Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland

10/07/2015 - 25/07/2015

Auckland Theatre Company’s NEXT BIG THING 2015

Production Details

Our Hero is stuck in bed and won’t get up. But YOLO! It’s wakey, wakey time! The powers that be need answers now and the pressure is building.

The Basement Theatre
10 – 25 July 2015
@ 6pm

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Matthew Kereama – CORE
Mirabai Pease – CORE  
Doug Grant – CORE
Natasha Verney – CORE
Lizzie Morris – CORE
Caleb Wells – CORE
Ahrin Swift-Mayor – CORE
Devin Grant-Miles – CORE
Leonardo Gunter – CHORUS
Charlotte West – CHORUS
Emma Rose Owens – CHORUS
Michaela Watson – CHORUS
Kierron Diaz - Campbell – CHORUS
Harry Thompson-Cook – CHORUS
Tehillah Keyser – CHORUS
Joshua Williams – CHORUS
Ambrose O'Meagher – CHORUS

Ben Henson – Director Mentor
Freya Boyle BED – Assistant Director
Lynne Cardy – Producer
Whetu Silver – Project Manager
Tanya Muagututi'a – Production Coordinator
Kate Burton – Production Manager
Joamie Blackburn – Production Assistant
Christine Thurquhart – Set & Costume Designer
Rachel Marlow – Lighting Designer
Thomas Press – Sound Design Mentor
Ruby-Reihana Wilson – Stage Manager Mentor
Margaret-Mary Hollins – Voice Tutor

Youth , Theatre ,

Rich, cohesive, touching, profound, endlessly funny

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 17th Jul 2015

The performance of Benjamin Henson’ extraordinary new play Bed begins the moment you arrive. A gauntlet of trench-coated, sober-faced minions must be braved to even get into the foyer and these featureless beings mercilessly haunt the subsequent hour-and-bit, endlessly haranguing us to stop smiling, to stop enjoying ourselves and the play, and encouraging us to understand what we are experiencing is simply meaningless nonsense and we would be better occupied elsewhere doing something truly meaningful like peeling potatoes (my image, not Henson’s).

To be perfectly honest, and with abject apologies to the cast, director and certainly the writer, I’ve not had such an exciting evening in the theatre with a performance of this innovative nature for decades and I image, in their secret, slightly-more-human hearts, they’ll be more than pleased to hear that. It is invigorating stuff, intellectually challenging and as reminiscent as I could have wished of every other piece of theatre I’ve ever seen anywhere on the planet.

Having made that somewhat grand statement, Bed is, like each and every member of the audience, as unique and as inimitable as Henson’s vision and director Virginia Frankovich’s interpretation could possibly make it and that’s without including the excellent contributions made by each and every actor with the seemingly endless cast of characters who people this play. 

Did I like it? Bloody oath I did! 

Yes, there’s a narrative and yes, there are themes. There are extraordinary visual threads throughout the work and reference is made to what Lewis Carroll would call ‘cabbages and kings’ but, in Henson’s Daliesque world, these become dogs, coffee, booty and acorns. These threads are woven into a whole by both the trench-coated chorus and the recurring characters who quite literally pop out of the woodwork; emerge from under, in and behind the colossal bed of the title and even down through a person-hole in the roof. It’s an extravaganza of sublime absurdity that makes perfect sense and is a delight on each of its gazillion levels. 

The set and costumes (the sublimely talented Christine Urquhart finally given some real resources to play with) are characters in themselves. The massive sloping bed, in which our many-monikered Hero (a suitably bemused Devin Grant-Miles) spends the entire play, is perhaps the most inviting setting I’ve ever seen. The desire to climb in, have fights with the numberless pillows, become entangled with the huge sheets and find the rare and exotic creatures also living in this rare space is almost too much to handle, especially since almost every person in the nineteen-strong cast ends up in there at some time or other.

Special mention should be made of the wonderful Mirabai Pease as ‘Woman under bedclothes’ for her sterling work throughout. If there’s a more selfless actor working in Auckland I’ve yet to see them.

The structure of the set is a director’s dream with an abundance of sliding windows, excellent ramped entrances and easy access to the foyer for the myriad quick changes. 

There’s a sense of 1950s Cold War communist Russia in the posters that bespatter the walls and in the Red Army militarism of some of the observer minion’s costumes. They are evocative, in their own unique way, of the emotionless totalitarian control best typified in the writings of Gorky (The Lower Depths), Kafka (Die Verwandlung [The Metamorphosis]) and even Orwell (‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’). The overall impact is profound and provides a visual anchor to Henson’s ongoing emphasis on the pointlessness of life and Hero’s insistence that ‘indifference’ is the only answer. 

The narrative is simple. Our Hero (the excellent Devin Grant-Miles) is in bed and things happen to him but they all fail to engage or enthuse him. His Mutter (an impressive Lizzie Morris who also plays a worker and the sublimely funny Olga; that’s her with the fake Kim Kardashian booty) and Vater (Matthew Kereama who quadruples as Headmaster, Agnes, a worker and the delightful Beer Society President) are unable to get him out of bed despite their best, singularly puerile, efforts.

