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Be | Longing: a verbatim play
directed by Hilary Halba and Stuart Young

at Allen Hall Theatre, University of Otago, Dunedin
From 1 Mar 2012 to 10 Mar 2012

Reviewed by Terry MacTavish, 3 Mar 2012

Only when I arrive in the theatre and am asked to mark my birthplace on a world map does it occur to me that I am an immigrant myself. This play is about me!

Though my mother was born right here in Dunedin, due to the vagaries of fate I was conceived in Peking, born in Taiwan, and lived in Africa, arriving here when I was seven. I too endured teasing and lost my foreign accent as quickly as possible. Now a cast member writes my name carefully in Chinese characters and I feel honoured.

This exercise engenders a cosy sense of community; actors and audience mingle and wander across the set, which is no more than a few chairs and one table in front of a screen. All very low key, and suited to the style of verbatim theatre.

Be / Longing is created by a group from the University of Otago Theatre Studies programme that has been exploring this form of documentary drama for some years. Many hours of interviews with migrants to New Zealand are edited and shaped, to share with us their experience, under headings which are projected onto the screen: Origins, First Impressions, Challenges, Language, Social Values and Protocols, Where Do I Belong?

The actors all have Mp3 players that relay the words of the immigrants, while they are actually performing. As nearly as possible the cast reproduces the accents, inflections and intonations of the interviewees. (And yes, their anacoluthons!)* This is indeed community theatre.

I was greatly impressed by Hush, the team's previous verbatim work, which dealt with domestic violence, and wondered whether this topic could have the same impact.

But though there isn't the same dramatic tension in Be / Longing, it does make for totally absorbing viewing. Our sense of where we belong is fundamental, after all, and it is also fascinating to learn how we appear to others. Through sharing their experience we gain a deeper understanding of ourselves.

I am struck by the sheer skill of the actors, as they switch accents and body language, even their gestures meticulously copied from the filmed interviews.  With a couple of additions, the actors are the same highly proficient cast from Hush, and again they show they can suppress their own egos, not interpreting but replicating.

On opening night, a technological hitch means a section must be repeated. This is apparently a rare occurrence, but I'm glad of it, as now it is possible to see how precisely the actors are following the voices in their earphones. The repetition is perfect, without the slightest alteration, breath for breath the same.

The immigrants themselves are very diverse. Among my favourites are the German Ute, with a welcome astringent quality clearly conveyed by Erica Newlands; and Elena with her disturbing story of escape from the radioactive Ukraine, relayed by Cindy Diver; while Simon O'Connor shows us a father from Iraq who must listen to his son reject the old values as he becomes a New Zealander.

The couples are appealing, with Kate Han as sweet Yan Li, interacting with Karen Elliot as her language teacher; and Gareth MacMillan, completely silent but most powerfully present as the husband of a delightfully voluble Fijian woman.

Cutest of all though is the charming Argentine couple, played by Newlands and Danny Still, who kick off the play, “I'll start, and you correct me.” It produced a curious thrill to realise that these two were actually sitting in the audience, watching themselves, and obviously loving every moment.

Some of the things we learn are not exactly comfortable. Our priorities seem pretty peculiar to fresh eyes, from our tolerance of cold homes to our intolerance of the warmth of physical contact. We don't try too hard to pronounce names that are unfamiliar. No Pakeha in the Maori culture class, just ‘foreigners' or Maori wanting to reconnect. Suddenly we are the ones under the microscope.

The audience is engrossed though, and perhaps the laboratory feel is why people linger afterwards, talking with the performers, checking out the map showing our surprisingly different origins, stealing sly looks at the interviewees from Argentina...

There is ongoing discussion on Theatreview about what makes a truly New Zealand play. No one could doubt that these interviews, so lovingly drawn from people who are now New Zealanders too, represent a profound effort to show us who we are.

Verbatim, one means of ensuring that (apologies to Abe Lincoln) theatre of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth!

*That's for Nic Farra, who remarked on my use of the term in my review of Hush!  

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 James Wenley (Theatre Scenes - Auckland Theatre Blog);