Blood of the Lamb
Gryphon Theatre, 22 Ghuznee Street, Wellington
26/02/2006 - 28/03/2006
A funny, sad, shocking production of Bruce Mason’s last play that won three top awards in 2005. “Brings Mason’s play alive”, “Power and emotional intensity”, “A most satisfying eveing of theatre”. Adult themes.
written by Bruce Mason
directed by John Marwick
Rowan Macrae as Henry
Joanna Hulme as Eliza
Elspeth Harris as Victoria
2 hrs 15 min, incl. interval
Doing Bruce Mason proud
Review by John Smythe 28th Mar 2006
A rare opportunity to see, rather than read, a Bruce Mason play comes with the Butterfly Creek Theatre Troupe’s production of his last play for stage, Blood of the Lamb – a Wellington revival of last year’s Eastbourne season. Commissioned by the Court Theatre, it premiered in 1980 then toured the country and went to the Sydney Festival the following year, where I first saw it in a cavernous old theatre with appalling acoustics that required the cast to overplay what is essentially a very intimate, and highly verbal, piece. Foolishly, I blamed the play.
Achieving credibility is the play’s big challenge. We are asked to believe that a girl grew up believing she had a mother and father when both of them – clearly to us in the audience – are women, even if one does dress as a man. Sure, Victoria spent most of her childhood in boarding school, from the age of six. Sure, Shakespeare’s plays and many operas, both comic and tragic, involve women masquerading as men. And sure, our own history embodies real-life cases (see Lorae Parry’s 1996 play Eugenia, about a woman who passed herself off as a man in the early 20th century).
Maybe Mason subtitled his play ‘Cosi Fan Poche’ (thus do a few women), called his lesbian couple Eliza Higginson and Henry Higginson, and described it as ‘a three-part invention in homage to W A Mozart and G B Shaw’ in order to emphasise its reach went well beyond itself. And it does. Set in real time on the patio of Higginson Lodge in Rangiora, its sweep through a couple of decades of fast-changing New Zealand society both Pakeha and Maori, compared and contrasted with the great classics – and Australia (well, Sydney) – is epic.
But to take that as a cue to over-theatricalise the ebullience of the playful text, richly articulated and replete with classical references, would be a mistake. Its two and a half hour stretch (plus interval), consisting mostly of story-telling to explain how the present came to pass, would soon pall and reek of pretension if we didn’t believe in, and feel empathy for, the three women involved. If we don’t tune into the very high stakes that compel the story-telling, the play is lost.
Happily director John Marwick and his astutely-cast actors do Mason proud. As conversant and comfortable with the verbal style as seasoned actors of Shakespeare are, they keep firmly focused on the emotional truth of each moment. Thus we willingly suspend our disbelief of a Henry (Rowan Macrae) got up as Charlie Chaplin and Eliza (Joanna Hulme) sewing pearls on a bridal veil as they prepare for the return of their prodigal daughter, who ran away five years ago to Australia and is now returning with her Aussie-Italian-Catholic swain to get married. What hooks our interest is not so much Henry’s manic behaviour and Eliza’s studied calmness, as the source of the agitation that underpins it.
Intrigue also surrounds what Victoria (Elspeth Harris) is up to. When she arrives from Christchurch, stroppy, smart-tongued, yet yearning for something she cannot articulate, and calls Henry "Dad" and Eliza "Mum", the questions this raises demand our continued attention. It is her question, "Who is Gladys Mary Talbot?" – a name discovered on her birth certificate – that provokes the unfolding of the all-too-credible truth. Gothic the stories may be, as ‘Vix’ exclaims, but they stand as a vivid exposé of the phallocentric cultures, both Pakeha and Maori, that were so actively challenged throughout the 1960s, 70s and well into the 80s.
The journey from the Dio boarding school where the women first bonded as friends, through the landed gentry’s high country sheep station where innocence was lost in the blood of a needlessly slaughtered lamb, to the subsistence settlement in Tolaga Bay where the plan was hatched for the refugees’ future survival, and on to the haven of North Canterbury market gardens and a growing career in flowers and food, is vividly painted by Mason in richly-toned text. How it has been for Victoria and why she ran away, and the rationale behind the couple’s idiosyncratic lifestyle, also emerge to answer our pent-up questions.
If there is one part Mason might be challenged on, it is his preoccupation with "who has the clarinet?" in the lesbian relationship, and what he wants to imply by having Henry play one so badly (off stage). On the other hand, this may be seen as a comment on the pressure the women felt to play out the hetero gender roles in public. And they do agree to drop the pretence and both come out as women at the wedding, albeit with Henry in a trouser suit. But Henry’s final appearance is in mourning suit drag. Maybe the point is that it’s been such fun, she won’t easily relinquish the make-believe.
Proof that all three actors have got it right comes with the credibility of Victoria’s final acceptance of her true mother. It’s a hard-won resolution and all the more touching for that. Blood of the Lamb has taken us on one helluva ride through humanised history and culture, and Rowan Macrae, Joanna Hulme and Elspeth Harris have excelled in keeping us with them all the way.
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