A HIGH LEVEL OF EXCELLENCE
EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON
by Mike Bartlett
directed by Jonathan Hendry
Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School
at Te Whaea National Dance and Drama Centre, 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wellington
From 15 Aug 2013 to 24 Aug 2013
Reviewed by John Smythe, 16 Aug 2013
As I write this has become immediately topical for Wellington, at a literal level anyway. This Friday afternoon has brought us a 6.6 magnitude earthquake just 8km deep (centred off Seddon) followed by a continuing swarm of ‘severe' 5+ and a couple more 6+ shakes … Are such events, or the apparent escalation in their frequency around the globe, a manifestation of climate change?
On 27 February 2008 a magnitude 5.2 earthquake, centred near Lincolnshire, was felt in London. Not long afterwards experts declared a large earthquake that could devastate London was well overdue: a warning we know well in NZ.
The Royal Court's writer-in-residence Mike Bartlett's play My Child had premiered at the Royal Court in 2007, Contractions would open in June 2008 and Cock was coming up in 2009 (and destined to win an Olivier Award the year after). All were small cast plays. So when he was commissioned to write a large cast play for the National Theatre, he latched on to the earthquake motif for his exploration of the effects of apocalyptic Climate Change predictions on three sisters pursuing very different lives in London.
Earthquakes in London premiered at the Cottesloe in August 2010 and this Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School production, directed by Jonathon Hendry, is one of a number being staged by drama schools worldwide. Apart from being an ideal vehicle for 3rd year actors, designers and production students, it offers the best opportunity we can hope for to see this extraordinary play in Wellington.
Epic in scale – its action spans 1968 to 2025 (will humanity survive beyond that year?) – with 16 actors taking on 30+ roles, the play maintains cohesion by drawing the story threads through the three sisters and their father. And mother.
Although the inter-relationships are slowly revealed, it will not be a spoiler to note that Dr Robert Sullivan (Felix Beecroft) – whose PhD was on atmospheric conditions on other planets before he fronted a research project for a major airline run by Daniel (Tom Knowles) and Roy (Timote Mapuhola) – epitomises the type who is so busy concerning himself with the fate of the world that he neglects his immediate family.
The central dramatic tension is embodied in his middle daughter Freya (Frith Horan), a teacher of variously challenged children who is pregnant despite her father's exhortations not to bring more children into a future that looms with doom. When her husband, Steve (Philip Anstis), goes away ostensibly on business but on a quest to find out what's troubling her, her discombobulation increases …
The manifestations of Freya's states of mind, not least through her interactions with hyperactive 14 year-old Peter (Greta Gregory) who is somewhere on the autistic spectrum, produce some of the most memorable scenes, especially towards the end in dimensions I cannot reveal here but which also involve Lucy Suttor in the role of Grace.
The oldest daughter, Sarah (Brynley Stent), is the environment Secretary in a Tory Government and trying to balance idealism with pragmatism while her accountant husband Colin (Jack Buchanan), recently made redundant and stuck at home, tries to cope with a lacklustre life and a mostly absent yet controlling wife. The evocation of who they once were, what they've become and who they might be is especially intriguing.
Jasmine (Greer Philips), the youngest daughter, is a student on the loose in London and knocks about with Tom (Vā'imoana Sinafoa), a would-be radical activist of Eritrean descent. Their catalytic influence on the others infuses the play with enegy.
Along with Taylor Hall as Carter, a smooth ‘suit' from a multi-national company, the central plotlines are well held and articulated with flair by all these actors.
Indeed there is not a weak link throughout. Susan Berry doubles the dour housekeeper Mrs Andrews with a powerful singing role; Keagan Carr Fransch's redundant office worker, old-then-young woman and shop girl at Liberty all make their points well; Reuben Butler delivers a good Dr Tim, and Pereri King completes the cast as Simon, Sarah's aide, and a memorable Polar Bear street collector for Greenpeace.
Stylish swimmers, trendy Mum's-with-prams and cellphone-preoccupied people swarm from time to time over Oliver Morse's white box set, lit by Alex Fisher and projected upon through the ingenuity of Morse, Owen McCarthy, Joe Newman and operator Charlotte Pommier. Katrina Turkilsen's sound scape and Brendan Heffernan's costumes complete a superb overall design aesthetic.
The play expands to cosmic climes and contracts back to domestic scenes impressively while ebbing and flowing fluently from the past through the present and into the future. I can't – or rather won't – explain why or how, but the question of whether or not we should condemn new children to the future we are creating becomes the focus, and the way it plays out makes for riveting theatre.
This is a splendid opportunity to see a brilliant contemporary British play with large cast produced, designed and performed to a high level of excellence. Don't miss it!
Ironically, however, tonight's performance (Friday 16 August) has been cancelled as a precaution in case there are more strong aftershocks – woops, there goes another big shake – and because the traffic chaos caused already may make it difficult for patrons to get there.
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