Maidment Theatre, Auckland

06/09/2008 - 27/09/2008

Production Details


Michael Hurst and Liesha Ward Knox star in Auckland Theatre Company’s BLACKBIRD, David Harrower’s electrifying and explosive new play opening at the Maidment Theatre on September 4.

A brilliant, unnerving and controversial modern tragedy that has riveted audiences worldwide, BLACKBIRD is a play that tests the limits of our taboos.
"An extraordinary, no-holds-barred drama" DAILY TELEGRAPH 

Fifteen years ago, Una and Ray embarked on a relationship that changed their lives. Now Una has tracked down Ray in the debris-littered lunchroom of the factory where he works. Is she seeking vengeance? Or something else altogether?

The international award winning hit of the Edinburgh Festival, the West End and Broadway, BLACKBIRD is a riveting study in sexual obsession that leaves one both shaken and stirred.

"With consummate skill and brooding ambiguity, Harrower suggests that there

may be a strange affinity, tantamount to love, between people of different

generations and that adult guilt and childhood innocence should never be

automatically assumed" The Guardian 

Hailed by reviewers in the UK as the most powerful drama in a decade, David Harrower’s intense psychodrama is written with extraordinary economy and a fine ear for the poetics of prose.

As with David Mamet’s great plays, Harrower’s poetic yet conversational tone bring real humanity to two complex and damaged individuals, full of rage and fear, but who have a strange, disturbing affinity.

Having starred in THE GOAT, THE PILLOWMAN and recently directed THREEPENNY OPERA, Michael Hurst is no stranger to theatrical controversy.

"It is everything that I think theatre is supposed to be about," says Hurst, "as a play it that break rules. It’s an assault our moral code which at the same time draws audiences into the skewed reality of the couple’s intense relationship.

Liesha Ward Knox who plays Una, says the play strips the characters bare.

"The characters are direct and painfully truthful about their love story, but their frankness leaves you with more questions than answers which is totally devastating."

BLACKBIRD director Margaret-Mary Hollins, who was assistant director for ATC’s acclaimed production of THE CRUCIBLE, says the play’s bruising clash of perspectives shows how intense sexual relationships have the power to transform and paralyze the people caught up in them.

"BLACKBIRD is a powerhouse piece of theatre that will leave audiences stunned into silence; it’s had that effect on me in rehearsals. I’ve never experienced rehearsal room fireworks as charged or as intense as this. Michael and Liesha are breaking new ground with this work," says Hollins.

Set and costume designer Robin Rawstorne, whose clever design for DESIGN FOR LIVING wowed audiences earlier this year, has teamed up with lighting designer Bryan Caldwell and sound designer Andrew McMillan to create the staff room where the meeting takes place.

"We have confined the action into a sliver of space on one side of the room to entrap the characters in a tort and littered room where the characters are forced to confront the debris of their own relationship," he says.

BLACKBIRD plays at The Maidment Theatre from September 4 until September 27.
Tuesday – Wednesday 6.30pm, Thursday – Saturday 8.00pm
Monday 8 September, 6.30pm
Matinee Saturday 20 September at 2.00pm
Sundays 4.00pm
Tickets: $25 – $54 (booking fees apply) 
Bookings can be made at the Maidment Theatre 09 308 2383 or .

Michael Hurst and Liesha Ward Knox

Robin Rawstorne, Bryan Caldwell, Andrew McMillan

Production Manager: Mark Gosling
Technical Manager: Bonnie Burrill
Senior Stage Manager: Nicola Blackman
Operator: Rhedgirl
Properties Master: Bec Ehlers
Wardrobe Supervisor: Cathy Pope
Set Construction: 2 Construct  

1hr 20 mins, no interval

Enjoyable? Not sure. Thought-provoking? Definitely.

Review by Renee Liang 14th Sep 2008

‘Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly….’

The stage is dark. Otherworldly strains of the familiar song ‘Blackbird’ permeate the space as glowing figures move along behind a green frosted window. Two figures eventually open a door and tumble into what is revealed as a messy staffroom. The lights come up on a complex and disturbing psychological drama.

