Shed 6, Queens Wharf, Wellington

23/02/2008 - 02/03/2008

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Production Details

A young professional woman confronts an older middling executive in the cafeteria of the factory where he works. This reunion feels uncomfortable. She’s 27, he’s 56 – 15 years ago they had a sexual relationship. She was 12.

"This 5* Edinburgh Festival hit has become even better and that is saying something!" British Theatre Guide

An astonishing and confronting theatre piece, Blackbird was the smash-hit of the 2005 Edinburgh Festival, scooping a coveted Critics Award and the 2007 Olivier Award for Best New Play before moving triumphantly to London’s West End. Since then it has been produced in Europe and America and now a new production for Australia and New Zealand, where it will be directed by the Co-Artistic Director designate of Sydney Theatre Company – Oscar-winning Australian actress Cate Blanchett.

"Blanchett’s directorial achievement is so sure….Her sense of visual imagery is consistently powerful and her equal confidence with elliptical dialogue and agonized silence is striking."  Sydney Morning Herald

The eight performances of Blackbird at the 2008 NZ International Arts Festival are sponsored by Clemenger BBDO.

David Harrower’s brilliantly written play taunts the audience, requiring them to meet head-on their own taboos, their conceptions of love and abuse.

Ray has served time for his actions, has since assumed a new identity and is trying to rebuild his life. Una, the young woman, has thought of nothing else other than what happened 15 years prior. On discovering a photo of Ray, she sets out to find him, with earth-shattering consequences.

In this production Paula Arundell plays Una and Ray is performed by Peter Kowitz, with Danielle Catanzariti, as the young Una.

David Harrower was inspired to write the play by the real-life news story about an American marine, Toby Studebaker, who ran away with an under-age girl he encountered in an internet chat-room.

In writing it, he wanted to go beyond black-and-white condemnations to look at the grey areas in between – how much the past forms us, how memory works, and how we become like we are. What interested him was how people go on to deal with the consequences of their actions and desires, how they justify or explain to themselves the reasons for what they did.

There will be eight performances of Blackbird at Shed 6, Waterfront between 23 February and 1 March at 7.30pm and 2 March at 5.30pm.

Paula Arundell 
Ray Peter Kowitz 
Girl Danielle Catanzariti 

Cate Blanchett
Designer Ralph Myers
Lighting designer Nick Schlieper
Composer / sound designer Max Lyandvert
Assistant director Iain Sinclair
Stage manager Georgia Gilbert
Assistant stage manager Jamie Twist
Production photographer Tania Kelley 

1hr 30 mins, no interval

Well (but not brilliantly) done

Review by Lynn Freeman 06th Mar 2008

All the attention on this Sydney Theatre Company production of Blackbird, has rested on the shoulders of the director, Cate Blanchett. 

The plot is confronting paedophilia, with a now adult woman confronting a man who had sex with her when she was 12.  They attempted to run away together, which is why he got a shorter prison sentence and since getting out he’s established a new life for himself.  She, not surprisingly, has been trapped in the past.

The problem for the festival is that there was a production of Blackbird at Circa theatre last year and in many ways it was better than this one.  We expect international shows to be the kind of thing we don’t see or can’t do ourselves so on that basis I have to question whether this is really a Festival quality show, despite being well (but not brilliantly) done.

Shed 6 is a problematic venue, and when you really need to feel trapped in this dirty small room with these two, you’re distanced from them. Being set in the round means the actors are constantly on the move, which becomes irritating.   


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Gripping interactions keep us guessing

Review by John Smythe 25th Feb 2008

First we must correct the NZ International Arts Festival publicity that suggests this is the first time New Zealand has seen David Harrower’s Blackbird. Six reviews on this site attest to last year’s powerful Circa production. That was in the intimate Circa Two, where we were virtually in the staff lunch room with Una and Ray, or at least ranked six-deep on its fourth wall.

This Sydney Theatre Company production plays completely in-the-round. It opened 15 December 2007 at their Wharf 1 venue (3-times the capacity of Circa two) and opened here at the Festival’s specially-created Shed 6 (450 seats) exactly a week after it closed in Sydney.

