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A UNIQUELY PURE THEATRE EXPERIENCE

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MUNTED
Head Writer: Victoria Abbott
Researchers: Victoria Abbott and Jackie Shaw
Devisers: Victoria Abbott, Jackie Shaw, Kate McGill, Liz Carpenter, Alana Kelly, Frith Horan, Emma Draper and Taylor Hall
Director: Kate McGill
a new Documentary Theatre Project
presented by Bare Hunt Collective

at Rangi Ruru Girls School, Merivale Lane, Christchurch
From 20 Jun 2012 to 23 Jun 2012

Reviewed by Robert Gilbert, 21 Jun 2012


I was confronted with quite a bit of anxiety in the days, hours, and minutes leading up to the opening of this production, stemming from the realisation that I just might have to re-visit feelings and emotions that I had neatly tucked away in an attempt to function in post-quake Christchurch. Am I ready for this? Is Christchurch ready?

Others, too, had reservations. A recent Stuff news website article is littered with anxieties about the show:

“If I want to heard [sic] first hand accounts of the quakes I'll ask my friends and family.”

“Is this a joke? It's still all very raw for us here and we feel it every time there's another aftershock... we don't need some actor's interpretation of it... this is vanity in the name of an event that we're all still going for and it's just unnecessary”

“I won't be coming, however, as I think it is too soon. We are still living through this nightmare.”

Is it too soon? Artists have always attempted, and will always attempt, to make sense of the senseless, interpret, and reflect - viz. Hamlet's “mirror up to nature”. And Bare Hunt Collective are not the first to respond to the physical, societal, and psychological rupture that occurred on that dreadful day: the city-that-was now hosts many visual art displays in the vacant lots that once gave way to high-rises and urban life; the paintings of Wayne Seyb scream to the viewer about the horror of the earth heaving its random destruction; Gerard Smyth's feature film documents real people, really coping; and The Clinic craftedtheir back-of-the trailer touring show, Hold Onto Your Horses, as a light hearted look at the way Christchurch deals with displacement, destruction and port-a-loos.

Munted isverbatim theatre'. American, Anna Deavere Smith pioneered the process in response to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. She was the first to combine the journalistic techniques of recording interviews of her subjects with the art of reproducing their words ‘verbatim' in performance – usually with actors having the edited interviews played to them through headphones. Munted has beendevised from video recorded interviews of, mostly, Christchurch citizens soon after the 22 February earthquake, and this production arrives in our munted city following a very successful outing at Bats Theatre in Wellington earlier this year.

In rehearsal, and often in performance, verbatim actors must listen to the audio and reproduce every inflection, mannerism, hesitation, every ‘um, ‘ah' and pause to avoid slipping into their own speech patterns or adding their own embellishments.  Thankfully, recent verbatim productions have done away with the headphones, on stage at least, thus freeing the actors to interpret the characters and connect with the audience rather than merely being vessels for each recorded subject. Famously, Britain's National Theatre production of London Road masters this technique to sublime levels.  Like London Road by Alecky Blythe, Bare Hunt Collective takes a community response to terrible tragedy and transforms it into something rather extraordinary.

On the face of it, turning a real life tragedy into a stage show seems a repugnant and tasteless notion.  Nonetheless, despite the hand wringing (mine particularly), or maybe because of it, one has the sense that the material presented before this community has been handled with integrity, skill and compassion.

Audiences outside of Christchurch probably experience Munted as fairly sophisticated and novel piece of verbatim documentary theatre.  Here in Brokentown, however, Munted approaches something akin to playback theatre or community theatre.  Our stories played back to us from our voices.  This is a theatre experience like no other. Some of it hurt.  Hurt like hell.  And those neatly tucked away emotions had an outing once more as the anxieties of the audience met those of the performers resulting in a uniquely pure theatre experience.

Director Kate McGill has deftly guided Frith Horan, Jackie Shaw and Victoria Abbot through a minefield of real people's responses to the events in and around 22 February.  Held together by the ever-present and reassuring cup of tea, McGill allows her actors to live, breathe and connect with each other and the audience with a surefootedness that belies any unspoken angsts. 

The three skilled actors are able to showcase their characters without costumes or special effects, each comfortably slipping from one persona to another with great dexterity.  Frith Horan's is every bit the horse-loving mother or the laconic grocer.  Her cameraman comes unnervingly close as he tells how he shot the footage of my son, Jaime Gilbert being dragged from the rubble that took his life. 

Too close?  Too soon?  This was unexpected and tough theatre for me.  Yet somehow I was still able to acknowledge the honesty and pure theatre of it.  Maybe its because my Jaime, also a thespian, was in yet another show.  I think I'll still be trying to get my head around that for some time.

Jackie Shaw's grocer's wife from Sumner, with her infectious laughter and love of life – and crystal – and love of her husband is a lesson in character analysis.  What a joy.

Victoria Abbott is able to inhabit the skin of every character she plays.  Her transformations are remarkable, admirable and delightful. Before our eyes, with nothing but her innate actor's skill, she is the mischievous five-year-old boy, the glamorous TV reporter, and the blokey welder. She faithfully inhabits each person.  Victoria Abott is a rare talent, and I was thrilled to be able to witness her work.

Whether or not it's too soon to see a play such as Munted is very much a personal question.  For some in Christchurch, it will be.  For the opening night audience of this season, the anxieties soon settled as we allowed ourselves to be shown ourselves.  It is a brave space – where audience and actor merge, not dissimilar Boal's notion of ‘spec-actors'.  Bare Hunt Collective are to be congratulated for Munted.  Itdeserves its place in our theatre history.  
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See also reviews by:
 Lindsay Clark
 John Smythe
 Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);
 Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);
 Stephen Austin
 Matt Baker (Theatre Scenes - Auckland Theatre Blog);
 Mark Houlahan
 Holly Shanahan