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DISTURBING

Print Version

SYDNEY BRIDGE UPSIDE DOWN
Adapted from the novel by David Ballantyne
by Taki Rua Productions
Directed by James Ashcroft

at Downstage Theatre, Wellington
From 21 Jun 2013 to 6 Jul 2013
[2 hrs 5 mins, incl. interval. R 13.]

Reviewed by Maraea Rakuraku, 26 Jun 2013


From the outset, the ominous tone is set in Sydney Bridge Upside Down. There is something bad coming to Calliope Bay, or is there? No hold it, something terrible happened there one Summer. Okay then.

Based on the novel by David Ballantyne, apparently this is the New Zealand classic that never was. No disrespect intended. Having not read it I can't say. However I have read and seen screen adaptations of works this reminds me of; Ian Cross's – The God Boy and more specifically Ronald Hugh Morrieson's, The Scarecrow. There are even some aspects of Atonement by Ian McEwen thrown in, in the way a child interprets and describes what he sees. And, dare I say it, the opening images remind me of the horror flick, The Ring.

As is the case in every small township, everyone knows everyone's business. There are literally larger-than-life characters and your best friends are as likely to defend you or give you a hiding. Just like The Scarecrow, a girl is the centre of attention and a boy wants to save her. Only it's unclear which girl and for that matter, which boy? 

This is a sinister coming-of-age story and I don't say that lightly. There are some parts where I find myself physically shrinking into my seat and hiding behind hands. There is something very uneasy about this story and I think it's because it feeds into a type of truth that exists in New Zild, and on reflection I actually don't think a story like this could be as potent anywhere else but here, with our picturesque scenery hiding sinister undertones.

There's something disorienting and frankly disturbing about Sydney Bridge Upside Down. Seeing this is like being assaulted with everything that can be thrown at a production what with the multiple clever uses of screens, lighting, sound and image distortion and video projections that at one stage remind me of the short film Teach you a Lesson (2000) by Gregory King. In relation to music, I just may be permanently traumatised by the use of the track of a favoured song, ‘You Don't Know Me'. Before intermission it is starting to feel like sensory overload with no respite or light. Mind F**k.

If it is the intention of the director, James Ashcroft, to present a play about a novel, he's succeeded. Information is revealed slowly and right to the point of almost losing interest. That's the thing with book adaptations: you already have the gold in your hand; now, interpret it. The interpretation of this is impressive.

One of the characters looks like a Richard Ponder portrait, is that purposeful? I don't know if I'll ever be able to look at those paintings quite the same again. There are fantastic elements – weight depicted through sound which fortunately provides well needed and timed comic relief. It seems particular attention has been played to cadence in the delivery of dialogue by the characters. Bravo.

Rob Mokaraka's Mr Baird has a provincial older man ring to it and Aaron Cortesi's Mr Wiggins/ Sam Phelps/ Mr Dalloway are standouts. It does seem like Maaka Pohatu always plays variations of the same character no matter what the production. Even so, it's a joy hearing him sing; along with fellow cast member James Tito (Cal) in another life offstage, he makes up half of suited boy-band, Modern Māori Quartet. 

Claire van Beek (Caroline) – wow! – with Holly Shanahan (Sue Prosser), brings taut, ratcheted-up tension and (like any good writing) shows rather than tells.

Even the way Tim Carlsen switches up his accent and tone is impressive. It really feels like nothing is wasted in his performance but really, while the supporting cast are good and evenly paced, Sydney Bridge Upside Down is about Harry Baird, and with that Tim Carlsen: his use of voice and all that dialogue. Jeesh. Good on him because it's a shitload of scripting to learn. He basically does the verbal equivalent of what Te Kohe Tuhaka did in Michael James Manaia and that's not accounting for the physicality of the role either.

Every single actor is all over the set. I don't quite get the mattresses thing and, as a self identified rule-breaker, I'm up for it. Is it a wharetipuna? Is the opening a karakia? Or am I looking for obvious tohu Māori because this is a Māori theatre house and some of the actors are Māori? There's just so much information in this production you lose track and there are a number of red herrings. Although this adds to confusion, it doesn't shirk from the eventual horror of realisation which is well played, even if everything that follows pales.

At times I find it irritating that I can't settle on the time this is based because there is something about this story that is so centred in a particular time. The phrases thrown around by the Dibs character are so out of sync with those of other characters, they add to the confusion. The music and costuming don't help. Are they Amish, cowboys, Amish cowboys?

Have I mentioned I find it disturbing and therefore find myself naturally leaning towards not liking this? Even so, this would have to be one of the better Taki Rua productions I've seen. Ever. How much of this is due to the script or direction, it's unclear. What's feeding what? Is it the play feeding the novel feeding the play?

One of the audience members reckons it's the novel feeding the play. That's why he came. I, on the other hand, am not too sure and here's why:

Why the commitment to this work? As Ashcroft reveals he only read the book in 2011, to have a full production up and touring two years later is impressive; gobsmackingly impressive. With the additional kaupapa that includes sending copies of the book, which until 2010 was out of print, and then encouraging readers to comment on a facebook page – well, who needs a publicist when you have the country's leading National Māori Theatre Company backing you. Now if that isn't an endorsement I don't know what is, which brings me to this. 