Blackbird, a play by David Harrower, deals with the aftermath of a relationship between Una (Leisha Ward-Knox) and Ray (Michael Hurst). Una was twelve at the time she was seduced by Ray, a “family friend” in his forties. Now, fifteen years later – after both characters have had to deal with the fallout from the discovery of their illicit relationship – Una has tracked down Ray in the factory where he works under a new identity.

Over a sometimes lingering 75 minutes, Harrower engages with the taboo topic of relationships between minors and adults, stopping short of any moralising. He instead explores how something like this can happen – and continue to happen. His play isn’t about paedophilia or even about sex. Instead, it questions the motivations behind believing we are in love, and the layers of mendacity and truth in the stories we tell to stay in a desired relationship. Una and Ray move between the roles of victim and predator, confessor and listener with convincing fluidity. Each manipulates the other, and the audience, into believing their side of the whole sordid story, but as time goes on, the story begins to unravel. And a note for the faint hearted: we are not spared the intimate details of their testimony.

Michael Hurst’s portrayal of Ray is restrained and powerful. He gives a credible impression of a pathetic older man who seems to regret the past. How can such a pitiable character – a liar, a coward, someone who cleans up for the men he’s supposedly supervising – be the object of continuing lust for the young and beautiful Una? Yet by the time we come to this, we believe it could happen. Una is the real blackbird of the piece: damaged, limping, seeking the dream which is also her doom. Leisha Ward-Knox does a good job of Una’s mix of vulnerability, anger and desperation, though her playing lost intensity in some places against Hurst’s surer hand. I find her physicality very watchable. It’s graceful and, in the few moments where the rawness of her feelings are allowed to leak out, riveting.

Kudos to the other cast members: acting students from BEST Pacific Institute, Unitec, and other acting schools: Maria Hollins-Werry, Emma Devlin, Chanel Savea, Thomas Natoealofa, Melissa Ravi and Gabrielle Rhodes who played the shadowy factory workers and other roles. I found it sad that these talents were uncredited in both the printed programme (except in very tiny print on the last page) and the website, although apparently there’s a good reason for their omission. But they did not even get a curtain call for their hard work. Good on the ATC for giving them the opportunity, but a little of the limelight would have been even better.

The characters in this play spar largely with words. Apart from a few intense, violent moments, director Margaret-Mary Hollins keeps the movements small, the characters physically distant from one another. Most of the wide, curving set is unused for the majority of the play. It’s a directing decision that has its pros and cons. On one hand it isolates the characters in the most important landscape, the emotional one. On the other hand, the play loses energy at times because of it.

The set design, by Robin Rawstorne, features splashes of colour and a large industrial air vent to give visual interest while still conveying a feeling of factory mundanity. The emerald-green windows add to the feeling of claustrophobia – we can see and hear the world outside, but never enough to know if it is really there. The costumes, also by Rawstorne, give nice clues to character – Ray’s tucked-in shirt and high waisted pants contrasting with Una’s red dress and high heeled boots which are so self consciously sophisticated as to give her away. Lighting design by Bryan Caldwell and sound by Andrew McMillan are subtle and effective.

Some eavesdropping in the foyer afterwards, followed by a Google when I got home, revealed that the final scene of this play was cut from the production. Why, my detective work was unable to tell me, though the prohibitive cost of portraying a car chase with a quick scene change may well have proven too much, even for the ATC. Whatever the reason, the effect of stopping the play at the second to last scene was a little sudden (the audience took a while to clap), but also intriguingly enigmatic, leading to some good audience debate as we all filed out.

Enjoyable? Not sure. The script is powerful but I sometimes found myself losing concentration, and wondering why. Was it because it was all too uncomfortable to pay attention? Or was it the production? I found myself yearning for a little less restraint, a little more rawness in the playing of what is, after all, a very wounding story. But thought-provoking? Definitely. I left the theatre with more questions in my mind than I had entered with, and over the next few days I’m sure they’ll continue to brew. And that for me is the test of a good play.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.



