A BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN, PRODUCED AND PRESENTED WORK OF LUMINOUS SATISFACTION
by Carl Nixon
Directed by Steven Ray
at Centrepoint, Palmerston North
From 6 Jun 2009 to 4 Jul 2009
Reviewed by Peter Hawes, 9 Jun 2009
Three minutes to the Off, but already the usual dawn chorus of pre-lights-down, socio-banal whittering is absent; punters are hypnotised by the artificial fog twineing up vegetative stalks of PVC - (I later asked Dion Boothby, the designer, what they were; "West Coast things," he told me) - and they were; rigid organ pipes made from 'supplejack' as we call it over there; the missing link between nikau and liana. Dead straight hammock strands knitted with darkness by Jennifer Lal's lights.
In the middle of this jungle of pro and con geometry is a shack. Of wood. Pretty well made. (Harvey, the perennial builder at Centrepoint slipped up here, it was supposed to be pretty well unmade or unprettily made or something - anyway - the floor was supposed to creak rottingly but Harvey's a bloody perfectionist... )
And a toffee-like linoleum lustre to the theatre floor in front of the bach that quickly turns into semi-liquid lake water; the sort that gives eels high, sticky bow-waves as they come at you, humming the Jaws theme; and that captures those fallen ringlets of beech and kahikatea leaves rimming West Coast lakes, and suspends them in slow-moving amber...
So we're looking at mud-jungled, mist-wraithed, rotting baches on the puggy verge of a ghastly West Coast lake the colour of Darjeeling Breakfast, inhabited by - as we know without being told - the link between eel and dinosaur... And hell, the lights haven't gone down yet.
Then the lights go down.
The resultant darkness is eventually pierced by the headlights of an unseen car from which emerge a pair of warring young matrimonials, arriving at the bach in dangerously torrential rain. One of them thinks they are to be alone throughout the play; the other does not. The latter is correct.
Mark (Owen Black, and also the former) strides ahead, in his drenching hoodie, to the door of his parent's bach, takes the key from its secret place and opens the door. Allowing a noise to get out.
Not a fart -there are no jokes in this play - (Author Carl Nixon, I notice has, blessedly, worked further and further away from levity. Certainly since the days when I was beardedly induced to cross-dress and sing and dance in his execrable Kiwifruits at Centrepoint.)
Just a noise. Either released from Marks's head or now residing within it. Whichever, take it on board; it's with you for the rest of the play. Or for as long as Mark is angry, perplexed and resentful - which is the play minus about 45 seconds.
One of his first acts upon arrival is to reject the overtures of his wife Tonia (Laura Hill), which to every seat-paying, red-corpusled male exceeds by miles the suspension of disbelief. But this is a play. And in the play Mark has problems. He and Tonia have problems. And they are at his parent's West Coast bach to confront them.
And herein begins one of the aural joys of this finely wrought work - the reverential silence it inspires. The audience quickly wants to understand and to participate in the problems. These are problems of a seminal, matrimonial, societal and generic type which fascinate us: problems so big and deep and filled with sex and grief that we wish we all had them; that we were all glum Woody Allens.
The absorption heightens as Mark's mum Shirley (the great Catherine Wilkin) and father Jack (John Watson) crash in upon the bach and the story - she still dripping from adultery, he still throbbing from a stroke - each with another story to tell.
We, meanwhile, are outside, quiet as the West Coast's furtive nocturnal birds, looking in. I dare not raise my bottle to my glass in case the clink inspires heart attacks in the audience.
The primary story itself is an old one - as old, in fact, as the human race. Of the seven stories that encompass the human condition, this is the one about letting go. And the consequences of not.
Well, all these consequences are now stacked up in a bach on the West Coast on the shores of - and I bet a hot dinner I'm right - Lake Brunner. And what a perfect situation: send your sinuses to Arizona by all means, but bring your angst to the West Coast where damp creepiness even has an interior aspect; the lightbulbs drip.
Four distraught - "Fucked up!" "I can't say that!" "Fucked up! Fucked up!" - human beings, abandoning at last their mufflement; speaking in exclamation marks for the first time since a tragedy occurred, now get down to the nub.
It involves a little boy, Liam, and interestingly, it's the father, Mark, who is affected most. His nearly estranged wife Tonia has come to grips - it was a relief, she shrieks, when he died; I didn't have to spend my life wondering what sort of death he was going to have.
This is a daring point of view, requiring courage and finesse to affect; it gets both. It's a template of the play.
Mark, meanwhile, has dedicated his life to nearly-estranging his abovementioned wife and blaming his father, a good man - good with his hands - who took his eye off the child for a moment to perform an artisanic chore.
How gloriously complex becomes the issue of crime, guilt and redemption when the elderly, stroke-ridden, not-so-good-with-his hands-these-days father, John, expertly smacks out vengeful son Mark with long-ago-learned fisticuffs.
(And there are jokes, good ones; like the one inspired earlier, by John's infirmity: `I can do it myself!' he snarls to his wife. `Yes,' she replies, `but you need a bit of help to do it by yourself.')
And so to the eponymous Raft. There it sits, disintegrating about thirty metres off shore. Mark will swim to it. No he won't; he's tried several times - ("Did you see him actually swimming?" asks anxious director Steven Ray at the after-match function: `Yes we did, Steven, we did; Owens's a good actor; you're a good director, we saw him swimming in our mind's eye; and his.")
In fact Mark's been battling his own need to get out to the raft since fucking Terry O'Sullivan told him, in childhood, there was a Tyraneelsaurus under it. Accompanied by the plangent clarions of Gil Eva Craig's (sound) sound-clashes, we see him try, fail, try... we see him, in our mind's eye, in other words, swimming and not swimming. (Thank you Steven.)
Meanwhile, father John, in futile recompense, will fix the raft.
[Spoiler...] He sets off. He fails. And drowns instead. [...ends]
Mark will swim to the raft to save him; swim across the terrible reaches of his own id to the raft of his psyche. The result is a life and a death involving three people and ultimately five.
Perfect. Damn fine play.
I interviewed Nathanael (4), the first of six young Liams, and asked him what he thought of acting. He pondered above his fluffy and replied: "Quite good."
Nathanael had his own room for colouring-in in, had presents from `Nana' Wilkins (lollipops) and had done three rehearsals. His own theatrical fate, occurring within a grove of electronic nikau palms, he described as sad.
To Nathanael and the cast of a beautifully written, produced and presented work of luminous satisfaction, I say "Crayon!"
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