So, it was scheduled in this Festival sight-unseen, presumably on the strength of Cate Blanchet’s name, despite it being her first directing credit for a full-length. It’s an English play produced by an Australian company. And they use their own voices – no attempts at English accents – despite a key plot point involving driving to a port town intending to take a ferry to a place that requires them to have passports. (Tasmania, perhaps?)  

It doesn’t matter. The drama is in the encounter of Una (Paula Arundell) and Ray, now known as Peter in his new life (Peter Kowitz) in the garbage-strewn lunch room of his place of work, 15 years after they last saw each other. She has sought him out in the late afternoon, he has bundled her into the room to keep her out of sight (the text is explicit on this, although the staging suggests they have entered through opposite doors).

They are caged animals in this configuration. He is uptight and anxious, she is intrigued and wary. Inexorably some semblance of a truth emerges: when he was 40 and she was 12, they had a sexual affair. He was an emotional mess, she was an infatuated girl; he exploited her so that what began as a romantic fantasy of adulthood for her soon morphed into sexual reality, and because she was minded to do anything he said, she took this as being what love was.

No wonder she has had scores of ‘lovers’ since then and is unable to maintain a stable relationship. He meanwhile – after a sojourn in prison for what he did – has re-named himself and settled down with a solo mum and her daughter …

When I first reviewed this play I peppered my crit with spoiler warnings. But seeing this with the prior knowledge one brings to viewing any classic, ancient or modern, enhances the experience, because the play is about Una and Ray’s attempts to confront the messes they’ve made of their lives and the tragic impossibility of their ever finding resolution and redemption.

Paula Arundell’s Una is tough, assertive, objectively aware and intent on discovering what happened that night he left the port town bedsit to get cigarettes and never returned. As Ray, Peter Kowitz vacillates from strong to weak, nervous to mesmerised, keeping us – and himself, to some extent – guessing as to how real his rehabilitation has been; how truthfully he is living his life nowadays.

Both get to tell their stories of that night. New levels of insight and understanding are achieved … There’s calmness now, tenderness … And what happens next takes them both by surprise.  Crucially, their shocking resurgence of passion is mutual. Even more crucially, it is he who stops it. But who knows what might have happened if the step daughter (played with simple innocence by Danielle Catanzariti) hadn’t come looking for him, sent in by her Mum who is waiting in the car park.  

I won’t detail the final outcome here. Suffice to say this production reinforces my judgement that Una is emotionally damaged forever and Ray is cursed, like some character in Greek tragedy, to never be fully trusted again. Their crime against nature is irredeemable and this revisiting of it is, in part, a cautionary tale.

It is also a gripping 90 minutes of interaction and storytelling during which no-one – least of all us – can afford to be complacent. That Arundel and Kowitz make every moment vital, fresh and compelling attests to director Cate Blanchett’s directorial intelligence and skill.

Just one small detail I’d take issue with. At the end, their echoing chase through the corridors ends with them coming face-to-face again. While this is a valid representation of their never being able to escape each other, it does rob us of the powerful question that gripped me at the end of the Circa production: what the hell is happening out in the car park?

Blanchett’s choice to emphasise the play’s epic dimension by book-ending it with frozen moments that step outside the unities of time place and action is intellectually valid but rather subverts the audience’s emotional engagement, which may be her intention.

Set designer Ralph Myers’ food-container mess must be consistent with the playwright’s instructions and may stretch credulity a little at a naturalistic level while making its metaphorical point loud and clear. Speaking of which, Max Lynandvert’s loud mind-numbing sound-effects, which also bookend this production, over-egg the pudding entirely although the echo effects that aurally manifest the corridors beyond the room are well executed.

Judging by conversations I had afterwards with people who had seen the play before, and those confronting it for the first time, Blackbird is a play that stands a second viewing and this production is different enough from Circa’s to make it well worth while.

Afterthought: Previously I’d taken the ‘Blackbird’ title to suggest a sweet singer with dark intentions (Ray). Casting an Aboriginal as Una [correction 26/2: she looks Aboriginal but her ancestry is African and Irish according to this morning’s DomPost] adds an entirely new historical resonance and allows the idea of a bird in search of her lost song.  


