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CLOWNING BY NUMBERS

Print Version

Capital E National Arts Festival
THE MAN THE SEA SAW
Production designer/Stage manager: Wythe Bowart

at Opera House, Wellington
From 11 Mar 2013 to 23 Mar 2013
[55 mins]

Reviewed by John Smythe, 12 Mar 2013


I didn't see Wolfe Bowart's LaLaLuna in 2010 when it graced the South Island (Invercargill, Dunedin, Christchurch, Nelson) but by all accounts – well, the two reviews on Theatreview, anyway – it offered, enchanting, magical, amusing, enthralling lunacy.

The Man the Sea Saw brings Bowart back to Earth; specifically, the Arctic ice cap. He is adrift on ice-floes. Following the line of a very long red and white scarf, and in perfect sync with sound effects, every time he dips a foot into the blackness between the floes, a ‘gloop' warns him to retract. Thus he makes it to the relative safety of an iceberg.  

In attempting to make himself comfortable he avails himself of various items then tosses the containers into the sea (more sfx). He also sprays some pesky buzzing bug ...

Perhaps it is because I have just seen The Man Who Planted Trees that I assume these actions will be set-ups for a pay-off that carries an anti-pollution message. And when he cranks up a diesel generator that belches fumes, we must surely be going to get some hint as to why the ice cap is melting. But no.

If such ideas were the progenitors of this show, they have been forgotten along the way in favour of a series of gags and tricks that finally add up to less than the sum of their parts. While the show has all the hallmarks of a large-scale clowning show – e.g. Slava's Show (2009); James Thiérée's Junebug Symphony (2004), Bright Abyss (2006), Raoul (2012) Jean Thierre – it lacks both the internal logic and the emotional depth of such shows.  

Bowart actually makes us feel silly for ever buying into his make-believe.  Having enrolled us in the reality of dark depths to be avoided, he suddenly abandons that convention and trots about between the floes without consequence. This is presumably to give himself permission to enter the auditorium, which he does a couple of times. And he does acknowledge the presence of technical operators of sound and light, and stage crew in the wings. But there is no moment – shared with his audience, anyway – when the ‘truth' of his ice-floe world is broken, and no game played where makes a game out of flitting between that and the prosaic world of this theatre.

We do get to witness performance talent and ‘production value' spectacle. He conjures a bit, verges on acrobatic balancing, juggles very well … His unacknowledged puppet assistant animates a Polar Bear's paw and later a head with a tongue that really licks, and a Seal that seems destined for an important role but it comes to nothing. The big berg centre stage rocks like a see saw.

There is an attempt to inject emotional pathos by having Polaroid photos of things on the ice expose as people – presumably members of his family: an elderly father, a dutiful wife sewing the bits of his scarf together, a son … – but because we have no idea why he's adrift, we have no idea how he's feeling and whether we have reason to empathise.  

What's missing is depth and breadth; heart and soul. Put simply, The Man the Sea Saw is a shallow imitation of true clowning; little more than ‘clowning by numbers'.

The many schoolchildren clap dutifully when it is over and Bowart works hard at making them clap and cheer harder, which they do. Hopefully he will put equal energy into rectifying the missing dimensions. 
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