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Print Version

Written and Directed by Ralph McCubbin Howell
Produced by Hannah Smith
Presented by Trick of the Light and BATS Theatre

at BATS Theatre (Out Of Site), Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington
From 23 Nov 2013 to 5 Dec 2013

Reviewed by John Smythe, 24 Nov 2013

The second of this year's STAB commissions, Broken River, is – like the first, Pandemic – issue-based, with characters created to serve a plot designed to raise awareness and, in this case, encourage debate.

The source of writer /director Ralph McCubbin Howell's inspiration is concern about the changes occurring around his childhood hometown, Waikari, in rural North Canterbury, where they'd build river-rock dams to try to make their Waitohi swimming hole deeper. “Now a new dam is going to be built there,” he writes in his programme note. “It is part of a scheme to irrigate some 60,000 hectares of dryland – transforming the landscape to lurid green in pursuit of dairy's white gold.” (More details here.)

But Broken River, set in fictional Waitapu, is not a polemical play. He describes the irrigation issue as a “frighteningly real backdrop” to a play about “coming home after going away: the things that change and the things that are lost.” He adds, “I wanted to make something visual and narrative; political and magical.”

The visual impact is achieved with Chris Reddington's impressive kinetic sculpture, inspired by the pivot irrigators that dot the Canterbury landscape. The narrative is driven by the return to his roots of Nick, now a social scientist and commissioned to conduct a survey on the social impacts of the irrigation scheme. The environmental debate underpins the action without being overtly articulated and an undercurrent of small community politics is ever-present in subtext too until it spurts out under pressure.

A magic realism dimension comes with the mysterious arrival, right at the start, of a briefcase-carrying, white-suited stranger, who doesn't speak and reveals nothing about who he is or where he came from (inspired by the real-life case of Andreas Grassl, who became known as ‘Piano Man'). He appears to be meditating when the pivot soaks him and as the action flows on he reflects different things to different people: a lost brother, a lost dream, a guide to Cape Reinga for the dearly departing (referencing the Kotuku /White Heron in Maori Mythology), fear of the unknown, and perhaps even a guilty conscience to some. When finally revealed, the secret contained within his case suggests he could be the guardian of an essential life source …

All this creates fertile ground from which to grow a richly rewarding play, doubtless destined to become more seamlessly ‘organic' than its nevertheless extremely impressive world premiere performance (just a slight sense that it has yet to become fully imbued with its own life force).

Tommy Truss, an actor with a background in dance, is a mesmerising physical presence as The Stranger. He may be seen as a catalyst for accessing what is hidden or repressed, forgotten or never known.  

By contrast the pivotal character, Nick, has his work cut out trying to get any of the locals to speak into his survey-gathering recorder. His twelve years way in the UK allows Paul Waggott to use his natural voice (although it's strange no-one who knew him as a boy comments on his sounding like a Pom). Waggott acutely embodies the state of feeling like a ‘fish out of water' in his own homeland. I do have a niggle, however, about his tendency to go soft at the end of sentences, especially when it causes key words to be lost.  

The community hub is the pub, presided over by Erina Daniels' no-nonsense Trish, whose near-blind mother – Hinewai (only referred to as Mum in the play) and played with a wry wit by Nancy Brunning – misses nothing while tempting fate at a poker machine. It is here the famers gather to chew the fat while trying to hide the issue until yet another pustule bursts.

The most aggressively progressive is Blair, strongly rendered by Alex Greig. Nick's cousin Michael, well contained within Thom McGrath, is the one most opposed to the inevitable environmental impacts of the scheme. And Ralph Johnson ruggedly inhabits the ‘old dog' role of Harry, whose aviary should, I feel, be more prominent (as a set-up for a crucial payoff later).   

Attempting to maintain order and equilibrium is Jane Waddell's stolid Community Constable, Jo. A running “G'day” gag, involving Blair, Jo, Harry and Michael, speaks volumes in its brevity.

And then there is Nick's high-school sweetheart Brooke, who should have gone to England too, to develop her music talents, but was held back when her Dad fell from his farm bike and became a paraplegic. She has since married Blair and they have a 10 year-old daughter, Georgia (played with astute truth by Nova Waretini Hewison), in whom she has invested her love of music. What with a brother who drowned at 22 when she and he were attempting to step in for their Dad, Brooke is the most complex and conflicted character and Erin Banks nails each moment and state of being superbly.   

Broken River is staged in the ground floor of a building in Victoria Street, just round the corner from Bats Out-of-Site. Chris Reddington and Nick Zwart's set design has the pivot sculpture looming over the central action, rotate by the cast and seen in different moods thanks to Marcus McShane's excellent lighting design, incorporating ground lighting through dozens of empty plastic milk bottles. Water courses through the veins of the sculpture, allowing for a practical beer tap and water tap, and configurations of beer crates provide the furniture for various settings.

My over-logical brain wants to interpret a meaning for every of the many and varied emanations of water – e.g. how come there's a flow when they've been talking of a drought? – and I do find myself wondering if every drip is intended, but in retrospect I think there is a poetic rationale to its use. And it does remain the most memorable element of the production.

Tane Upjohn-Beatson delivers yet another wonderful sound design, as often counterpointing the action as complementing it. Eliza Thompson-Munn's costume designs fit the time, place and characters perfectly.  

Plot-wise, a lot of chickens come home to roost at the end and I have to confess I was so busy processing some of them, one flew right past me – namely, whodunit (I won't say what). A better metaphor might be the opening of sluice gates, where the sudden rush makes it difficult to pinpoint its separate components.  

There is no doubt, however, that Broken River is a major theatrical work that captures a highly topical set of conflicts. Once can only hope (given the loss of Downstage and current stasis of the Hannah Playhouse) that, like other STAB productions – e.g. Death and the Dreamlife of Elephants; Live At Six – it will get the opportunity to bloom to its full potential.
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See also reviews by:
 Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);