John Smythe February 28th, 2008

Now Roy Ward has found this, from an interview David Harrower gave to the American Conservatory Theatre, printed in the programme for their production. what is the significance of blackbird’s title? did it come to you early, or after you’d completed the play? It’s quite simple really. My memory is that I needed a title quite quickly and I had been listening to some music and it was John Coltrane, or was it Keith Jarrett, the pianist, playing the standard “Bye, Bye, Blackbird.” It was an improvised take on the standard. And this felt like an improvisation. You know, how long do I keep these two people in the room? I felt like a musician in many ways, sustaining what these two people could say and do to each other, improvising in a sense. And I also thought that maybe [“Blackbird”] was something he had called her, or maybe he was playing the Beatles’ White Album on the way to the coast. It wasn’t encapsulating, just more suggestive, to help me. But it turns out there is a tale about Saint Benedict, which I found out about afterwards. I love the story, this disguise as a blackbird. I wish I had known about it beforehand because I would have claimed it as my own [laugh]. The full interview (worth reading) may be found at Thank you Roy.

Rachel Forman February 28th, 2008

My understanding is that the title relates to this myth; The devil once took on the shape of a blackbird and flew into St. Benedict's face, thereby causing the saint to be troubled by an intense desire for a beautiful girl he had once seen. In order to save himself, St Benedict tore off his clothes and jumped into a thorn bush. This painful act is said to have freed him from sexual temptations for the rest of his life.

John Smythe February 28th, 2008

Fiona Samuel astutely suggests that the title of Blackbird (which she has not yet seen) may be derived from the Paul McCartney-penned song of the same name. And of course now I look at the words, it’s obvious: Blackbird singing in the dead of night Take these broken wings and learn to fly All your life You were only waiting for this moment to arise. Blackbird singing in the dead of night Take these sunken eyes and learn to see All your life You were only waiting for this moment to be free. Blackbird fly Blackbird fly Into the light of the dark black night. Thanks Fiona!

Zia Lopez February 27th, 2008

I don't think Isabel's was a 'good point' at all - the fact that there is a young girl in the cast gives nothing away if you don't know the play. I completely agree with Alan though on everything else. We get only ONE chance to see a new play unfold virginally as the playwright intends - and a reviewer who gives anything away - especially a vital twist at the end of a new play - has got to question whether his flair for the theatre has completely abandoned him. When the movie The Crying Game came out the the loyalty to the integrity of the film displayed by film lovers, so as not to spoil its stunning secret, was impressive. It would be great if John Smythe could show similar loyalty.

Alan Mancot February 27th, 2008

Good point, isabel, however I didn't buy a programme and still wouldn't want the story given away in the review.

Kate Blackhurst February 27th, 2008

Small point: I didn't know this play was by a Scottish author and due to the Australian accents and the highly publicised directing of Cate Blanchett, I assumed it was antipodean. I spent a lot of time puzzling over what ferry they were getting, where to, and why they needed a passport. Realising they were popping over to Europe where the laws are different and there is an in-built fear of child smuggling and kidnapping, puts a whole different cultural slant on things. I know this is a minor point and doesn't affect the issue of abuse, but it does add an extra dimension if you consider she was prepared to go with him to a foreign continent and, even more pertinently, he was prepared to take her.

isabel February 26th, 2008

Wouldn't you have looked in the programme and seen a third actor - a young girl - anyway?

Alan Mancot February 26th, 2008

You have missed my point. Despite Hamlet having possibly the most well-known plot in the English-speaking world, I would not expect any review to include "...and at the end, everyone dies and Denmark is taken over by a hitherto little-known chap from Norway." My point is that a review should review the production and the play - without giving away the story. That's what we pay money for tickets for. You went to this play, obviously having seen another production - you knew what was going to happen. If I had read your review before seeing the play, I would have ended up being really annoyed with you. You would have ruined one of the suspenseful moments of the play - would they get caught? By whom? When the third character came on stage, there was an "Oh.. My.. God!" moment for almost all the audience. This is because the playwright, cunningly, hadn't mentioned a step-daughter at all. Immediately, we all reassessed what we were believing, either way, up until then. Your telling people the 'punch line' may have removed one of the great pleasure of attending a play - finding out what you find out, when you're supposed to find it out. I'm afraid that I have learnt not to read your reviews until either I have attended a play or decided I'm not going to.