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Feeling blue over postmodern grey areas

Review by Paul Simei-Barton 10th Sep 2008

Since its debut at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival, Blackbird has been a runaway success. It transferred to London’s West End where it won the Olivier Award for Best New Play while garnering almost universal acclaim from productions by major theatre companies throughout the world.

I approached the play with high expectations but found I could not share the enthusiasm with which critics have greeted this controversial work, which presents the gut-wrenching account of a sexual relationship between a middle-aged man and a 12-year-old girl. [More]
For more production details, click on the title at the top of this review. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.  


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Wrong love

Review by Nik Smythe 08th Sep 2008

The scummy, dowdy set depicting the smoko room in some unspecified industrial factory or plant sets the aesthetic tone for the dismal and unnerving subject matter of the play.  Twenty-seven year old Una has turned up at the workplace of fifty-six year old Ray, having tracked him down fifteen years after they had an illicit affair… you do the maths.

Ray holds some crummy middle management position in some unspecified factory or plant.  Since serving his time after he was caught and sentenced for paedophilia, Ray has created a new life in a small town and is ostensibly trying to lead a normal existence.  Exactly what Una is there for is for her to know and everyone to wonder about.

Scotsman David Harrower’s Blackbird premiered in Edinburgh three years ago and transferred to the West End.  The script certainly echoes the Scots vernacular when you’re listening for it but the setting of this ATC production is distinctly kiwi, so no paragraphs required to address the ongoing debate of foreign stories and accent quality.  The events of the story could take place anywhere in the western world, or elsewhere even, so it makes sense to bring it closer to home wherever it is produced.  Thus, Margaret-Mary Hollins and her proficient cast bring the contentious drama to the stage with humour and heart.

Michael Hurst handles the various juxtaposed facets of Ray’s personality with trademark skill – harrowed yet authoritative, a simple factory supervisor yet astute and almost charming.  As the scoundrel of the piece he does well to elicit our sympathy, albeit mostly in a ‘Christ, I’d hate to be you!’ sort of way.

Liesha Ward Knox plays Una with studious, innocent, vampish charm, though she appeared at times to struggle with embodying such a complex character with so much going on inside her.   Nevertheless, Knox’s Una is willful and assertive, with underlying tenderness but enough savvy to keep us guessing if and when her calculating agenda takes over from the genuine victim.  I daresay both hers and Hurst’s best performances this season are yet to come.

The age difference between Una and Ray is of course the central issue here, but this isn’t merely an educational piece about paedophiles.  It’s not even much of a cautionary tale; more a tale of forbidden love, misguided passion, bad timing.  In discussion with other audience members, I find I share a common difficulty with exactly what attitude to take about the situation the play discloses. 

Some are content to view Ray as villain and Una the victim, simple as that.  In legal and social terms this is correct; Una was barely pubescent when they first met and in spite of her effectively being the one who stalked Ray at the start, his position as the responsible adult ought to have been to discourage her, to redirect those passions of hers that he had unlocked. 

But he instead allowed himself to be drawn in, fooled himself with the justification of true love.  And he was caught, and punished, and rightly so – he was guilty of abuse, of unfairly taking a child’s innocence.  But by then it’s too late to change what happened, or escape the intrinsic dilemma of the law versus love, morality versus passion. 

That’s all presuming you believe his side of the story at all.  The possibility that Ray is simply a liar through and through remains open for debate, although if anyone should be able to catch him out surely Una could.  Of course, she may be driven by what she wants to believe herself…

This review cannot be complete without due accolades to the exemplary collaborative set and lighting designs of Robin Rawstorne and Bryan Caldwell.  The luminous effect of anonymous personnel seen through the frosted windows walking by in the outer corridor is simply stunning. 

Also, testament to sound designer Andrew McMillan are the sweetly haunting siren songs sung by Maria Hollins-Werry that open and close the play – respectively classic show tune Bye Bye Blackbird, and the quintessential Sir Paul McArtney folk song.  Touching bookends to a momentous 80 minutes or so in the lives of two hapless wretches whose intense connection appears ultimately doomed to be troublesome and wrong. 

[Here are the links for reviews and discussion prompted by the Circa production and Sydney Theatre Company production at the NZ International Arts Festival, including a Forum.]  


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