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Playwrights: Bruce Mason; Stephen Sinclair; Matthew Saville; Renée; Greg McGee; Briar Grace-Smith; Michelanne Forster; Jean Betts; Sarah Delahunty; Paul Rothwell; Robert Lord; Dave Armstrong & Oscar Kightley; Gary Henderson; Mervyn Thompson; David Geary; Duncan Sarkies
Directed by Emma Robinson
Produced by K C Kelly
EnsembleImpact in association with The Play Press and Playmarket

at Te Whaea - Drama Three, 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wellington
12 May 2013
[50 minutes]

Reviewed by John Smythe, 17 May 2013

In this its fifth year of operation, EnsembleImpact is reviving the season it premiered in 2009. While it still represents a good cross-section of New Zealand play writing over the half-century since Bruce Mason secured his position as New Zealand's pre-eminent modern playwright, it is important to note that reverting to this programme does not in any way suggest that few good new plays have premiered in the years since (see below).* 

This year's ensemble – Andrew Patterson, Ria Simmons, Carrie Green and Joe Dekkers-Reihana – directed by Emma Robinson, make manifesting 37 very different roles in excerpts from an eclectic selection of 16 plays look easy, such is their talent, skill and preparedness. The focus is therefore squarely on the characters, relationships and works in question.

And many a question should be provoked by this show. If a Q&A with the Ensemble does not follow a given performance, it is to be hoped discussion will occur between the students and their teachers – who will need to be well prepared. There is some powerful material being sampled here and some of it, taken out of the context of the whole play, could be quite disturbing and even seen as morally questionable.

The Study Guide replicates the programme, has photos of the playwrights, profiles the actors, summarises different staging conventions, displays a selection of covers of Play Press and Playmarket script publications, backgrounds NZ Theatre: ‘A Potted History of Us', backgrounds EnsembleImpact and displays their sponsor's logos.  

The show itself does not identify the plays being sampled. And beyond the pithy summaries in the programme (which I trust each school will print off and give to each student attending) there are no synopses of the complete plays, so we have to hope a student will be delegated to read each play and report back to their class on the context of each excerpt. (I have had to search and research quite a lot in order to write this review.)

But it's not just about these particular plays. A major benefit of the EnsembleImpact operation is that it makes New Zealand students aware that there is plenty of source material in our own lives and histories from which to create theatre – and hopefully some will be inspired to do just that. 

She'll Be Write is presented with great fluency in the traverse, with minimal costume elements and props. Following a brief and friendly welcome from Carrie Green, Andrew Patterson – all smiles – kicks off with the prologue from Bruce Mason's iconic The End of the Golden Weather, happily characterising the arrival of the settlers, their slashing of the bush, their banishing of the natives and their prayerfulness: “my heritage, my world.”

We leap a couple of decades to a scene in which a passionate young Māori man, Api (Joe Dekkers-Reihana) declares his love for Flo (Ria Simmons), an English woman with no family here apart from the mistress of the household she serves. It is because she has “the spirit of God” that he is attracted to her. This is from The Bellbird by Stephen Sinclair (and consulting the Playmarket website is a good way to get a sense of the outcome).

The question of whose side God is on arises in the dialogue between a Boer prisoner, Johann (Patterson) and his Ngapuhi/Irish captor, John (Dekkers-Reihana) from Matthew Saville's Kikia te Poa. The potent judgements and accusations made in this scene should provoke good discussion on racism.

An angry Iris (Simmons) also has “some things to say” to the body of her dead husband, Ben. Wednesday to Come by Renée is set in the 1930s Depression, opening up the whole question of class conflict. It also addresses the selfishness of suicide.

Conflict on the rugby field and over what it is to be a man comes under scrutiny in the famous “Whaddarya?” epilogue to Greg McGee's seminal Foreskin's Lament, delivered by the identity-seeking Foreskin (Patterson).

The law demands attention in When Sun and Moon Collide by Briar Grace-Smith, as policewoman Travis (Green) attempts to question café-owner Isaac (Patterson) and ex-convict Declan (Dekkers-Reihana) because “someone did over the church.” (The major mystery in this play, however, involves the disappearance of a Danish backpacker couple).  

