18/01/2008 - 17/02/2008
A witty reflection on art vs life by award-winning playwright Branwen Millar
Winner of Best New Playwright at the 2005 New Plays Festival in Santa Barbara, California, Branwen Millar returns with a warm and witty reflection on real talent versus naked ambition.
Commitment-phobe globe-hopper Elsie returns home to shoo away a few family demons. While Elsie’s career as a photographer takes off seemingly without effort, her younger sister Ruth puts her life on hold to support her ambitious boyfriend in his dream of becoming an artist.
But can talent be acquired? Or is it just something you’re born with?
The sisters’ secrets from one another are on the verge of unraveling. But what will really shock them are the secrets others are keeping from them.
Former Wellingtonian of the Year (youth category) Millar’s second play is "lyrical and tender, cleverly structured and beautifully written" (Lynne Cardy, Auckland Theatre Company). It’s also one of the winners of the 2007 New Zealand Young Playwrights Competition. Playmarket director Mark Amery enthuses: "You will be hard pushed to find a smarter and better crafted play from a fresh voice this year."
After playing sisters in the critically acclaimed devised work Penumbra, Abby Marment (Falling Petals) and Kate Prior (Baghdad, Baby!) return to familiar territory as sisters Elsie and Ruth.
The multi-talented cast also features a few artists of its own: musician and composer Jamie McCaskill (King and Country) and comedy writer and performance poet Eli Kent (The Cape). Actress and TV director Emma Robinson (Unidentified Human Remains) plays photojournalist Julie.
The show will feature photographs by documentary photographer Victoria Birkinshaw. A student of Ann Noble, Victoria’s stunning and humorous work has featured in New York Times, Listener, Metro and NZ Geographic. She has also exhibited at Mary Newton, Enjoy, Pataka and Hirschfield Galleries.
Director/designer is Stephen Bain (Stories Told To Me By Girls), whose most recent work is a live theatre/street installation hybrid called Baby, where are the fine things you promised me? Stephen and his Baby have been touring Australia and NZ since early 2007 (wherearethefinethings.blogspot.com).
Ruth . . . Abby Marment
Elsie . . . Kate Prior
Steve . . .Jamie McCaskill
Julie . . . Emma Robinson
Harry . . . Eli Kent
Photography: Victoria Birkenshaw
Lighting design: Jennifer Lal
Costume design: Emily Smith
Stage manager / operator: Paul Tozer
Publicity: Julie Hill
Mechanist: Rob Larsen
1hr 15mins, no interval
Review by Timothy O'Brien 04th Feb 2008
Circa’s 2008 programme got off to a stylish start with Armslength at Circa 2.
Branwen Millar’s play concerns the interconnected loves and aspirations of five people looking for balance between their desire for happy relationships and their ambitions for successful careers.
Elsie (Kate Prior) is a photojournalist who has returned home to study art photography with her hero Julie (Emma Robinson), who has made the same transition. Julie is also mentor of Steve (Jamie McCaskill) who lives with Elsie’s unhappy sister Ruth (Abby Marment). Ruth is supporting Steve’s studies. On the edge is Harry (Eli Kent), a nerdy PhD student who hero-worships Julie: her photograph of the Aurora Borealis led him to his scientific career.
The playwright makes fine chamber music with this quintet, weaving themes of betrayal, hope, loss and love – both requited and unfulfilled – into a sophisticated entertainment. [More]
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Cracking good dialogue and actions could have been left to speak for themselves
Review by Simon Sweetman 03rd Feb 2008
[Written for the Sunday Star Times but not published.]
This is a short, fast-paced dramatic work that is worth supporting for the fact that Branwen Millar (already a winner of young playwright competitions) seems to be improving and honing her skills with each work. Noisy Shadows (2005, with a sell-out season at Wellington’s BATS theatre in 2006) was a confident set of ideas and Armslength manages to tear along nicely with some cracking-good dialogue.
Julie (Emma Robinson) is a famous photographer turned lecturer. One of her students, Steve (Jamie McCaskill), wants to be an artist but lacks the talent. He lives with Ruth (Abby Marment). Ruth’s sister Elsie (Kate Prior) returns to join the class. She has been a photojournalist but wants to be an artist. Poking in and around the plot is PhD student Harry (Eli Kent), who left his interest in photography to go with science.
