BATS Theatre, The Random Stage, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington

20/10/2020 - 24/10/2020

TAHI Festival 2020

Production Details

A collection of quintessential monologues from New Zealand solo shows that explore what it means to be a New Zealander.

Featuring monologues from the following solo works:
by agreement with Playmarket
Banging Cymbal, Clanging Gong, by Jo Randerson;
Mapaki, by Diana Fuemanna ;
I’m Having it Off With Ajax, by Mel Johnson;
KRISHNAN’S Dairy, by J. Rajan and J. Lewis;
The End of The Golden Weather, by Bruce Mason;
Queen, by Sam Brooks;
Verbatim, by Miranda Harcourt and William Brandt
Ngā Pou Wāhine, by Briar Grace-Smith;
Waiting, by Shadon Meredith
A Cripple Talks About Anatomy, by Henrietta Bollinger

Performed by Emma Katene, James Ladanyi, Tupe Lualua and Ravikanth Gurunathan

Bats Theatre, The Random Stage
Tues 20, Fri 23, Sat 24 October 2020
Full Price $22
Group 6+ $20
Concession Price $18

The Random Stage is fully wheelchair accessible; please contact the BATS Box Office by 4.30pm on the show day if you have accessibility requirements so that the appropriate arrangements can be made. Read more about accessibility at BATS.


TAHI Festival
This performance is presented as part of and in collaboration with TAHI: New Zealand Festival of Solo Performance.  This five-day festival is dedicated to showcasing Aotearoa’s finest, most engaging solo performance. TAHI gathers soloists from around the nation, and beyond – from established to emerging practitioners – to present work, collaborate and make connections across the industry. Alongside premiering and showcasing solo performances, the Festival provides opportunities for practitioners to extend the life of their performance work, to upskill, and to network through an integrated programme of performance, workshops, and forums. TAHI also seeks to foster relationships among tertiary institutions, actor training courses, secondary schools, BATS Theatre, and industry professionals. 

Theatre , Solo ,

1 hr 30 min

Skilled renditions from potent works

Review by John Smythe 21st Oct 2020

What a treat to be reminded of our rich resource of homegrown solo drama, albeit in a ‘tasting session’ directed, and presumably curated, by Kerryn Palmer and Sally Richards. According to your age and depth of engagement with New Zealand’s live theatre scene, you may recognise old favourites and/or alert to intriguing works you have not seen in full. (I confess to dragging the chain on this review because searching for critiques of earlier seasons on Theatreview and elsewhere has distracted me from – or maybe enhanced – the task at hand.)

I’m initially bemused that just three actors come on stage to perch on the red boxes that adorn it, along with a wheel chair and a guitar, until the familiar sound of an ebullient Gobi Krishnan – from Krishnan’s Dairy by Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis – greets us. As Ravikanth Gurunathan works his way down the raked auditorium to the stage, his witty chit-chat sets a friendly tone.

The ding that signifies a customer’s arrival brings us into his shop and we witness the dilemma of a dispute over change – is the customer always right? – before he and Emma Katene launch into a lively song about the love Gobi and Zina share, with James Ladanyi and Tupe Lualua picking up the beat on their boxes. Gurunathan will return later to share Gobi’s all-too-common experience with a shoplifter.

Tupe Lualua brings us Te Atakura’s evocation of the Aunty she was raised by (after her mother died) in an excerpt from Ngā Pou Wāhine by Briar Grace-Smith, where the Aunty returns home bewildered at having found her church vandalised. And is Kura, as Te Atakura is called, listening? We will get Kura’s point of view later.

Suddenly a wound-up Emma Katene slams out, slams in, slams out again and returns to invade the space as The Barbarian from Jo Randerson’s Banging Cymbal, Clanging Gong. By introducing herself, she offers a powerful insight into the anger and danger inherent in a vanquished and rejected race – and tells us how to spot another Barbarian. I enjoy being the exemplar.

