Burnt Coffee

BATS Theatre, Wellington

29/05/2008 - 11/06/2008

Production Details


Yellow Digger presents the premiere of BURNT COFFEE by Charlotte Simmonds · BATS Theatre · Thursday 29 May – Wednesday 11 June 2008 · 6.30pm · $15/$12 · Bookings phone (04) 802-4175 or e-mail book@bats.co.nz

From CHARLOTTE SIMMONDS, the writer of Arctic-Antarctic and The Story of Nohome Neville and Unwholesome Clare Who Worked In The Kitchens and Smelt Like A Dish, and DAVID LAWRENCE, the director of King Lear and Deliver Us, comes an astonishing new and sociopathic play about disillusionment with twenty-first century ideology. Loosely based on the myth of Medea, this play threatens to destroy what little faith in love you have left.

Jason is the jittery and highly confused insomniac husband of Raghed, a beautiful Jordanian dwarf. The couple’s therapist, Katrina, is unprofessional and unscrupulous, treating them both individually and toying with their emotions as if they were puppets. Lives, careers and the ability to walk upright in high heels will all be risked. Issues of xenophobia and trust will be sustained. No one will escape intact.

"This was never a love story because I never felt any love.  It was a destruction story because the only desire I felt was one for utter devastation." – Katrina 

ALEX GREIG plays Jason.  This year Alex has appeared at BATS in Rubber Turkey, Hail to the Thief, Shipwrecked Beneath The Stars and in Simon Vincent’s A Renaissance Man.  Last year he appeared in Charlotte’s earlier play The Story of NoHome Neville And Unwholesome Clare Who Worked In The Kitchens And Smelt Like A Dish, in King Lear (The Bacchanals/Fortune Theatre) and in Revenge of the Amazons

Possibly the shortest actor in the country, NATASYA YUSOFF, plays Raghed.  Formerly an award-winning children’s television presenter in Malaysia, Natasya is now based in Auckland.  She last appeared in Wellington playing Puck in The Bacchanals’ touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2005. 

ANTONIA BALE plays Katrina.  Antonia graduated from Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School last year where she appeared in Arcadia and Henry 6.  Since graduation she has produced sell-out seasons of Blinkers and The Man, The Pie and The Taxi Guy at BATS and Like Someone In Love: The Life and Death of Chet Baker at the Fortune Theatre.

DAVID LAWRENCE directed Charlotte’s first play, Arctic-Antarctic, in 2006.  This year he has directed A Renaissance Man and Hail to the Thief at BATS, Good Angel Bad Angel for NIMBY Opera, Northward Ho! at Studio 77 and Like Someone In Love at Blondini’s and the Fortune.  He doesn’t sleep, but he really really wants to. 

CHARLOTTE SIMMONDS was nominated for Most Promising New Playwright at the 2007 Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards.  Burnt Coffee is her third play and its premiere coincides with the launch of her first book, The World’s Fastest Flower, published by Victoria University Press.  Critics said her first play, Arctic-Antarctic: A Bi-Polar Play was "a gruelling yet inspiring hour" and "extraordinary" (theatreview), and that her second play The Story of NoHome Neville And Unwholesome Clare Who Worked In The Kitchens And Smelt Like A Dish was "astonishing and challenging" (theatreview) and that she is "an exceptional talent that truly deserves to reach its full potential".  The Capital Times also said "the writing is terrific, with more than a nod to Beckett but not at all copycat" and that the play was "classy poetic writing that’s a pleasure to hear on stage". 

Yellow Digger presents the premiere of BURNT COFFEE by Charlotte Simmonds · BATS Theatre · Thursday 29 May – Wednesday 11 June 2008 · 6.30pm · $15/$12 · Bookings phone (04) 802-4175 or e-mail book@bats.co.nz   

ALEX GREIG plays Jason
NATASYA YUSOFF, plays Raghed
ANTONIA BALE plays Katrina

Detestable trio

Review by Lynn Freeman 04th Jun 2008

In Burnt Coffee, Charlotte Simmonds has written both a riff on the Medea tragedy and an analysis of the agony of playwriting.  She launched her new book of poetry on opening night and there is a definite poetic quality and succinctness to her plays. 

In the Medea of her contemporary retelling, Jason (Alex Grieg) is an insomniac with an overpowering need to possess his wife Raghed (Natasya Yusoff).  They are both self-obsessed, co-dependent and deeply unpleasant.

Their therapist Katrina (Antonia Bale) needs help herself, as she insinuates herself into the couple’s lives and eventually takes over from Raghed.  Raghed tries to get rid of the baby she’s carrying, even though Jason is desperate for a child.  Katrina, meanwhile, has written the script for the play, introducing herself as someone driven by addiction and chance, a playwright without empathy, just wanting to rip Raghed’s life to shreds. 

It’s a credit to Simmonds that she keeps us interested in these three detestable people, also a credit to the three actors, who spit out their poison with verve and unflinching nerve, and to director David Lawrence, who keeps the action in top gear.  It is though played at one level, (ie loud and abrasive), a little more light and shade would be helpful.