But all of the characters hold secrets from one another. And the sisters do not get on – Elsie left Ruth to go overseas, combining work assignments with free-spirited travel. The family unit (not the most secure, it sounds) crumbled around Ruth. Her dreams of being a dancer were swept away with the broom she now uses to wipe up the café floor where she works.
It is a nice enough premise – but starts to turn in to too much of a soap-opera. And the linking narrative soliloquies start to sound very heavy-handed. Nice idea – but it reeks of first-draft sureness and should have been edited out to leave the dialogue and actions to speak for themselves as it were.
Of the cast, Eli Kent stands out for adding humour to the mix, even if it’s hard to believe that he could embody a science PhD student.
The set is amazing; three rooms work in the one small Circa 2 space with nice use of lights and simple design. The floor is tiled with actual journalistic photo images (from Victoria Birkinshaw) and not only adds another layer, it literally feels like a character in the play.
I am sure that Millar will continue to develop and evolve as a playwright – and to even see this script realised at one of Wellington’s major theatres is a triumph. For that, any shortcomings should be forgiven.
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A very fine piece of work
Review by Helen Sims 26th Jan 2008
Armslength starts off in story book fashion, with the actors telling a story about an ambitious young woman, who wants a lot of things that can’t happen at the same time. She goes to live on the top of the world, so that it can revolve around her. Thus begins a play which manages to balance two poles – the literal and the figurative; the story told and the story shown, with great skill.
The motif of photographic imagery is established upon walking into the theatre. The stage floor is covered with images, the work of Victoria Birkinshaw, a photographer who is credited in the programme with both a journalistic and artistic background. The respective merits of photographic journalism and artistic photography emerge as one of the peripheral issues dealt with in the play – is it art if it serves a purpose? Must it serve a purpose? If it’s used to make a living and garner profit? Can a photo be both newsworthy and artistic? These questions are dealt with playfully and implicitly in exchanges between fellow photography students and their professor.
The bulk of the play however is devoted to the relationship between sisters Elsie (Kate Prior) and Ruth (Abby Marment). Elder sister Elsie has fled the family home and New Zealand sometime before and is only now returning for the first time in 8-10 years (I was unclear as to how long it was exactly). After being extremely close to each other in childhood, subsequent events have driven the sisters in separate directions – figuratively, they occupy the two poles. It becomes increasingly clear that they cannot both have the world revolve around them. Elsie has escaped and had a successful, but rootless career as a photo journalist. Ruth remained, coping with the death of their mother and giving up a career as a dancer to work as a waitress to support her boyfriend Steve (Jamie McKaskill), the “emotionally scarred and financially strained undiscovered artist”. Drawn into the complex interaction of the sisters is Julie (Emma Robinson), a University Professor and famed photographer, and Harry (Eli Kent) a PhD student with a little more than normal admiration for Julie who becomes the subject of Elsie’s prize-winning photography assignment.
The story is simple, but the themes are complex. As a mid-20s woman still “wanting it all” and with a younger sister as my sole sibling I really connected with this play and its characters. Divided loyalties and desires seem to feature quite large amongst women my age. Moments of revelation just seem to create more questions rather than answering them. All of this is covered in Millar’s script. Whilst at some moments it would have been nice to see a more concentrated exploration of a single issue or the play trimmed of some superfluous detail (for example the revelation of Steve as a wealthy entrepreneur), this is a very fine piece of work for a new playwright. It is complemented by excellent design by Bain and his crew and committed performances from the cast.
Originally published in The Lumière Reader.
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Meaty and elegant
Review by Lynn Freeman 23rd Jan 2008
What a way to start the year – five plays, four of them New Zealand works. And those works all about as different as you could wish for.
Armslength is by Victoria University International Institute of Modern letters graduate and 2007 New Zealand Young Playwrights Competition winner, Branwen Millar. For a young writer she has a strong individual voice and is not bound by the ‘well made play’ conventions, with a cinematic feel to the play as it elegantly chops and changes between scenes and sets. She likes meaty themes and issues, without lecturing her audience or turning her characters into propagandists.