Waiting, by Shadon Meredith, is new to me although it launched at the Nelson Fringe in 2017 and has just played the Whangarei Fringe (performed by the playwright). The snippet we get from Gurunathan, in the style of a beat poem, gently captures a man’s presumably ‘unspoken’, as yet, communication with his young son, born in 2011. It’s 2017 when something happens that gives the play its title. The boy won’t remember, his father asserts, although it will consume him for the rest of his life. I’ll be keen to find out more when Waiting comes to Wellington.

James Ladanyi sinks into his hoodie to embody Aaron, in Miranda Harcourt and William Brandt’s Verbatim, created in the early 1990s from transcripts of interviews with serious offenders in prison. Subtly nuanced in word and performance, it offers a salutary insight into how a damaged life take a life and so be sentenced to life. There but for fortune go you or I.

Abetted by her directors, Lualua dons a topper and posh English accent to deliver the prologue to Bruce Mason’s The End of The Golden Weather – arguably the progenitor of the plethora of solo shows that have graced our stages since it premiered in 1959. Eschewing the somewhat sardonic, satirical tone usually given to Mason’s critique of British colonisation’s impact on the landscape, this narrator purports to celebrate the ‘achievements’, leaving us to ponder the contra view.

Sam Brooks’ Queen, comprising 13 monologues on the experiences of being gay in NZ, is another I have yet to see in full. Here Gurunathan and Ladanyi deal with the haters, one defiantly, the other unleashing a bursting reservoir of reciprocal hatred that delivers another salutary lesson about intolerance.

On a lighter note, we enjoy a slice of I’m Having it Off With Ajax, written by Mel Johnson and first performed by her in the 1999 NZ Fringe (where it won Best New Work). In this excerpt, a home-alone woman (dumped by her boyfriend, as I recall) resorts to domestic cleaning, adopting all the traits of femininity beloved of cleaning product commercials while compulsively seeking erotic satisfaction in the process. (See my 1999 review below.)

In the piece from Diana Fuemanna’s Mapaki, which also premiered in 1999 and was performed by the author, Lualua delivers the penultimate of the play. Fisi’s reality as the abused girlfriend of Jason vies with her attempts to reimagine his as the dreamy gentleman Victor Newman. Her strength and passion carries the tragic circumstances Fisi confronts. (Also see my 1999 review below.)

The wheelchair comes into play as Ladanyi sits in it and heaves his feet onto the footrests to give us a taste of A Cripple Talks About Anatomy by Henrietta Bollinger. What follows is a potently articulate insight into how a person in a wheelchair sees how children in pushchairs and adults standing upright, see them. Chalked headings – ‘Eyes’, ‘Ears’, Mouth’ – prompt observations that most of us need to take on board.  

As foreshadowed above, Katene brings Batch to a close with a poignant piece from Ngā Pou Wāhine involving Kura’s questionable memory and quest for answers – enhances by a beautiful waiata pre-recorded by Katene. Kura’s need to know where she fits into family, home and the world at large distils what is so for her people: “If there is no hope, all is lost for my people.”

All four actors bring great talent and skill to the works. These 12 succulent morsels of 10 superb solo plays are just an appetiser for the countless homegrown solo plays on offer. No wonder the Tahi Festival has become an annual event. Batch returns to BATS Random this Friday 23 and Saturday 24 October at 8:30pm. Highly recommended.
 – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
National Business Review/Wellington Theatre column – 23 July, 1999

I’m Having It Off With Ajax, written & performed by Mel Johnston, directed & designed by Emma Willis, at Bats until 24 July.

Reviewed by John Smythe

Mel Johnston’s solo piece, I’m Having It Off With Ajax, ingeniously traces the slow breakdown of a girl/boy relationship by focussing on her growing obsession with cleanliness. Winner of a 1999 Wellington Fringe Festival Best New Work award, it returns with a “new improved formula” in a gleaming set of pastel blue, pink, yellow and white tiles with a sparkling white lavatory as its centrepiece.

Beginning with the orgasmic thrusting of her dunny brush deep into the s-bend of life, Johnston takes us on a revealing tour of one young woman’s experience of cohabitation. Her deadpan delivery contrasts nicely with the richly textured pictures she evokes in our imaginations – of, for example, a partner who pinches the bedside lamp to work on his car, spreads all the bits out on the lawn and dumps the diff in the bath. And is that her toothbrush he’s cleaning it with?

