Maidment Theatre - Musgrove Studio, Auckland

26/06/2013 - 30/06/2013

Production Details

Join us for a trip from the beginning to the bitter end…  

A midwife and her high spirited daughter test a potential new apprentice’s skills, in a somewhat unorthodox fashion. A small village’s repressed fear and anger explodes into a witch hunt that will claim the lives of many women. Two plays explore the story of how we come into this world and what forces may take us out of it.

Written by emerging American playwright Stacey Lane and internationally acclaimed author Caryl Churchill and starring twelve of Auckland’s most exciting young actors, Birth/Death is a comical, tragic and tragically comical production journeying four hundred years into the past and back again. It is an exploration of the world of women in this era, the lives they led and the struggles they faced.

Featuring live music by Tweed, one of New Zealand’s most distinctive and original new bands.

Wednesday 26 – Saturday 29 June 2013, 7pm
Sunday 30 June 2013, 6pm 

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Prema Cottingham – Midwife Agnes Moulsworth
Erin O’Flaherty – Mistress Margery Moulsworth
Aimee Gestro – Goodwife Jane Cobbe 

Kaitlin McLeod – Alice
Jessica Stansfield – Susan
Sophie Bateman – Margery
Cain Parangi – Jack
Rachael Longshaw-Park – Ellen
Anya Banerjee – Joan
Anna Northey – Betty
Kat Glass – Goody
Andrew Parker – Man, Doctor, Bellringer, Packer
Also featuring Jonathan Wedge

Music: Lyrics by Caryl Churchill, Music by Tweed
Costume Design: Asia Kennedy
Lighting Design: Andrew Parker 

Well-wrought production offers plenty to chew over

Review by Poppy Haynes 27th Jun 2013

Don’t Blink Theatre Company’s Birth/Death is a double billing of Stacey Lane’s Great Bellied Women and Caryl Churchill’s 1976 Vinegar Tom. In Lane’s play, a midwife auditions a would-be apprentice with a labour roleplay involving her hat. In Churchill’s play, a small village in Elizabethan England becomes the centre of a witch-hunt.

As I wander up to the Musgrove Studio on opening night, I wonder how current the plays will feel – after all, both are set in or around the seventeenth century and Churchill’s Vinegar Tom is nearly forty years old. I return home several hours later to the news that Julia Gillard, subject of recent personal abuse, has been rolled, a missing woman’s body had been discovered in Northland and – despite Wendy Davis’s ten-hour filibuster – Texas has passed new abortion restrictions that will close most of the state’s abortion clinics. It turns out 1970s feminist Epic theatre still feels pretty current. 

The two plays are bookended by a bar scene, in which the actors, in modern clothes, chat, mingle and drink. We are then taken into the world of each play as the actors pull period costumes over their contemporary garb. My companion wonders how much the bar scenes add, but I quite like the use of stripping and redressing to transition between past and present. It’s an overt way of making the audience consider the parallels between the plays’ worlds and the world we live in today, but that overtness is fitting for two such self-conscious plays.

So how do the two plays work together? I think Great Bellied Women seen on its own would leave me a little hungry. The play is short (about 30 minutes) and more sketch than drama. The characters don’t develop (which is not to say they aren’t well played; they are), and playwright Stacey Lane neither raises the stakes nor breaks the routine in any significant way.

The would-be apprentice guides the midwife’s daughter through a simulated labour and in the end proves her worth, and is taken on by the midwife. The very simple narrative shape means that what the actors and director have to work with is a string of moments that make a single scenario. They create an engaging string of moments and there is some great physical comedy. Prema Cottingham and would-be apprentice Aimee Gestro are good foils for Erin O’Flaherty’s exuberance as daughter-playing-pregnant-woman.

The absence of a strong narrative drive means the spotlight can fall on themes and ideas – in this case the value of women (and women’s bodies, and women’s knowledge and power) in society. It is in this way that Great Bellied Women meshes Vinegar Tom. The play is not simply its own self-contained story, but also an aperitif that primes us for the higher stakes and more sinister events of Vinegar Tom.

Vinegar Tom, like Great Bellied Women, is well-acted and absorbing. Both casts pull out pretty impressive, consistent accents and the actors demonstrate great commitment to their roles and to the ensemble.

Rachel Lonshaw-Park’s cunning woman and Prema Cottingham’s midwife both bring refreshingly different energy to the stage. Longshaw-Park’s serenity highlights her isolation as the only really humane and rational character in Churchill’s play. Cottingham’s midwife has been there, done that, and knows more than she says. Kaitlin McLoed is gives us a multifaceted Alice: both sullen and energetic, naïve and perceptive, desperate and resigned.

At a few points the dialogue is hard to hear. The acoustics of the Musgrove Studio combined with the unfamiliar accents make it easy to miss any lines that are too fast or shrill. Andrew Parker is notably immune to this, with enviable projection and modulation, but he’s in the minority with testosterone on his side. In places, other actors could slow down a little and not build up to too high a pitch (or volume) too early. 

Visually, both plays show a restrained polish. The set is flexible and the actors make good use of the space. The props are well chosen and unobtrusive. The costumes (Asia Kennedy) form a cohesive unit and the lighting (Andrew Parker) is subtle. There are some nice echoes between the two plays: the midwife’s jars of potions from Great Bellied Women return in Vinegar Tom in possession of the cunning woman; apples and all they symbolise feature in both plays; a knife features in one play as a midwife’s tool and in another as an instrument of tortuous witch-identification.

While the production of Vinegar Tom plays up some aspects of Epic theatre, others are more low-key. The songs are performed by Tweed, resulting in a more intact ‘fourth wall’ than if the characters themselves broke character to sing. Despite the vignettes of political commentary in Vinegar Tom, it is Great Bellied Women, contrary to my expectations, that feels the more self-conscious of the two. But a somewhat less Brechtian experience than I am expecting in Vinegar Tom is a small price to pay for the pleasure of hearing Tweed. As with some of the dialogue, not all the song lyrics are easy to hear but the melodies are catchy, the harmonies melty, the tambourine played by foot rather impressive, and all you really need to know is I forego a glass of wine to buy their CD instead.

This is a well-wrought production by a committed young cast, and you go home with plenty to chew over.


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