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Lively dialogue in a loveless world

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 04th Jun 2008

Pirandello had six characters go off in search of an author. In Burnt Coffee Charlotte Simmonds has her playwright, Katrina, and her two characters, Raghed and Jason, go off in search of a play. On the way they find in this tricky piece of metatheatre a plot set in Wellington 2005 about an eternal triangle that has echoes of the plot of Medea by Euripides.

Jason is an angry insomniac; his wife, Raghed, is described as a promiscuous Jordanian dwarf but is just short, and Katrina is an unconventional therapist who turns playwright at the behest of Raghed who wants her life dramatized, though Katrina admits her play is pure plagiarism of other peoples’ lives.

But of course, as the partners keep changing in the eternal triangle, the truth of what happened (it gets acted out in the flashbacks) is never clear. The unscrupulous Katrina is in control but she is biased, attracted to both Jason and Raghed, and they will no doubt pay the penalty for sleeping with an autobiographical writer. Or is the truth just a variation by Katrina for the sake of a variation, or is it a result of Jason’s lack of sleep?

In the end Katrina fails to come up with an ending. She considers a deus ex machina and she tries a few endings out to see what appears the best, but by this time I felt I had had enough of the egotistical, disillusioned and unpleasant characters and their search for love in a seemingly loveless world.

This play, according to the blurb, ‘threatens to destroy what little faith in love you have left’ and no one will escape intact from it. That might have been true if we had been involved with the characters rather than the cleverness of the plotting, but if we had been involved with them we would have had the possibility of liking them and even loving them.

However, Charlotte Simmonds can certainly write entertaining lively dialogue and she has provided Antonia Bale as Katrina, Natasya Yusoff as Raghed and Alex Grieg as Jason with roles they can get their teeth into which they do with relish under David Lawrence’s uncomplicated, unfussy direction, which a lesser director might have avoided faced with such a ‘theatrical’ script. 


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Full spectrum of passions exuded with total conviction

Review by John Smythe 29th May 2008

First there is the story then there is the way it is told, by playwright Charlotte Simmonds and director David Lawrence.

Jason (Alex Grieg) is an insomniac married to Raghed (Natasya Yusoff), an emotionally insecure and sexually promiscuous Jordanian "dwarf" (i.e. she’s quite short). Katrina (Antonia Bale), their highly irregular therapist, falls for Raghed but finishes up living with Jason after Raghed takes up with someone else. And out of jealousy, Raghed precipitates the miscarriage of her baby with Jason and sets his home on fire. Hence the assertion it is "loosely based on the myth of Medea" who (in the play by Euripides) killed their children when her husband, Jason, dumped her for the King’s daughter.

The key locations are Katrina’s consulting room, Jason’s bedroom and a party where the eternal triangle gets belted about with varying degrees of glee. Head scarves and high-heeled shoes feature as icons of feminine wiles or subjugation.

But all this happened – or in some cases may not have happened – back in 2005 and the way it’s revealed, in manic snatches, is filtered through the premise that Raghed has begged Katrina to write a play about her incredible life. So they are all relating the events in the past tense with the odd present-moment re-enactment, while commenting, through direct address, on themselves, each other and this evolving play they are part of, or writing, or being written into.

The variations on some key scenes reflect the different perceptions and memories of those who were there. Or maybe the changing ‘realities’ come filtered through the twilight zone of Jason’s insomnia. Or maybe it’s just Katrina’s next draft. In the end she confesses she doesn’t know how to end it, so what follows – culminating in the out-of-left-field coffee reference that gives the play its name – is rather arbitrary.

Personally I prefer stories with endings that pull together all that’s gone before; where the attention we pay and investments we make throughout are rewarded with pay-offs that take it all well beyond mere lists of characters, relationships and events. And given that part of this play’s declared agenda is to express "disillusionment with twenty-first century ideology" I see no special value in the way its post-modern jumble finally adds up to less than the sum of it parts.

Its avowed threat "to destroy what little faith in love you have left" is not delivered because even though the actors hit their emotional marks with total commitment and compel our attention at every turn, all the playing about with what’s real and what’s not undermines our actual belief in them, so they relate less to our own realities than they might.

That said, Simmonds is clearly extremely perceptive of human frailty and adept in her use of language and imagery. She passes her world through prisms that give us views we’d never see unaided. I wouldn’t want those values to be lost in the quest for greater coherence and purpose, but I don’t see them as mutually exclusive.

Lawrence and all three actors navigate the multiple dimensions with wit and skill, exuding a full spectrum of passions with total conviction, and elevating sex and violence to consciously theatrical arts forms. Having expressed my concerns about Guardians, it seems relevant to add that all this, and the uncredited pink set, lighting, excellent soundscape and slide show, combine to fully justify its claim to be a play.

But given the common themes explored in Burnt Coffee (65 minutes) and Guardians (95 minutes), not least in questioning the values we live by in the 21st century, I recommend making a night of it and seeing both.


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