Facing the fear of looming global apocalypse in the various guises being predicted has become a recurring theme in the second decade of this new millennium.
Two years ago, Long Cloud Youth Theatre offered an inspired take on it with Yo Future followed by last year's Tom Keeper Passes and Assisted Living – all highly creative. Also last year Richard Meros Salutes the Southern Man sought to reclaim old pioneer values in the quest for national and global salvation. And this year Binge Culture's For Your Future Guidance got us actively involved in a seminar on the topic.
There are echoes of the latter two in NeverBefore: A Colony for Urban Change – written by Linsell Richards who also directs with Lake [sic] – first because of the PowerPoint lecture format that starts it off and recurs throughout, and secondly because of the public meeting-cum-workshop feel, although NeverBefore's repeated promises to open it to the floor turn out to be a theatrical device and its audience remains passive observers.
Let me hasten to say that I don't regard engaging intellectually or emotionally in one's own private space as passive observation but as the night wears on (nearly two hours without a break) it becomes more and more apparent that our role is just to listen and observe. And the terms of engagement are elusive.
As with Residence, earlier this Fringe, we congregate in a splendid historical home, although unlike the Inverlochy Art School in Te Aro, The Moorings in Thorndon is actually home to some ten lucky tenants so we don't tour the premises or anywhere else, despite being promised “New Zealand's First Ever Apathy Tours.” Oh well, who cares … Is that the appropriate answer? Some of us are approached to sign a petition, however, to ban apathy in public places.
It is downstairs, in what I have always know as ‘the ballroom', that we take our seats, to be treated to the first of many electronica songs by Urbantramper (Phill Jones, Andy Hoy and Lake), before a young man called Skye Williams (played by Sven Adam) commences his authentically-pitched PowerPoint presentation.
Having done the hippy drop-out and protesting-as-a-way-of-life-but-to-no-effect thing, not to mention pursuing meaningless goals in cyberspace, Skye has reinvented himself as a tech-savvy change maker. The conceit seems to be that what we witness tonight was devised by the NeverBefore Colony crew on a decommissioned tug boat called SS Think Tanker, beached off Somes Island, before they came ashore to The Moorings.
Aware that humanity will judge us all on what we do, or don't do, over the next 20 years – a.k.a. The Apoc Epoch – Skye is determined to enrol us in taking action. So far so promising …
But first, another song (something about finding freedom on the waves of the great open sea) and then a video recording of Skye and a young English woman, Frida Corsaire (Tara O'Brien), preparing to go sailing while she tells a story of a previous and almost fatal attempt. Fair enough: Skye has already told us telling stories is key to achieving change.
Meanwhile, it seems, the public meeting we've gathered for has been proceeding with someone called Tom opining from the floor. Now the PowerPoint continues, bringing us to BAM: Brain Action Mike (Louis Tait) and the concept of Brain Rave parties as being the best way to take direct action – and maybe get some action (nudge-nudge). And here is where Scholarship Recipient Ruby (Ania Upstill), from Portland Oregon, pitches the Apathy Course, Apathy Tours, the Apathy Quit Line and the ‘Ban apathy in public places' petition.
While the meeting is ostensibly opened to the floor again, the next song (in which the lyrics are lost in a blur of electronic filtering and vowel distortions, as with the remaining songs) bridges to another video, where Skye and Frida, dressed as pirates, discuss the sexual imperative, the ideal of rising to higher level and why the French call an orgasm “la petite mort” before her being a public servant surfaces as a point of contention regarding how effective change may be affected and by whom.
Various fascinating facts emerge to feed apocalypse scenarios, a wacko conspiracy theorist (Thomas Pepperell) speaks from the floor, another young American woman – who will later dance to a sang – suggests we just party till its over, a woman called Fran (suspiciously like Frida) tells us to calm down because the Apocalypse isn't happening any time soon, Skye manages to regain his footing …
And so it goes on … and on … another song, another video, more PowerPoint and meeting … losing its way in terms of its quest, which may or may not be the point, until personal heartbreak overwhelms the idealistic fantasy of ‘saving the world'.
