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THE QUEST FOR AUTHENTICITY AND INTEGRITY

Print Version

THIS RUGGED BEAUTY
Devised & presented by Binge Culture
Directed by Ralph Upton

at BATS Theatre (Out Of Site), Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington
From 25 Mar 2014 to 5 Apr 2014

Reviewed by John Smythe, 26 Mar 2014


When I reviewed Binge Culture's first exploratory staging of This Rugged Beauty in February 2011 (it opened three days after the Christchurch earthquake), I concluded: “Part of me would like to see the play-to-date wrought with a writer's sensibility now, to add greater depth, breadth and thematic resonance … and another part likes the challenge of engaging with the themes in a whole new way.”  

I didn't see its workshop season at Downstage last year, which they had reworked “with the encouragement and critical feedback from a range of audience members and mentors.”

The media release for this season is headed “A subversive take on ‘The New Zealand Story' … Wellington performance company's response to Government's marketing campaign” and director Ralph Upton finds himself “questioning whether images of majestic mountains and sandy beaches is my memory or one that Tip Top sold to me. When ‘kiwi identity' becomes a marketed commodity, is it possible to authentically express who we are? Does any ‘New Zealand Story' align with reality, or are they all just selling something?”  

The same may be asked of any New Zealand play and its attendant publicity material. My question about this production is whether they really are wanting to subvert our marketed self-image or actually point to, and celebrate, our indomitable spirit in the face of adversity. Or are they creating the circumstances that allow each of us to decide for ourselves?

The same relationship and family tragedy story – of Judy, Dave and little Timmy – is at the heart of the play. The ‘tacky tableaux' of Kiwiana have been dispensed with, as such, with some elements integrated in other ways. The performance opens with a verbal litany of iconic Kiwi items or experiences, each tagged with: “this rugged beauty”. The poker-faced renditions of the four hosts-cum-performers – Rachel Baker, Joel Baxendale, Simon Haren, and Claire O'Loughlin – challenge our inner urges to embrace or cringe.

Centre stage is the wooden frame of a bach or home: both defining characteristics of the Kiwi dream; both revealed as such in the unfolding drama. Sheets of corrugated plastic are used inventively to enclose, reveal, screen shadow play and create sound effects. We are asked to close our eyes and imagine relevant personal experiences as the cast enhance our senses with tactile and sonic elements.

While Rachel Baker and Simon Haren play out the Judy and Dave story, Joel Baxendale and Claire O'Loughlin deconstruct and comment on the action, as academics might expose and interrogate a classic, or children might pull apart a toy, not only to see how it works but to display the components and the mechanics for the edification of others – in this case, us, their audience.

They also tell us, more than once, that Rachel represents all women and Simon represents all men. And they point out how various events in the Judy-and-Dave story are microcosms of bigger moments in the history of Aotearoa New Zealand, evoked through the afore-mentioned shadow play.

Thus, as the four parts – labelled ‘We may be young', ‘A coming of age', ‘Disaster' and ‘Triumph' – play out, we are constantly reminded of the artifice of story-telling and play-making, and invited to play along.  

Just as it all seems destined to resolve in a quartet of ‘Generation-whatevers' cocooned in a hut for a ‘me-myself-and I' talk-fest, a bigger picture from the wider world – a dramatised whale stranding – jolts them out of their self-indulgence, or offers a handy distraction, or gives them a random way to end the show. Take your pick. And here we are invited to participate in the make-believe … in order to prove what? That we care about nature; we can still play ‘let's pretend'; we are supportive of the needs of live theatre performers …?

This too was part of the original 2011 season, where we left the auditorium and engaged with the mournfully wailing ‘whales' in the Studio 77 amphitheatre. When The Whales component played out as a free public event on the Wellington waterfront in last year' Fringe, it was a 40 minute ‘happening' that subverted our preconceptions of dramatic structure. “People have to get over themselves and attend to the task at hand,” I wrote, “and this is what happens. Remarkable.” Brought back as a coda to This Rugged Beauty, it takes about four minutes.

So how does this relate to our over-arching quest for authenticity in storytelling? I guess, as always, it's up to us to contemplate and conclude as we will. Which brings me to the question I now have about the Binge Culture approach.

“We make risky, accessible and playful performance, testing and subverting New Zealand culture,” they say on the back of the programme. “We're always looking for ways to make the most of the live theatre experience, and we want to create a vital role and place for our audience in what we do.”

There is something about their attempts to ‘democratise' the crafting of the live theatre experience that renders the results relatively superficial for me. While the many manifestations of their working through their youthful resistance to ‘conventional theatre' forms have, indeed, been ‘playful', I can't help feeling they are copping out of full commitment to actual creation. Their shows don't only talk about the process of creation; they talk about talking about it. Playfully.

Something tells me they are now on the verge of realising how much more profound, engaging and enriching theatre can be when its component parts are integrated to produce something more than their sum, and that this is the very definition of integrity, and autheticity. I would argue it is also more respectful of the audience's capacity to process the experience with an innate understanding of the artifice involved, while owning the inevitable subjectivity of their personal response.

Maybe it's time to put that toy back together and see what it can do.
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