic, few students could afford to go to most of the shows). So I find it very hard to judge the festival. Some shows sold out in days and other were half empty all season. It would be nice if in future years they would offer a concession card (even at a cost), similar to those they offer to the artists. It would allow students to buy tickets to shows on that night that are still not full at a substantially reduced fee and would mean that average Wellingtonians (i.e. the ones that don’t have six figure salaries) can actually participate in the festival that they are funding (through the city council), and can experience what is supposed to be some of the best art in the world. Certainly that must be what it is all about? What worried me is that the shows in the Festival didn’t quite live up to the ‘best in the world’ status that they were supposed to be. The show I ended up with was Duncan Sarkies’ Instructions for Modern Living, which “[didn’t] really cut the mustard” and “would have been better suited to Fringe 06”. Why? Because it was a show people were paying up to $70 to go to. And it just wasn’t worth it.
This years Comedy Festival was great, and had one of the most international lineups ever seen in Wellington. The highlight of the festival was Janey Godley’s Good Godley, an intimate (and wonderfully funny) account of an amazing and hard life. This year I was also able to catch a glimpse of International Man of Mystery’ Taika Cohen (rather than write a review about not being able to get tickets like I did last year) at Comedy Underground, one of the best things to happen to Wellington comedy ever. At 8pm on the last Sunday of every month in Room 101 at Bodega you can go and see some of the best Kiwi and international comedy skills for only eight dollars. That’s good value. Oh, and congratulations toWellington comic Cori Gonzalez-Macuer who took out the coveted Billy T Award this year.
On to the theatres, Downstage altered their normal format and offered two half-year seasons rather than one that covered the full year. The shows on offer were diverse and as well as including the normal month long Downstage produced professional shows, were also able to offer a couple of shorter season performances. They started with Boys in the Band which unfortunately, due to it finishing before Salient came into print, I was unable to review. It was a great play, an interesting portrayal of the ‘gay scene’ and as relevant now as it was in 1970. Almost without exception, every play performed this year at Downstage was wonderful, the pinnacle being Under Milk Wood.
Circa, however, was a mixed bag. While there were highlights like Troy: The Musical (I was far too put off by the name to go myself) and Arthur Millar’s Death of A Salesman, most of what was on offer lacked something significant, usually either relevance or polish.
BATS had a good year in 2007 but unfortunately lost Rich their ace barman to new Wellington bar The Mighty Might (or at least that’s what I think its called) which is above Matterhorn and will be opening in another couple of weeks. The Pit will never be the same again. BATS was the centre of the universe during the Fringe and the Comedy festival, and aside from a couple of lowlights such as Love (and death) in Gaza managed to offer excellent theatre all year. My highlights were John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and new Kiwi play Yours Truly, a take on the Jack the Ripper killings. This week sees the beginning of the annual STAB (“STAB is an annual commission of performance works so cutting edge in their innovations they break the boundaries of audience expectations”) season with I Ain’t Nothing But A Glimmer In The Dark, She Said – two plays being performed at the same time in Shed 11. Arcane, the second STAB play begins in early November.
But while there has been a lot of excellent theatre, there has also been a significant amount of theatre that has been appalling. I’m talking about theatre so bad that it should have never made it past the ‘workshop’ stage. And its not just amateur and edgy theatre we are talking about here (most of that was relatively good) but plays performed at the highest levels of New Zealand Theatre, most notably at the New Zealand Festival and on an ongoing basis at Wellingtons esteemed Circa Theatre. And these shows are not cheap, costing on average $50 (and substantially more for good seats). These institutions are doing a disservice to the theatre going public which will eventually turn around and bite them in the arse.
But why does this happen? Because the reviewers in our fair city think that it is perfectly alright to publish reviews saying how wonderful their friends in the industry are. While this has always happened to some extent, it is beginning to happen more often and on a larger scale. Picture Perfect, which just finished at Circa, was awful, so bad that someone wrote to us complaining that it was “unmitigated tripe” and “pretentious wank”. I have talked to a number of people since then and they all confirmed what I originally thought – my girlfriend Megan thought it was so bad that she walked out at half time (and wasn’t the only one). So it’s not just me. So why does Harry Rickets in the Listener, John Smythe on Theatrereview.org.nz, Laurie Atkinson in the Dom, Lynn Freeman in the Capital Times and Melody Nixon in Lumiére all heap uncritical praise on the play with lines like: “Picture Perfect is by far the best local play I’ve seen this year” (Harry Rickets), and John Smythe who was thrilled (his word not mine) at “welcoming another work of profound excellence from the desktop of Ken Duncum”. Why? Because they are all mates with the writer Ken Duncum, that’s why! This shows no respect for the readers (who unlike us reviewers are actually spending money to watch these shows), the theatre industry or yourselves. Shame on you.
Ok, so I am never going to get a job in this city again after that, but oh well. Thank you for reading the theatre pages over the past two years, I have appreciated it and I hope you have enjoyed them.