What seems to begin as an audience participation event framed within a public meeting turns out to be a multimedia play that falters for lack of a coherent structure. It needs a lot of dramaturgy and editing to reach its potential.
As it stands there are lots of good moments and many longeurs as the central idea loses impetus and stalls. The video sequences especially are way over-written and the PowerPoint presentation-cum-public meeting sequences outstay they welcome. Rather than being the culmination of all that has gone before, the ending is mundane and feels like a fizzer.
Again, this may be the point but it has yet to be crafted in a way that we ‘get it' as such. The large team has clearly worked hard to bring this iteration of NeverBefore: A Colony for Urban Change to fruition. Hopefully that will allow its creator to see what changes are needed.
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||posted 27 Mar 2013, 05:21 PM
This review has several virtues: the reviewer is forthright about his expectations, implicitly clear about his understanding of the parameters of drama and more or less even-handed in his personal responses. He nicely contextualizes Never Before with other performances and provides us with its setting (The Moorings). The plot summary, while arguably carrying the burden of this review to the detriment of a more meticulous evaluation, is eloquent and engaging. Finally, the last word on the play, that it needs ‘editing to reach its potential', is undeniably true.
The review fails, however, to acknowledge a very basic feature of Never Before, namely, that it is satire. The reviewer expresses confusion as to the ‘point' of the play or of certain of its elements. Apparently taking the opening device seriously, he voices his disappointment at the broken ‘promise [of] “New Zealand's First Ever Apathy Tours”', throwing up his hands: ‘Oh well, who cares … Is that the appropriate answer?' Is this response itself to be taken in earnest? It would be easier to tell if an open discussion of satire were an integral part of the review. Again, he takes in earnest the purported form (the open meeting) of the event, and is only disabused of this impression after some time: ‘repeated promises to open it to the floor turn out to be a theatrical device'. And again, the play ‘los[es] its way in terms of its quest, which may or may not be the point'. Without comprehending the genre of this play, which, I'd argue, is fairly obvious, it's harder to see its merits and flaws accurately.
To speak first of the play's shortcomings, adding to and modifying the reviewer's conclusions.Never Before, as he rightly but reductively points out, lacks absolute coherence. This is not a categorical indictment on the variety of media employed, the meta-theatrical scenes, or the arrangement of the various parts in general, most of which I found informative, complicating and pleasing. I think the major problem with coherence lay in the gradual divergence of tone between scene and music.
The tone of Urban Tramper's electronic music is complex and ambiguous. It is difficult to define the predominant emotion of any of the six songs we heard. ‘Melancholy', ‘angsty', ‘euphoric'... Each contains all of these and others in varying proportions to produce a difficult colour you wouldn't paint your lounge. While early on in the play these songs in their (productive) ambiguity are open to coincide with the more easily definable satiric (i.e. comic, with a ‘visible core' (Ashbery's phrase) of constructive social criticism) tone, they start to drift apart after about the third song. Think of your car's alignment being slightly off; at first it carries on straight enough, but soon you begin to see the problem. So after the first few songs the audience begins to notice the incongruity between these and the scenes, and this broken unity strains the auditor's engagement.
The play is too long, but not by that much. An unfortunate accident of miscommunication led to this play being advertised as an hour in length. Also, it seems that tradition dictates the length of Fringe Festival shows to be approximately one hour. Both facts may have misled and taxed the audience. The impression of excessive length in my opinion derives largely from the problem of tone discussed above. This problem tries our patience and breaks our suspension of disbelief (or whatever the equivalent is for a postmodern play), and the result is that we feel the play is too long. Is it possible that our attenuated attention spans exacerbate the effect? If so, that is a problem the playwrights have to contend with. I reckon if a couple scenes were trimmed and a couple songs cut, reducing the play by about 15 or 20 minutes max, then the length would be perfect.
