A SPLENDIDLY SUCCESSFUL PLAY OF IDEAS AND PERSONALITIES IN A WHIRLING MORAL UNIVERSE
LIVE AT SIX
By Dean Hewison and Leon Wadham
Directed by Tim Spite
Presented by Out Of Bounds and SHOW PONY
by arrangement with Playmarket New Zealand
at Downstage - return season, Wellington
From 5 Sep 2013 to 21 Sep 2013
Reviewed by Michael Gilchrist, 7 Sep 2013
“The spectacle is not a collection of images – rather it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” So wrote Guy Debord in ‘The Society of the Spectacle', all those years ago in 1967. It has taken 45 years but, quite suddenly and alarmingly, that society is upon us.
The News of the World phone hacking scandal, Edward Snowden, the egregious GCSB Bill and our own Peter Dunne – a man who is officially the shadow of his image – have all made us realise that our private lives are in some new way social lives, and our social lives are in some new way irreducibly, if not yet completely, mediated.
We are all doubled, we are all split. The old unities of thought and word, word and deed, deed and consequence are gone. We used to have to live with ourselves; now we have to live with our ‘selfie'. Our lives are transparent to others in ways that are translucent to ourselves.
What better setting in which to examine this dilemma than a TV newsroom? As the play opens, TV1 News anchor Jane Kenyon (Jessica Robinson) has made a Spectacle of herself at a media function. What actually happened? There are as many answers to that question as there are smartphones, security cameras, news cameras and good, old fashioned news angles. And so we enter the whirling moral universe of Live at Six.
TV1 and TV3, distinguished only by the blue and red colourations of their respective clothing and studios, become locked in a battle to discredit each other over the incident. Like Spy White and Spy Black their motives are obscure and their ethics irrelevant. The contest for image and reputation is all. Many humorous observations, farcical twists and pointed confusions follow in what is a splendidly successful play of ideas and personalities.
The action unfolds as much through video clips and internet feeds as it does live on stage, creating a genuinely contemporary multi-media experience. In this respect alone, this joint production by Downstage and Show Pony is worth seeing.
The integration of media – including input from the audience – is seamless, frequently hilarious and always serves the action brilliantly. Special mention should be made in this respect of all the extensive production team, including technology designer Johann Nortje. The script, by Dean Hewison and Leon Wadham, who have some notable experience in writing for television as well as theatre, is simply excellent. It is always surefooted, especially in its inclusion of recorded elements, very funny, frequently insightful, has lots of deft characterisation and is satisfyingly structured. Not to mention, up to date.
Given great material, the cast and director make the most of it. Director Tim Spite also designed the set and plays the key role of rival news anchor, Gordon Miller. He does a wonderful job of the last of these, with his character becoming ever funnier as the play progresses.
Since it is the critic's job to find fault I would say that while the set works very well, I'm not sure that the central plinth like table, which also serves as a rostrum at times, is exactly right. There is a certain amount of bestriding the stage that it seems to require from some characters – the very characters, of course, who imagine that they bestride the media scene – while others are kept at the margin.
Most notable among the latter are the editors for the rival newsrooms, Sam and Fraser. The irony is that these backroom boys are genuinely, deviously influential. They have their own idiolect, their own connections and their own trade secrets. The observed relationship between these characters and the traditional powerbrokers is one of the great things about this script. These are characters with real legs, despite being confined to their chairs, and both are played pitch-perfect by Eii Kent and Barnaby Frederic respectively.
The contrast between those characters occupying centre stage and those on the fringes is appropriate but at times there seems also to be a contrast in acting styles that might be eased by the direction. The entire cast nevertheless give excellent performances, with some experienced performers fully living up to their reputations in a richly textured ensemble display. Tim Spite's achievement in all aspects of this production is also impressive.
In terms of the script my only thoughts are that an additional plot point earlier in the piece would not go astray. Things kick on well when the turn comes late in the first half but the plot could thicken a little earlier too. Also I thought the profanity could be a bit more inventive and well, profane. Swearing seems to be a bit like children and animals onstage. It tends to grab attention and so needs to be suitably whole hearted and expressive.
This is nit-picking though. Live at Six is in the middle of a national tour and should be a roaring success. It is smart, accessible, immensely enjoyable contemporary theatre that helps us understand who we are and what we are doing as a society.
“O would some Power the giftie give us / To see ourselves as others see us!” Back in the day, that seemed a pretty safe moral sentiment. “Be careful what you wish for,” this play seems to add.
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See also reviews by:
Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);
James Wenley (TheatreScenes: The Auckland Theatre Blog);
Paul Simei-Barton (New Zealand Herald);