Then there’s Aunt Verna, whose sofa was covered in plastic because she was “keeping it for good”. What should she/we make, therefore, of her boyfriend’s use of condoms?

Such idiosyncratic perceptions are sprinkled liberally throughout the play and spread in a circular motion, leaving the untouched corners for us to explore without her. This extreme subjectivity is a plus, not least because it engages us in the task of seeking the objective truth – which will, of course, be tainted by our own subjectivity.

My only question is, does it have to be as intellectual an exercise as Johnston and her director, Emma Willis, make it? I’d like to see the odd crack in the denial/displacement behaviour through which we may glimpse this woman’s emotional core and make an empathetic connection. We evolve such behaviour, after all, as a means of protecting ourselves against hurt. The play, and the playing of it, could only be strengthened by exposing – in some brief and subtle way – this woman’s emotional vulnerability.

That said, Mel Johnston is certainly a writer/performer to watch. I’d also be keen to see her work performed by others.

NBR/Wellington Theatre column – 19 November, 1999

Mapaki, written and performed by Dianna Fuemana, directed by Hori Ahipene

Reviewed by John Smythe

Two homegrown works, seen briefly and in various stages of development at the Magdalena Aotearoa International Festival of Women’s Performance in March, make a welcome return to Wellington in a short Bats season.

As I understand it, an embryonic version of Mapaki (Niuean for broken) had a late night try-out at the festival as a work in progress and it has evolved considerably over the past few months. Niuean/Samoan writer/actor Dianna Fuemana – who also has hybrid qualifications: a Diploma in Drama and a post-graduate Diploma in Management from Auckland University – has taken an all-too-common but non-autobiographical story and worked a small miracle with it.

Fisi was given as a gift of love to – and raised by – her Niuean nan. As a young adult, while she remembers drinks of Milo, drooling over Victor Newman in The Young and The Restless and fantasising she was Diane Prince as Wonder Woman, she’s mystified by Niuean language but realises she must have known it once. Her fa’afine friend from childhood, Gina, offers a hard-edged, bantering and ruthlessly compassionate commentary on Fisi’s changing fortunes as the story of her relationship with Jason is recounted.

The chemistry between Fisi and Jason sizzled over a game of doubles at the spacey parlour then fermented at the Black Hole swimming spot and on the walk that followed. Now Jason’s sense of manhood finds succour at the pub, in a rugger-bugger ethos also fixated on who’s “getting it”, with whom and how often. It’s a culture that breeds a festering, possessive, drunken jealousy that readily leads to violence – and to self-abasement, deep regrets, begging apologies and declarations of undying love. Fisi succumbs again to Jason’s delusion and interprets her dependence as love – and by the end the “undying” bit is up for question.

It’s a testament to Fuemana’s writing and acting skills, and Hori Ahipene’s directing, that Fisi, Nan, Gina and Jason are all so vivid and that my focus is on the story and not her cleverness. Each character is strongly drawn and sourced from a centre that makes them authentic and compelling. A story and characters that could so easily have lapsed into cliché becomes a powerful journey through archetypes.

On opening night just one moment strikes me as needing more work, where Jason thinks Fisi has gone to visit her Nan and turns up at the club Gina works at, only to find Fisi there. He needs to be more gobsmacked and more caught out before the accusations take over.

As for the ending, I often find ambiguity a cop-out. But in this case the question of whether she’d done or been done to proves a good catalyst for after-show discussions that quickly focus on the play’s core issues. That is an excellent outcome.

The stylised set by Ross Gibbs and Justin Leonard, Jen Lal’s lighting, Peter Edge’s sound and Tamzan Lakeman’s lighting all supply and serve the play’s sudden and fluid transitions from one state of being to another. And they readily lend weight to the possibility that Fisi’s narrative viewpoint is from another world. But the question that drives her need to revisit her story, and generates its motive force, is clear. When did she stop loving herself?


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