Does a novel enjoy a second life with a stage/ screen adaptation? Absolutely. Whalerider and Once were Warriors spiked in book sales following their film productions. It's a publishers dream. For others already well engrained within NZ literature scene, like , maybe not so much. Though Taki Rua do seem to have gone further by actually purchasing books (I'm ready to be corrected if this isn't the case), distributing them and encouraging feedback via a facebook page, which is either a clever marketing trick or not. 

Ki te whakaahua ko te hīkoi tēnei a Hare i runga ai te facebook, kātahi te karo nanakia. Kō te whakaiiti tēnei i te reo me te pēhi i te tino mana mōtuhake ō taua reo. Tēna ahau ki te whakamātou ake i te pūtake o te arahi i te kaupapa i runga i te facebook, he mahi pōhēhē kei te kāpō kāore i te kitea kei te ko te Māori te papa o te whakahoki mai te rawa kia whai hua tēnei kaupapa. He aha ano tā koutou take? Why would you do that?

Whatever – it has me questioning why the premier Māori Production House of 30 years standing isn't focusing this level of attention and care to the development of Māori works? No disrespect to David Ballentyne, his whānau or any member of the creative team involved in this production. Sure, there is the annual Te Reo Māori Season and a recent collaboration with Court Theatre, Christchurch sees the inaugural appointment of a resident playwright, Chris Molloy. However, having got this full production up in two years I can only imagine the boost it would give for Māori novelists to have their works interpreted with this level of development.

Kelly-Ana Morey comes to mind. Am I saying there are Māori novelists like David Ballantyne? Undiscovered and overlooked. Hells yeah. Am I saying they are as good as Ballantyne? Well, time may determine that, as it has with him, but as the tūakana of Māori theatre Taki Rua enjoys a position of acceptance within the wider New Zealand demographic and with that, a responsibility to the Māori community upon which it was built. 

I wouldn't be saying this if Māori theatre was well and truly ensconced within New Zealand but it isn't. We don't even have a whare! Apart from Tawata Productions, which actively develops new work – which means it has a flow on affect to new writers, production staff and actors – it has me wondering at the commitment Taki Rua actually has for Māori-centric work that, inevitably brings us to the elephant in the room of what is Māori theatre? Something with a Māori in it?” I asked a group of College kids who attended the night I did if what they saw was Māori because it had Māori in it. They all replied, “Nah.” I then asked them if they'd seen any Māori theatre – again, “Nah.” But then they also couldn't fathom why it was called Sydney Bridge Upside Down when the horse for which this is named barely features. Like me, they left the theatre with further questions and illustrated first-hand the disconnect between Māori punters and Taki Rua. 

I have no doubt this work will bring a level of respect to Taki Rua but as the tūakana there are responsibilities to your own. This story is sexy but – c'mon! – so too, is Māori storytelling! Mehemea he Māori a David Ballantyne, he Māori te wairua tito i tēnei korero paki, ka eke ano ki runga i nga taumata whakahirahira o te rākau whakapapa ō te pūrakau Māori. Kare kau pea. E tika ana me hiki tana mana. Ae pea!

Now to the cut: did I enjoy this? Noooo. Is that because it wasn't any good? No. What were the actors like? Excellent. Would I recommend it? Unsure. Does it make me want to read the book? Yes. Will I read the book? Probably not (though after writing this, I'm thinking, yes though I am a scaredy cat so maybe not). Would I see it again? Probably. Am I less confused after writing this review? Kinda. Will I have nightmares about this? Most definitely. Is this a classic story that could be classic theatre? Yes, yes I think it is. 

A lot of work and production value has gone into Sydney Bridge Upside Down. It's sophisticated, daring theatre. Mēna he pātai mehemea me puru te taikaha ō nga rawa ki roto i ngā kaupapa pūrakau Māori. Ko te whakatau ko te tikanga, Ae. E mihi kau atu ana ki  te tāonga kua whāriki-tia mai na e koutou. Do I resent the inevitable success of this production, absolutely not. The creative teams hard work should be celebrated, as too the work of David Ballantyne, and I'd like to thank Taki Rua for introducing me to a writer I'd never heard of. 

E kare ma, ko te kupu ō tātou tipuna e hara ana ko te Kaimahe, engari ko te kaimahi.

E hoa ma a Taki Rua, nga whanaunga tāne whakapiripiri, hine whakapiripiri Kia mau, kia ū ki nga tūranga matua ō a tātou mātua tīpuna ahakoa pēhea. He mihi kau atu ana i te tāonga kua whārikitia mai e koutou. Ngamihi.

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See also reviews by:
 Michaela Manley (The Dominion Post);
 John Smythe
 Gilbert Wong (Metro Arts);
 Ngaire Riley
 Nik Smythe
 Sharu Delilkan (TheatreScenes - the Auckland Theatre Blog);
 Paul Simei-Barton (New Zealand Herald);