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By Penelope Skinner
Directed by Paul Gittins
Presented by (potent pause) Productions

at The Basement, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland
From 13 Nov 2012 to 24 Nov 2012

Reviewed by Lexie Matheson, 15 Nov 2012

There was a time when going to the theatre, or engaging in any art form as a consumer, was seen as being good for one. I can recall Russell Kerr, that priceless – and seemingly ageless – doyen of the ballet, saying, in the mid 1970s, that everyone should go to the ballet for this self-same reason. He was right then and he's still right today but things have changed.

Going to the theatre is an experience. Some companies even have a Customer Experience Manager who monitors the entire occasion from beginning to end. It's not just what happens on the stage but the journey to the theatre, the cost and convenience of car parking, finding a meal nearby, the welcome at the box office, the cleanliness of the toilets, the smile from the usher, the ambience of the theatre, the glass of wine during the interval, the ease of departure, the air conditioning, the whole kit and caboodle that makes going to the theatre a joy or a nightmare.

I've been critical of The Basement in the past but not this time. The box office experience is always pleasant and this continued to be the case with Eigengrau. A smile costs nothing and the one I was greeted with was warm and welcoming. The quick pit stop at the Ladies was almost a revelation. Everything was pristine clean and fresh as a daisy.

The usher was sweet and the theatre, to be frank, the most pleasant surprise I've had in a performance space for a long time. There was no hint of the old dust and grime; the smell of fresh paint sat lightly in the air, the walls were gleaming from a spanking new paint job and the whole place looked delightfully revamped.

The theatre was divided in half, separated by a suitably minimalist set, and the audience was left with the mild discomfort of having to look at each other while waiting for the show to start. The gender stats for the audience were unremarkable: for every man in the comfortably-sized house there were seven women. I wondered, momentarily, whether this simply reflected the fact that 80% of theatre tickets are purchased by women or that the advertising for the play reminded us all that the playwright, enfante terrible Penelope Skinner, was an ardent feminist and that this might have kept the blokes away. Either way, this gave me an excuse to peruse the audience and not to feel too embarrassed. 

The set consists of four black boxes placed on the diagonal, three and one. These are placed on a square floor elegantly divided into sixteen equal squares. It's sufficient for the multiple locations Skinner's narrative requires and the shifting of the furniture and the deft addition of the occasional prop or costume make for slick and effective scene changes.

Only once does the action move from the confines of the acting space and then it's to gain maximum effect.

The name of the play is Eigengrau. This is the German word that describes the dark grey colour the eye sees in perfect darkness. Trumbull Ladd researched this as early as the beginning of the 21st century and discovered that the conscious mind can control and manipulate eigengrau and turn it into other shapes such as circles, squares and crosses.[i]

There has been considerable debate about the name of the play; debate centred on whether it's good to name a play with a single word that no-one knows the meaning of and a word that, once you do know its meaning, might cause you to ask its relevance.

I'll enter the ring on the side of the supporters of Eigengrau as a name on the grounds that a major theme in the play relates to the manipulating of one's values and beliefs to suit what our bodily urges tell us we need to do. The impassioned feminist character Cassie articulates it best when she says, “Maybe it's just inside me, this thing that I want, that so completely betrays everything I believe,” just before she falls for the line being fed her by arch-cad – and one would have thought arch-enemy – Mark.

Playwright Penelope Skinner is an extraordinary young woman. Having seen Jack Thorne's When You Cure Me and been overtaken by a sudden realisation that not all playwrights were dead and that a living playwright could speak so eloquently and personally to her, she then spent two years writing her first play which she named, with great subtlety, Fucked.

Skinner decided, following the success of Fucked, that what she wanted was to be a full time writer and we've all benefitted from that decision to the tune of The Sound of Heavy Rain, The Village Bike – a free-wheeling play about sexual frustration and organic vegetables – Eigengrau, and most recently Fred's Diner. She admires Dolly Parton because “she doesn't give a shit” and would like the Dynasty theme to be the soundtrack to her life. Apart from that she's a brilliant writer of the partial line, has an inspired ability to hone in on raw nerves and to keep any wound open far beyond that moment when the audience has had enough. She's a skilled actor's dream and a director's delight. 

I'd also go as far as to say that she's one of the writers (potent pause) Productions was created for. I started this review talking about how the idea of going to the theatre ‘because it's good for us' has changed over the decades but I find that, even when I know I'm going to be emotionally challenged almost to my limit, experiencing a (potent pause) production is always good for me – and usually in ways I wasn't altogether expecting.

Paul Gittin's production of Eigengrau is a case in point. It's a four hander and you'll go a country mile to find four better performances.

