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Print Version

The Intricate Art of Actually Caring
By Eli Kent
Directed by Eleanor Bishop

at Downstage - return season, Wellington
From 25 May 2012 to 3 Jun 2012
[1 hr 15 mins, no interval]

Reviewed by Caoilinn Hughes, 26 May 2012

The Intricate Art of Actually Caring doesn't make the prospect of actually caring seem like such an intricate art, at least for the audience. The playtext and its performance are so deeply-felt and unaffected that I found myself caring quite a lot, actually; about poetry; James K Baxter and Hone Tuwhare; about New Zealand; about road-tripping, good conversation and meaningful friendships.

The play is concerned with heritage: the history of things and how things came to be (here). This concept is toyed with using a camel rug and string of expletives in the opening scene (the latter turns out to be needless), but as the play develops, all doubt around the authenticity of the concept itself is allayed. We are getting the genuine preoccupations of the characters, Eli and Jack, and most probably of the actors themselves – Eli Kent and Jack Shadbolt.

The interest in heritage is largely Jack's. Although the play opens in Eli's bedroom, it is Jack's perspective on Eli's ‘things and stuff' that forms the initial bridge of entry into the show. Jack sees the world through a poetic lens; or sees poetry through a worldly lens. We hear his thought processes through striking poetry (which is presumably Eli Kent's own poetry, since he is the writer) beautifully incorporated into clever, comic dialogue with Eli.

It is because of Jack's desire to follow up Eli's ancestral heritage and his own national heritage that he convinces his friend to go on a road trip to Jerusalem, to visit James K Baxter's grave. Eli is Baxter's grandnephew in the play (and presumably in real life) but he has no interest in Baxter: he doesn't appreciate poetry in the way that Jack does, and believes that the idea of heritage itself is overrated. But this idea is not treated in a flippant way …

The idea of heritage is expanded to an existential concern: is there a celestial heritage? Eli says no. Jack says possibly. Both arguments are made in a balanced way, thankfully free from moralising and a sense of any underlying conclusion. So Eli's disinterest in heritage is a deep-seated philosophy: he doesn't believe in looking for meaning / explanation / justification in and for life. What does it matter who Baxter was, what his poems mean, what his lineage is, how his country has been represented historically?

There is an intricacy of ideas here that I don't want to reduce. Suffice it to say that the contrasting philosophies, personalities and sensibilities of the characters are wonderful and creative, as is the treatment of cultural and metaphysical issues. The play's actions are inspired by the untimely death of Eli and Jack's close friend (on his 21st birthday), so it makes sense that existentialism is the narrative fulcrum; the bereavement process is predictable without being tedious.

The Intricate Art of Actually Caring offers a unique experience: to hear performance poetry, in the context of the backstory and thought-processes that inspired it. This poetry (and the whole feel of the play) is beatnik; but beatnik that far surpasses the faux/wannabe-beatnik sarcastic spiritual quest I listened to night after night in San Francisco when I lived there. This really feels as if it is borne of a contemporary New Zealand mindset.

Without looking at the programme, I would have assumed that Shadbolt was the writer: although his performance is convincing, you get the feeling that he is more comfortable in the language and poetry and ideas than he is in physically being on stage. Kudos that he makes the poetry seem like his own – a tough task. But it is interesting that the roles are reversed: we can assume that Eli Kent must not share the mindset of his character, or he would not have written the play. He is very watchable – his physicality and comic timing are excellent; his character somewhat reminiscent of geeky genius Maurice from IT Crowds.

In terms of other strengths, Eleanor Bishop does an excellent job of direction: line delivery, blocking and choreography are flawless, and pace is well maintained. Aside from the poetic value of this play, its originality and rich cultural seatedness, a standout strength of the production is its use of projections in the set (designer: Erin Banks). The projectors are not just gimmicks or cheap alternatives to real set design; they reflect the play's concerns: the transitory nature of things, the poetic lens available to these characters, derivation, drawing, portraying oneself, one's interests, one's philosophies, fashioning one's surroundings etc.

This is a beautiful, surprising and satisfying play. The PlayGround Collective has just begun a three-year residency at Downstage, so I look forward to seeing what comes next.  
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 John Smythe
 Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);
 Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);
 Helen Sims (The Lumiere Reader);
 Melody Nixon
 Steph Walker
 Terry MacTavish
 John Smythe (2)
 Nik Smythe
 Gail Pittaway (Waikato Times);
 Mark Houlahan
 Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);
 Kirsty van Rijk
 Ngaire Riley
 Laura Williamson