Backwards in High Heels

Radio New Zealand National, 3.04 pm Sundays, (not a specified venue)

04/11/2007 - 04/11/2007

Production Details

AUTHOR: Stuart Hoar
PRODUCER: Duncan Smith
ENGINEER: Phil Benge

Radio New Zealand

Backwards in High Heels is from award-winner Stuart Hoar who describes the play as, ‘a twenty first century comedy of manners about what might be called, mature relationships.’ The adaptation for radio has meant the tango sequences that were so much a physical element of the enormously popular stage version have had to be ‘translated’. The result is a wonderful, evocative underscoring of a story – more properly a consideration – of the romantic notion of love as opposed to the scientific notion of biological determinism.  Heavy going?  Not at all. Stuart Hoar is too clever a writer for that.

Helen Jones - Holly 
Mick Rose - Jonathon 
Danielle Mason - Marta 

Theatre ,

O what a tangoed web we weave …

Review by John Smythe 04th Nov 2007

For a play that gained so much from tango being danced live on stage (click here for reviews), Stuart Hoar’s radio adaptation of his recently penned Backwards in High Heels (2006) works surprisingly well. His extensive experience as a radio dramatist shows.

Given that it’s manners not to talk while dancing tango, the sharing of inner thoughts – while dancing – is an ideal device. But the play’s real substance is in all the talk around and about what the tango experience provokes: curiosity, resistance, discovery, liberation, loss, recovery … and, for this ’empty nest’ Kiwi couple, a while new way of relating … or not.

The radio play opens with footsteps, an Argentinean tango music track beginning, sounds of dancing, a hammering at the door, then mysterious sounds that suggest unspeakable violence and horror. Much later, for listeners with good memories, a connection may be made as to its meaning. Meanwhile it poses a troubling question as we segue into the more prosaic presence of the couple – Holly (Helen Jones) and Jonathon (Mick Rose) – bickering on automatic pilot about her having to endure his work-related ‘do’.

We learn that she is a teacher, he is in advertising, and she has recently been inspired, by a shopping mall demonstration, to learn tango. His resistance to joining her (fear of the unknown) vies with his alpha-male need to dominate, excel, be in control … which leads first to his hiring Marta (Danielle Mason), Holly’s dance-class partner, for private lessons, then – inevitably? – to his heavily rationalised attempt to ‘conquer’ her too.

A refugee from military dictatorship, haunted by memories of grey cars cruising for suspects and spiriting people away, of murderous air force flights out over the ocean, Marta’s reason for combining her career in socio-biology with her passion for tango make the self-serving indulgence of Jonathon, in particular, seem decadent.

Or is he simply conforming to the immutable laws of biological determinism? If the purpose of their pairing and mating has been fulfilled, now that their progeny have flown the coop, why should they stay together now? How far are we away from baboons when it comes to this point?

Unlike the last two adaptations – Potiki’s Memory of Stone and and what remains – producer Duncan Smith has cast actors who were not in the Court or Circa stage productions. Helen Jones is totally credible as an everyday school teacher seeking something more from her marriage and life. Mick Rose makes Jonathon’s intellectual contortions and verbal gymnastics sound perfectly natural. Danielle Mason compels deeper and deeper consideration of her position in the story and the world at large.

Backwards in High Heels (a reference to Ginger Rogers, who did everything Fred Astaire did except backwards and in high heels) is a play that rewards the committed listener with plenty to think about, not least in empathy with Marta’s abiding need to understand why people do what they do to each other.

If life is a dance, the play seems to say, what is it that gives us the freedom to choose what we dance and with whom? Do we have free will or is it pre-determined by biological need? O what a tangoed web we weave …
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