The dreadful crime at the centre of Michelanne Forster's Daughters of Heaven has just been committed when Pauline Parker (Simmons) and Juliet Hulme (Green) reveal themselves as teenage fantasists, while a Lawyer (Dekkers-Reihana) reveals the enormity of their crime. 

Female versus male minds come under further scrutiny when the dubious nature of Freudian psychotherapy is exposed by Jean Betts in The Misandrist, as Rebecca (Simmons) and Raffia (Green) analyse the Cinderella myth.  

Hamlet (Patterson) makes a surprise entrance in this anthology of New Zealand plays until we realise this is Sarah Delahunty's revisiting of classical tragic heroes in 2b or nt 2b. His exchange with Antigone (Green) and Helena (Dekkers-Reihana) may well revitalise interest in the classics.

Bullying is unnervingly characterised in a scene between Elliot (Simmons), Gareth (Dekkers-Reihana) and Felix (Patterson) from Hate Crimes by Paul Rothwell.

The eternal mother-daughter conflict comes to the fore in a post-Christmas dinner scene at the sink between Brenda (Simmons) and her pregnant daughter Raewyn (Green), from Robert Lord's episodic family saga Joyful and Triumphant. “You hate me because I had sex with a Māori!” is put into clear perspective when the actress playing Raewyn is herself Māori.

Racism if further sent up in an excerpt from Niu Sila by Dave Armstrong & Oscar Kightley, where Mrs H (Dekkers-Reihana) complains about “those Islanders” to Peter's Mum (Patterson) – both clad in winceyette dressing gowns. This of course is appropriate because the play is a two-hander for Palagi and Samoan actors. (Note: there is also a large cast schools version.)  

The most troubling excerpt is from Gary Henderson's Mo and Jess Kill Susie, where disaffected Dunedin university student Mo (Green) waxes lyrical about killing their hostage to the more brooding Jess (Simmons). It needs to be understood in the context of the no-win nature of such situations, which the play makes clear.  

I have to say I was so perturbed by the Mo & Jess piece that I paid scant attention to the excerpt from Children of the Poor: Mervyn Thompson's adaptation of the novel by John A Lee. My sole note suggests it involves a story about “the only thief in Dunedin”. (For the record, Dekkers-Reihana plays Albany; Patterson plays a Cop; Simmons plays Rose and Douglas.)

Joe Dekkers-Reihana and Carrie Green perform with great agility on all-fours as farm-dog Blue and city-bitch Doodle respectively, in A Shaggy Dog Story by David Geary. The bum-sniffing will be a guaranteed crowd-pleaser on this tour.  

As a primer, presumably, for the critical appraisal EnsembleImpact hopes will follow, the show winds up with an animated four-way discussion from Duncan Sarkies' Conversation Pieces, wherein Penny (Simmons), Quentin (Dekkers-Reihana), Owen (Patterson) and Dave/Donna (Green) critique a play they've just seen called Conversation Pieces. The “That was crap!” / “It was great” exchange may or may not owe something to The Muppets' resident critics Statler and Waldorf.

Beyond the tantalising tastes of the plays themselves and the aforementioned assurance that NZ is rich with material to inspire the creative writer, She'll be Write treats its audience to an exemplary display of ensemble performance.

Individually and together, the quartet nail their characters and interactions, moment by moment, transitioning with extraordinary speed and capturing the essence of each excerpt in a seamlessly modulated flow. They leave their audience with multiple reasons to be excited and inspired. 
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*A quick survey of the last seven years, not including titles included in other EnsembleImpact programmes, reveals such gems as: Strange Resting Places by Rob Mokaraka & Paolo Rotondo | Peninsula; Homeland by Gary Henderson | Where We Once Belonged adapted by Dave Armstrong from the novel by Sia Figiel | The Intricate Art of Actually Caring by Eli Kent | Collapsing Creation by Arthur Meek | Postal; Katydid by Lucy O'Brien | Slouching Towards Bethlehem; Midnight in Moscow by Dean Parker | I George Nepia by Hone Kouka | The Prospect by Maraea Rakuraku ... and they are just the tip of a substantial and ever-expanding ‘iceberg'.
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