"Once upon a time a person wanted things to happen for them."
At its heart Armslength is the story of two estranged sisters, Elsie (Kate Prior) who’s spent the past decade traveling the world as a photo journalist, and Ruth (Abby Marment) who has given up on dancing and supports her photographer lover, Steve (Jamie McCaskill). Slowly we find out what’s behind the sisters’ falling out, but cleverly Millar doesn’t do so by having her characters tell all in weepy monologues. We don’t find out everything, but enough to draw reasonable conclusions. Elsie has escaped an unhappy and unhealthy home life, returning on the death of her mother. Ruth has found solace in the arms of man she knows is lying to her.
Prior and Marment make an emotionally charged acting duet. You hunger for more of their scenes together, more of their story. They spark and fire off each other, but never too much. Jamie McCaskill, as the highly sensual and selfish Steve, convincingly threatens their fragile reunion.
Eli Kent is adorable as the gangly PHD student Harry, (who was once an alcoholic but is now just a heavy drinker) who becomes Elsie’s photographic assignment, and who is besotted with Julie, her teacher, once also a photographic legend. Robinson in that role gave a flat opening night performance, there was no fire in her belly.
Stephen Bain blended the scenes into each other engagingly, it was never distracting as it could have been in less experienced hands.
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Witty work of art and science
Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 21st Jan 2008
Branwen Millar is clearly a new playwright going places. Her Armslength is a lively and entertaining drama that snaps and crackles with sharp, witty dialogue, an interesting range characters, and a climactic scene that is visually and dramatically exciting.
All the characters are drawn towards Julie (Emma Robinson), a teacher, photographer, promoter of talent and maker and breaker of reputations. Two of her students are Steve (Jamie McCaskill) and Elsie (Kate Prior).
Steve wants to be an artist but lacks the drive and passion, while Elsie, who has returned from overseas after some success as a photojournalist, wants to become an artist rather than a jobbing photographer.
Steve is living with Ruth (Abby Marment), Elsie’s younger sister, who was a dancer but now works and seems to support Steve by working in a café. The two sisters have issues: Elsie, amongst other things, skedaddled off overseas leaving Ruth to cope with their mother.
And then there’s the eternal outsider, Harry (Eli Kent), studying for his PhD on something to do with the Earth’s magnetic field, who drinks a lot ("I was an alcoholic, now I’m just a heavy drinker."), is confused by women and is a nervous fan of Julie’s photographic work and far too shy to talk to her.
The plot is a mite unbelievable at times and a bit soap opera-ish, despite all the talk about art and the Earth spinning on its axis, and the characters, while believable and boldly drawn, never seem to be living in what I presume is meant to be New Zealand.
Stephen Bain, who also designed the ingenious setting of three rooms and a gallery, keeps the numerous short scenes flowing smoothly and he has got excellent performances from all his actors, in particular from Eli Kent as Harry. Though he looks far too young to be an alcoholic PhD student, he carries off the humour and the pathos of the role with aplomb.
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Fresh creativity in juicy play
Review by John Smythe 19th Jan 2008
Intriguing in its form and content, Armslength proves that Branwen Millar’s extraordinary debut play Noisy Shadows (Theatre Militia at BATS, late March 2006) was no flash in the pan. Whereas Noisy Shadows pits flatmates against an insistent outside world of media news, Armslength – at Circa Two – isolates its characters in psychological silos that others find hard to breach.
The self-serving behaviours and insular obsessions of four 20-somethings and one 40 year-old are captured in a magic realist concept: that they have ‘moved to the top of the world’ so they can honestly say the world does revolve around them. The point of relative equilibrium, then, is the equator, where a greater awareness of others counterbalances oneself.
This strain of commentary, which is variously articulated by cast members, first as a prologue then as verbal bridges between acts, is one of the ways Millar elevates her play from a potential mire of dysfunctional self-indulgence. Another is the way she tantalises her audience, making us hungry for the facts that underpin the way people are before slipping us a morsel. This, and the deft way she charts the fairly complex plot convolutions without getting bogged down in exposition, marks her as a special talent.