In Gittin's skilful hands the direction is tight and effective, intelligent and fervent. He has clearly created a rehearsal environment in which these fine young performers can feel safe and explore freely because the choices they make are all top notch and this is no easy play. The sex scene alone would be enough to make most actors hide in the toilet but not Michelle Blundell and Calum Gittins. They are magnificent. Skinner takes no prisoners and if any actor isn't up for it they'll be left more exposed than a bare bum on Hampstead Heath.

The question ‘whose narrative is this?' is a difficult one to answer and probably springs from the somewhat conservative and conventional idea that all plays have a central character; that a narrative has to be primarily one person's story.

Eigengrau isn't a traditional play despite being cunningly well disguised as such with its form, structure and appearance anchored strongly in the British playwrighting tradition. It's peopled by real folks doing recognisable everyday stuff but it's not a narrative driven by one of the characters alone. These are powerfully etched, egocentric and ambitious characters and they fight – no holds barred – for their place in Skinner's sun. There are no winners and no losers because essentially nothing much changes for the characters as they engage in the never ending visceral battle between intellectual ideology and programmed response and herein lies the play's nihilistic fascination. It's an emotional train-wreck and, as with all such events, we gaze on it with salacious, voyeuristic fascination. In a word, Gittins' production of Eigengrau is magnificent theatre.  

Cassie (Chelsea McEwan Millar) is a young feminist working for a feminist organisation and she doesn't trust men much. She flats with Rose (Michelle Blundell), aged 23 going on 27, a sweet and manipulative hippie with a dodgy past who starts the play in the throes of sexual bliss with Mark (Calum Gittins), a man about town who works in the city and who is the ultimate example of the amoral modern roué.

Mark owns an apartment in Chiswick that he shares with Tim (Simon Ward), a sad fellow who has recently lost his Nan and who is currently looking for a job.

Eigengrau is quintessentially British in content and characters. It reminds me of Joe Orton at his blackest, not only because of the content but also because of the grunt in the lines and the power in the exchanges. It's BritSpeak 2012 with lines like Mark's, “Feminism? I didn't think people still did that stuff”and, Mark again in predator mode, “There is hope. You did something here today. You changed me.” And Cassie's “Why do you have to kill someone to be a hero?”

Eigengrau in the assured hands of this cast is assertive, authentic and raw, just as Skinner has written it.

Simon Ward's Tim is a sweet, naïve and rather pathetic man who is lost in the mists of grief. Ward subtly underplays Tim but he's there when he's needed. We're pleased when he wins. Sort of.

Calum Gittins is exceptional as Mark. He's is a creep, a lecher, a predator yet we still rather like him. Just a tad.

Chelsea McEwan Millar makes a great fist of Cassie, the little Pommy battler who punches above her weight yet falls for the oldest line in the book. She carries the weight of the personal betrayal embodied in the title. She's tight, controlled, angry and efficient. We like her too. It's one of the ironies of this production – and the play – that such flawed characters end up with our sympathy. 

Michelle Blundell is a fantastic Rose. She's self-deluding and a ditz, she's annoying, she's dishonest, but this is a splendidly layered performance throughout and she hits every mark and presses every button. This is fine work when you add up what the actor has to do during the evening, the emotional journey she takes and all the potential pitfalls she meets along the way.

It's one thing to applaud the courage of Skinner in revisiting the eye-gouging self mutilation of Oedipus in one of the greatest classics but making it work it a play with no kings, princesses, gods or oracles to fall back on is something else altogether. Then to find an actor who can bring this off while singing a karaoke version of Total Eclipse of the Heart without a snigger in the audience is real work indeed. Michelle Blundell does just that and she owns us all as she does it. Absolutely stunning stuff. 

It somehow seems appropriate that the main thread of the play ends with the line “Anything is possible, you just have to believe”(Rose) because, to some considerable extent, this is what's at the heart of the theatre experience. It's where the actors and the audience meld into one and where we find the mutual empathy that makes us not want to go home at the end of a performance. 

It's Skinner, so there is, of course, a coda. Tim, because Rose has told him he must, returns to the beach he stands on at the beginning of the play holding his beloved Nan's ashes in their appropriately naff jar. His eulogy to the departed is delicious in its heartfelt simplicity. Skinner still hasn't finished with us, though, and has one last laugh to get.

I have a coda, too. As the women in the audience clapped like crazy and brought the cast back for a couple of extra well-earned curtain calls, the solitary man in the block opposite checked his watch. I could hear Skinner whisper: “I told you so.” 

[i] Ladd, Trumbull (1894). "Direct control of the retinal field.". Psychological Review. Retrieved 14 November 2012. 

For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.

See also reviews by:
 Matt Baker (Theatre Scenes - Auckland Theatre Blog);
 Paul Simei-Barton
 Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);
 John Smythe


Editor posted 15 Nov 2012, 07:59 PM

Apology: When this review was first posted the Cassie and Rose characters, and the actresses playing them, were mixed up.  The review is now corrected (I hope).