We are visited by Sausage (the divine Rahul Shahil), an exotically dressed and outrageously camp chi-chi boy, and encouraged, as audience, to read from Brecht-like signs that tell us “death is just around the corner”, that “minimal is optimal” and to ask, “Why try?” We do as we’re told with glorious fervour, and the play makes its point.

Hero informs us, as if we need to be told, “I don’t think I’ve ever been happy” and is accused by his folks of “dirty, filthy, naughty thinking.” Sex is never far from the surface and this oblique eroticism is essential to our experience of this complex bravura work. 

[Spoiler warning] Just when we get a handle on what’s going on (how agreeable we humans are: we try to construct meaning out of everything) an anonymous voice declares, “We regret to inform you that the actors have a clause in their contract that says they need a break, so there will be a one minute interval starting now.” And sure enough, nothing happens for exactly one minute. It’s theatrically outrageous and very, very funny but somehow nobody laughs. Playwrights demand intervals, why shouldn’t actors? Somehow it seems a step too far in Henson’s authoritarian world.

The Beer Society meet – a crew of moustachioed types – and Hero assists them in reciting their rules by remembering the word ‘beer’ every time they forget, which is always. They sing a rebellious drinking song and leave never to be seen again.  

‘Woman under bedclothes’ (the first-rate Mirabai Pease) and our Hero go through the entire repertoire of a relationship from the initial “I have loved you since the moment you turned up in my bed” though the essential cutesy nicknamery – “Snugglebum”, she calls him – right through to the “You never listen to me” and “Why should I do all the housework?” phases in a matter of moments. It’s fast-forward stuff but it’s actually very moving because most of us have been there, done that, got the T shirt and the scars. It’s funny as hell too, as much because these two actors know how to play comedy that’s anchored in human truth as for any other, more random, reason. [ends]  

The minions perform chorus lines of rare quality, the cast drop their pants on the arrival of Headmaster (Matthew Kereama) who introduces us to range of drop-kicks who talk about their keys to success. Sexy Olga (the unflappable Lizzie Morris) arrives and immediately has us hooting with laughter – very clever stuff – while every so often Dog Man (the admirable Caleb Wells) turns up to sniff crotches and bite ankles.

Equally impressive, and often off-the-wall, performances are delivered by Freya Boyle, Doug Grant, Ahrin Swift-Major with especial praise due to Natasha Verney who created ‘Stephanie Barker’ and ‘Sasha’ from a long way out in left field. Verney’s performance of these characters is especially interesting in that she manages to establish and maintain a rapport with the audience that is critical to our sense of balance each and every time she appears but without it affecting our belief in who she is portraying. It’s a though, through Verney’s characters, Henson has preserved his hold on the audience’s sense of collective reality around which everything else revolves. She’s his Alice to everyone else’s Mad Hatter. 

There’s a bed scene where Hero has work done on his fangs and huge molars fly (my son Finn caught one and it quite made his night) followed by a childlike game of ‘pass the pillow’ with each winner finding a party favour in the pillow case. “I got a knighthood,” says ‘Woman under bedclothes’ before Hero discovers, somewhat unsurprisingly, that he’s “got pregnant”. The subsequent labour is profoundly funny in a dark sort of way as Hero finally gives birth, [spoiler alert] first to a giant screw, next to an acorn, and finally to a man-sized baby. The screw comes first, then the acorn and finally the giant, baby-man oak. [ends]

It’s bizarre yet wonderful at the same time and we leave as we came in, reminded by a reassembled gauntlet of minions that what we have just experienced is totally without meaning and should be treated with the absolute indifference it deserves. 

It all seems absurd, and while it should be, it never is.

As a participant in the experience, I find it rich and cohesive, touching, profound and endlessly funny. Wilde said that life is too important to be taken seriously and Henson has put this on the stage. It all makes perfect sense to me and, in discussion afterwards, has done so to my son and my wife Cushla as well. We’ve all thoroughly enjoyed the romp but agree it is much, much more than just the passing of a happy hour.

Bed has resonances from so many varied sources it would take days to reflect on them all but it is in no way a copy of any of them. It owes allegiance to playwrights from Ionesco to Genet to Simpson to Stoppard and to Beckett but, in saying that, it actually owes nothing to any of them. In the same way there are visual recollections sourced from Dali, Ernst, Bosch, Miro and Tzara but Urquhart’s work is uniquely and preciously her own.

Personally, I hope we see more collaboration between Henson, Frankovich and Urquhart. They make a most impressive team, and I would go as far as to suggest that, of the three shows in ‘The Next Big Thing’ festival, Bed certainly deserves another outing, preferably with the same cast and crew and resourced by ATC in a similar satisfying way. 

It’s easy to lavish praise on everyone involved in this outstanding production and they all thoroughly deserve it, but the last tribute must be reserved for Colin McColl and Auckland Theatre Company for picking up this ball and running with it. John F Kennedy said, “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow their vision wherever it takes them.” McColl and his team at ATC have the resources to make this happen and it’s fantastic to see them taking up this artistic challenge and succeeding so famously well with it. 

Top stuff!


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