The play’s concerns are also made manifest and explored through a tension between photo-journalism (looking outward) and photography as art (looking inward).
Given all this, Armslength is an oddly prosaic title. Perhaps it’s supposed to refer to the art part, except cameras are held closer than a painter may hold a brush … What am I missing here?
Director Stephen Bain’s straight-lined set design, accommodating furniture for two academic offices separated by a home living area, features four large metal panels that are used to display printed graphics, felt-penned diagrams and squared-off attempts to isolate ‘art’ in a necessarily uninspiring photographic range of nude bodyscapes. But the two central panels hide a secret that crashes into the lives of all four at the play’s climactic turning point.
Also secret, in that we can’t get a good look at it unless we crawl around the set before or after the show, is the stage floor covered with a photomontage made (according to a programme note) from the last five years of photojournalist Victoria Birkinshaw’s projects: a different show in itself.
But our major focus of interest is in the people: their wants, needs, lives, relationships … The opening sequence has the yet-to-be distinguished cast randomly on the move in different directions, sharing the space yet deeply immersed in their own concerns …
Ruth, lapsed dancer-turned-waitress, inhabits centre stage and is shocked to have her haven invaded when globe-trotting older sister Elsie tracks her down. Ruth’s antagonism and Elsie’s relative patience with her instantly set up the ‘what the hell happened?’ question that sustains our long-term interest as the more immediate world around them comes into view.
Elsie enrols in a two-year photography course taught by well-known practitioner Julie Lowe, and it turns out Ruth’s boyfriend Steve is a second year student, who hates photojournalism and is desperate to make it as an artist.
Elsewhere on the same campus, Harry is a young PhD student who is researching geo-magnetism and turns out to be both a somewhat obsessive fan of Julie’s work and a compulsive drinker of hard liquor. He becomes the subject of Elsie’s first photographic assignment …
Gradually, like snaps developing in the chemistry of these relationships, the histories, desires and frustrations of each character become clearer. But (as with Noisy Shadows) any sense that we have them sussed at any point is soon subverted by new revelations.
Perhaps it’s because there is more empathy in the writing of their roles that Kate Prior and Abby Marment bring such depth to Elsie and Ruth. Both women’s lives reach far beyond the moments we witness. Compelling truths of character flow from the emotional reservoirs beneath each performance as past experiences of betrayal are revealed. When another more immediate betrayal brings them together, at last, to their ‘equator’, our investment in them is well repaid.
Jamie McCaskill’s Steve is charismatically cosy with Ruth and suave with Elsie. He is clearly good at keeping secrets too, so I guess it’s down to the emotional immaturity of his character that he resorts to rather ineffectual shouting when his artistic ambitions seem destined to dissolve.
Emma Robinson had yet to fully inhabit her role on opening night, offering little to make me believe Julie is passionate about her vocation or that she has a life beyond the immediate concerns of the scenes she is in. As a result her status as a sought-after teacher and role model, let alone her clandestine activities as a lover, are a little hard to credit. But she does effectively mark the surprising move from self-serving lust to unconditional love of a life yet to be.
Harry, on the other hand, is fully entitled to be completely trapped by his obsessions and Eli Kent adds another sharply defined character to his expanding quiver of manic young men. There is a bit towards the end, however, when his feelings for Julie flip to the polar opposite (I cannot detail why), that seem illogical to me until I talk it through with my companion. While being provoked to such discussion is often a plus, I think in this case a little more clarity is required as to what exactly has disillusioned Harry.
Another quibble is that when it turns out that the deaths of mothers haunt the recent pasts of both Elsie and Ruth, and Harry, it seems to be a set up for something that comes to nothing. And on the production side, I found Elsie and Julie’s frocks in particular – designed by Emily Smith – more of a fashion show than integrated into the lives of their characters.
But there can be no doubt that Armslength is a juicy play to engage with. At just 23 years old, with an MA in playwriting from Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters to her credit, Branwen Millar brings a fresh creativity to the concerns of her age and the craft of play writing. She has already beaten 90 young American playwrights to win a significant award in America (see the Noisy Shadows review). What more incentive to you need? Book now.
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