A HIGHLY STIMULATING IMAGING
New Zealand Festival 2014|
By Stuart Hoar
Directed by Susan Wilson
CIRCA Theatre at the NEW ZEALAND FESTIVAL
at Circa One, Wellington
Until 29 Mar 2014
Reviewed by John Smythe, 23 Feb 2014
What fun to be immersed in this wonderfully playful imagining of something that could well have happened but didn't. Yet now that playwright Stuart Hoar, director Susan Wilson and a stellar team of designers, actors and artisans have brought it alive, the well-wrought mythology becomes a vividly remembered reality. That's how ‘history' happens.
The legend of the play's conception involves the coming together, in Hoar's creative mind, of an etching by French artist Charles Meryon (‘Le Ministère de la Marine' 1865, print 89/123 of which is in the Christchurch Art Gallery collection) and a footnote in history wherein French poet Charles Baudelaire asked Meryon to collaborate with him on a work of etchings and poetry that would record the fast-disappearing Paris of old.
What memorable Charlies they turn out to be in this world premiere production.
A cast of four play seven characters and from the moment they rise to the stage as if materialising through a Meryon etching, we are hooked. Their performances on Andrew Foster's timber deck flanked by gauze and backed by angled screens on which Johann Nortje's Meryon-inspired images are projected, combine with Marcus McShane's lighting, Tane Upjohn-Beatson's composition and sound, and Sheila Horton's costume designs, to create a dramatic experience to be savoured.
George Henare's sardonically suave, morally decadent and chronically broke Baudelaire, self-described as “a flaneur”, is our droll narrator in 1860s Paris. He charts Baudelaire's changing fortunes with superb insight and comic timing.
Jason Whyte is a hunched, haunted and obsessive Meryon in Paris, given to attempted sexual predation and foul-mouthed outbursts (a biography on campbell-fine-art.com describes his condition as “melancholy madness, complicated by delusion”). His younger Meryon is a complex melange of romantic naiveté and colonial chauvinism as a French Navy sailor in 1840s Akaroa (then a French colony).
In Paris all the characters capture the qualities (if that's the word) of having to survive in a ruthlessly ‘laissez faire' culture, not unlike our own.
Emma Kinane brings a stylish intrigue to the role of Jeanne Duval, frocked as she was when she modelled for Manet's ‘Baudelaire's Mistress, Reclining'. Hoar takes the opportunity to draw conclusions from what both she and Baudelaire suffered from health-wise, to show how ruthless libertarianism can get.
Deliciously played by Aroha Whyte, the café waitress, Louise Niveau, whom Meryon claims is his fiancée, is also adept at playing status games while trying to preserve her integrity in the process of seeking a better life. I take it she is entirely fictitious, as are the Māori characters.
The setting transforms to Akaroa through the masterful alchemy of lighting, projection, sound and costume changes. Henare metamorphoses into a majestic Te Rangi, firmly grounded in cultural tradition and adept at using it as a weapon when it is to his advantage. As Ruiha, his daughter, White is outwardly strong and inwardly conflicted by Meryon and the French presence. And the wittily named Madame Bourgeois, Te Rangi's common law wife, is strongly portrayed by Kinane to convey a disenfranchised Pakeha perspective.
Pasefika quickly declares it will not be an historically accurate documentary by wilfully inserting contemporary concepts to bring the story into our frame of relevance, like the litany of coffee styles that are found only in 21st century New Zealand, and references to antiseptic shopping arcades and malls. The broad Kiwi accent used by Madame Bourgeois also serves to jolt us out of seeing them as ‘other' and compel our empathy.
The juxtaposing of 1860s Paris with 1840s Akaroa, with Meryon as the common denominator, underpins the dramatic build of Baudelaire's quest to make a small fortune by getting Meryon to collaborate with him. And the climax comes with the artist exhibiting the extraordinary works that suggest a Pacific invasion of the old world, personified by Paris.
All is played out with wit, flair and stylised physicality at certain moments that I assume may be ascribed to Sacha Copeland, credited as the production's choreographer. Susan Wilson has overseen the development of a splendid theatrical artefact which could not be realised on paper or screen.
“You have to live here, you have to be one of us, to get it,” Stuart Hoar writes in his programme note, echoing Meryon's response to Baudelaire's proposal. In conjuring up this particular imagining, Pasefika brings some surprising new perspectives to the colonial experience and the ‘new world's sense of distinction in relation to the ‘old world'. As such it is a highly stimulating experience.
The only thing that leaves me bemused is why it is called Pasefika, given none of the islands we normally associate with that word are part of this specific story.
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See also reviews by:
Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);