Finally, a few small missteps cannot escape the charge of incongruity and gratuitousness, especially the dancing number and the last video.
As for the play's merits, they are numerous. First, the script is outstanding. The charge against some scenes as ‘overwritten' can be easily dismissed once we recognize the satirical nature of the play. Of course they are overwritten – that's the point. We might as soon charge Oscar Wilde with overwriting. The purple-ness of some passages is pleasing and informative in its absurdity, a key element of satire. Late in the play we hear the impassioned Sky Williams cry, ‘This is the climax! The idea of the apocalypse as a dark orgasm we can all experience at the same time, the universe shuddering into consciousness of itself!' This is the extravagant stuff of satire. Earlier, Williams proclaims with intense sobriety, ‘This is the age of the apocalypse. We can feel its approach. We can sense that our times are charged with a strange energy. Some kind of electric threat emitted by a dying future. And most of those in positions of real influence (points to Ban Ki Moon) are at best wringing their hands or at worst hastening its onset'. Beneath this demagogic rhetoric lies a serious anxiety that reflects the gravity of our real crisis and its call to action. His exhortations almost always embody this duality. If they wear thin by the end of the show, so do all exhortations when repeated ad nauseam, worn down to bald sentiments and the sonic bones of mere words. This is the point.
Urban Tramper's performance was excellent. Lake's voice is strong and emotive, his melodies are surprising but inevitable, strange and complex as our age is strange and complex. These are original and talented musicians writing relevant music capably and convincingly, with a mixture of earnestness and irony proper to our moment, neither straining in one nor hiding in the other. Nonetheless, as discussed earlier, the play might have benefitted from the excision of a couple songs.
Lastly, the acting was on the whole stellar. Skye Williams (Sven Adam) excelled in his part as ingenuous idealist, convincing us with his voluble circumlocutions and defensively channelled energy. I was there on the opening night when Williams got snagged on a couple lines in the early monologues, but after these slight, early throat-clearing moments he acted with perfect fluency. Frida Corsaire (Tara O'Brien), if somewhat less dynamic, acted with equal grace. My favourite and the star among the supporting actors was Brain Action Mike (Louis Tait). His deft execution of swift, torqued lines was hilarious.
Never Before does need some editing to reach its potential, which is great. It is a satire that achieves a fine balance of substantial comedy and resonant depth, addressing the supremely relevant and extraordinary incongruity between the near-bankruptcy of 21st century western culture and the tremendous force of imminent crisis.
||posted 28 Mar 2013, 04:14 PM
Just wanted to add to the conversation by posting this review by Peter Howland (with permission), which was added to the NeverBefore Facebook group on 12 March, 2013.
Well done – greatly enjoyed the play and especially the highly amusing, ironic take on the current crop of liberally-inclined, though now techno-hip, fun-loving and story-suckling individuals who believe the romanticised hype surrounding all neo-forms of humanism, environmentalism, virtualism and every other idealism, but who have tragically swallowed wholesale the neoliberal flimflam of individualism and thus believe their personal responses – emotional, social and narrative – are significant opportunities for positive social change. Especially liked the 'straight' character of Frida/Fran who offered no solutions other the comparative pragmatism and immediate realism of bureaucratic process.
It is also so tedious – the perpetual rallying against apathy – NeverBefore, yeah right. The apocalypse may all end in a rush, but in reality it's been a steady state decline ever since the domestication of plants and animals and the accordant structural stratification of society 5000 years ago. But let's face it we all want to be loved – that is to have genuine trust in intimate others, and positive and enduring change will only result from absolute and radical overhaul of the fundamentals of economics and politics. So much appropriation of Marxist rhetoric, so little understanding of his theories.
The evening was greatly enhanced by the atmospheric and appositely lyrical music, and also by shifting between modes of performance that highlighted a similar shifting of the personas and politics of the lead characters (an infuriating condition of post-modernity – no one ever knows who they are talking to or who's listening). Again well done – eagerly await the next effort!