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AMBITIOUS WORK HOLDS SWAY DESPITE ODD MIX

Print Version

STAB at BATS
BROKEN RIVER
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 Laurie Atkinson, 25 Nov 2013
originally published in The Dominion Post

Broken River is performed in a makeshift theatre set up on the ground floor of the commercial building at 135 Victoria Street, close to Bats' temporary home in Dixon Street. 

Dominating Chris Reddington and Nick Zwart's stage design is their working kinetic water sculpture that resembles one of those terrifying mutant insects called a pivot irrigator that crawl all over the Canterbury Plains. On either side of it is a braided river bed made out of 500 plastic milk bottles.

The revolving irrigator spans the large circular stage on which the inhabitants of a small farming community eek out a precarious living if they are sheep farmers and a more affluent one if they are dairy farmers.

But trouble is brewing between those wanting to push ahead with a dam on the river, expand dairy farming and make a prosperous future for their children. Violence is threatened, graffiti is daubed on sheds, cattle are let loose, and a barn is burnt down.

Broken River is obviously a highly topical play with the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment releasing a report on water quality just this week. To avoid a piece of Green propaganda which would be as boring as a piece of Soviet agit-prop theatre, the playwright has added a mysterious visitor.

He appears one day walking along the riverbed. His white suit, long unkempt hair and beard give him a Christ-like appearance. He is mute. All the adults, except an old Maori lady (Nancy Brunning), are wary of him. Only a child accepts him.

Another visitor is Nick (Paul Waggott) who grew up in the community and is returning many years later to make an official report on the situation. His impartiality is compromised when he meets up with his former girlfriend (Erin Banks) now a mother and married to a belligerent dairy farmer (Alex Grieg).

Broken River is an ambitious play. The central environmental debate is accoutred with not only a murder mystery and the possibility of a renewed romance but also with an air of mysticism. It's a strange mixture of clothing that never wholly blends satisfactorily. However, the audience is held throughout.

The production in the cavernous space is impressive though the acoustics are not the best and quietly spoken naturalistic dialogue is too often lost. The excellent cast of ten slot neatly into their stereotypical rural roles but without ever playing them as stereotypes.
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