John Smythe February 26th, 2008

I don't think you never go to Hamlet again just because you know what happens, the interest is in how it happens and I have not given that away. It is one of many parts of the play that people will feel compelled to discuss afterwards, and opinons are very likely to differ. The only things that are certain, in my opinion, are that Ray can never again be trusted and Una is forever damaged. That is why it's a tragedy.

Alan Mancot February 26th, 2008

Ooops, I posted this to Laurie's review by mistake, I'm still new at this. Anyway, the first drama is her appearance (and that she is who she is), then the drama focusses on her relationship with Ray. However what part of "But who knows what might have happened if the step daughter (played with simple innocence by Danielle Catanzariti) hadn't come looking for him, sent in by her Mum who is waiting in the car park." doesn't give the game away, just a lot?

John Smythe February 26th, 2008

You are perceiving more than I say, Alan, from a position of knowing. Besides, the drama is not in her appearance but in the dynamics of the relationship between her and Ray - and what Una choses to make of it. You have to be there to make your own mind up about what may or may not be the case. Trust me: nothing is spoiled.

Alan Mancot February 26th, 2008

Why, oh why do you insist on telling us the punch line John? The one major intake of audience breath was when the third character came on stage and we saw who it was. You have now taken that moment away from anyone who reads your review and has yet to go to the play.

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Raw emotion to fore in superb production

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 25th Feb 2008

Blackbird is not about pedophilia as some of the publicity might lead you to believe. It is a psychological drama that probes with surgical skill and shattering emotional force into the lives of 56 year-old Ray and 27-year-old Una who was sexually abused by him when she was twelve. Or was she?

Ray served a prison sentence and then started a new life with a new name in another city in a middle management job of a factory somewhere in England. Una has tracked him down through a photograph in some trade paper she read by chance.

What does she want? Revenge? An explanation for his desertion of her in a room in a guest house by the sea? To show that she suffered more than he did from what happened to her before and after the trial?

Questions that intricately undermine easy assumptions, conventional attitudes and moral standards are raised throughout the play. One’s sympathy for the characters keeps shifting throughout the play’s tension-filled 90 minutes.

The major difference between Cate Blanchett’s Sydney Theatre Company’s production and Jane Waddell’s at Circa 2 last year is that it is played in the round so that it feels as if the audience, on steeply raked seating, is observing caged animals far below in a zoo as Una and Ray pace nervously about the litter-strewn lunchroom of the factory.

In the original English production and at Circa the lunchroom was backed by frosted windows behind which people occasionally passed. This heightened the tension that the pair might be discovered but it also suggested that, like the passers-by, we would always be unaware of the entire truth about Una and Ray.

The production starts and ends with a thunderous metallic noise that gives the play an unnecessary melodramatic flourish. However, Cate Blanchett’s fluid, beautifully paced production is graced with two blistering performances from Paula Arundell and Peter Kowitz who need no stagy embellishments.

Arundell’s volatile Una, all pain, defiance and vulnerability is perfectly matched by Kowitz’s nervous, pleading, emotionally distraught Ray. Her accusation ‘You left me in love’ is as shocking a moment as his ‘You knew more about love than I did’ and both actors make the emotions behind them raw and disturbing. Superb.


Zia Lopez March 1st, 2008

Bloodless, mechanical performances, as far as I'm concerned. The woman barked tunelessly in a strangely narrow emotional range, given her supposed experiences; the man loped around the stage like a demented chimpanzee, endlessly flapping elegantly posed hands that certainly didn't belong to a caretaker. This is a good play, and a topic that requires subtlety and care, a tentative, sensitive approach, simplicity, stillness. Dreadful.

Jackson Bridge February 26th, 2008

Laurie, what do you mean by “Or was she?” Of course Una was abused by Ray – she was 12 and he was 40! She was a child and he was an adult! She had cute romantic fantasies (her dream was to ride in his car and be seen with him) and he was a sexual delinquent! And because she was infatuated, she was willing to do whatever he wanted. She was a child and he was an abuser. No question.

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