13/11/2012 - 24/11/2012
25/09/2012 - 29/09/2012
Meet Cassie. She’s just moved in with Rose, who’s just had a one-night stand with Mark, who’s fed up of living with Tim, who secretly loves Rose, who’s just using Tim to get to Mark (who she loves), who’s just become very interested in Cassie.
Winner of the Evening Standard’s Most Promising Playwright Award, Penelope Skinner delivers biting black comedy about trying to connect in a city where Facebook can seem like your closest friend.
True love and leprechauns.
The power of marketing.
The struggle of a modern feminist.
A burger-flipping romantic.
A black comedy through rose-tinted glasses.
BATS THEATRE, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington
Tues 25 – Saturday 29 September 2012
Full $20.00 | Concession $15.00 | Group 6+ $16.00
Booking link: http://bats.co.nz/ticket-form/
BASEMENT THEATRE, Lower Greys Avenue, Auckland
Tuesday 13 – Saturday 24 November 2012
Calum Gittins plays Mark
Michelle Blundell plays Rose
Simon Ward plays Tim
Chelsea McEwan Millar plays Cassie
Lighting by Ruby Reihana-Wilson
Tight, effective, intelligent and fervent directing of assertive, authentic and raw performances
Review by Lexie Matheson 15th Nov 2012
There was a time when going to the theatre, or engaging in any art form as a consumer, was seen as being good for one. I can recall Russell Kerr, that priceless – and seemingly ageless – doyen of the ballet, saying, in the mid 1970s, that everyone should go to the ballet for this self-same reason. He was right then and he’s still right today but things have changed.
Going to the theatre is an experience. Some companies even have a Customer Experience Manager who monitors the entire occasion from beginning to end. It’s not just what happens on the stage but the journey to the theatre, the cost and convenience of car parking, finding a meal nearby, the welcome at the box office, the cleanliness of the toilets, the smile from the usher, the ambience of the theatre, the glass of wine during the interval, the ease of departure, the air conditioning, the whole kit and caboodle that makes going to the theatre a joy or a nightmare.
I’ve been critical of The Basement in the past but not this time. The box office experience is always pleasant and this continued to be the case with Eigengrau. A smile costs nothing and the one I was greeted with was warm and welcoming. The quick pit stop at the Ladies was almost a revelation. Everything was pristine clean and fresh as a daisy.
The usher was sweet and the theatre, to be frank, the most pleasant surprise I’ve had in a performance space for a long time. There was no hint of the old dust and grime; the smell of fresh paint sat lightly in the air, the walls were gleaming from a spanking new paint job and the whole place looked delightfully revamped.
The theatre was divided in half, separated by a suitably minimalist set, and the audience was left with the mild discomfort of having to look at each other while waiting for the show to start. The gender stats for the audience were unremarkable: for every man in the comfortably-sized house there were seven women. I wondered, momentarily, whether this simply reflected the fact that 80% of theatre tickets are purchased by women or that the advertising for the play reminded us all that the playwright, enfante terrible Penelope Skinner, was an ardent feminist and that this might have kept the blokes away. Either way, this gave me an excuse to peruse the audience and not to feel too embarrassed.
The set consists of four black boxes placed on the diagonal, three and one. These are placed on a square floor elegantly divided into sixteen equal squares. It’s sufficient for the multiple locations Skinner’s narrative requires and the shifting of the furniture and the deft addition of the occasional prop or costume make for slick and effective scene changes.
Only once does the action move from the confines of the acting space and then it’s to gain maximum effect.
The name of the play is Eigengrau. This is the German word that describes the dark grey colour the eye sees in perfect darkness. Trumbull Ladd researched this as early as the beginning of the 21st century and discovered that the conscious mind can control and manipulate eigengrau and turn it into other shapes such as circles, squares and crosses.[i]
There has been considerable debate about the name of the play; debate centred on whether it’s good to name a play with a single word that no-one knows the meaning of and a word that, once you do know its meaning, might cause you to ask its relevance.
I’ll enter the ring on the side of the supporters of Eigengrau as a name on the grounds that a major theme in the play relates to the manipulating of one’s values and beliefs to suit what our bodily urges tell us we need to do. The impassioned feminist character Cassie articulates it best when she says, “Maybe it’s just inside me, this thing that I want, that so completely betrays everything I believe,” just before she falls for the line being fed her by arch-cad – and one would have thought arch-enemy – Mark.
Playwright Penelope Skinner is an extraordinary young woman. Having seen Jack Thorne’s When You Cure Me and been overtaken by a sudden realisation that not all playwrights were dead and that a living playwright could speak so eloquently and personally to her, she then spent two years writing her first play which she named, with great subtlety, Fucked.
Skinner decided, following the success of Fucked, that what she wanted was to be a full time writer and we’ve all benefitted from that decision to the tune of The Sound of Heavy Rain, The Village Bike – a free-wheeling play about sexual frustration and organic vegetables – Eigengrau, and most recently Fred’s Diner. She admires Dolly Parton because “she doesn’t give a shit” and would like the Dynasty theme to be the soundtrack to her life. Apart from that she’s a brilliant writer of the partial line, has an inspired ability to hone in on raw nerves and to keep any wound open far beyond that moment when the audience has had enough. She’s a skilled actor’s dream and a director’s delight.
I’d also go as far as to say that she’s one of the writers (potent pause) Productions was created for. I started this review talking about how the idea of going to the theatre ‘because it’s good for us’ has changed over the decades but I find that, even when I know I’m going to be emotionally challenged almost to my limit, experiencing a (potent pause) production is always good for me – and usually in ways I wasn’t altogether expecting.
Paul Gittin’s production of Eigengrau is a case in point. It’s a four hander and you’ll go a country mile to find four better performances.
In Gittin’s skilful hands the direction is tight and effective, intelligent and fervent. He has clearly created a rehearsal environment in which these fine young performers can feel safe and explore freely because the choices they make are all top notch and this is no easy play. The sex scene alone would be enough to make most actors hide in the toilet but not Michelle Blundell and Calum Gittins. They are magnificent. Skinner takes no prisoners and if any actor isn’t up for it they’ll be left more exposed than a bare bum on Hampstead Heath.
The question ‘whose narrative is this?’ is a difficult one to answer and probably springs from the somewhat conservative and conventional idea that all plays have a central character; that a narrative has to be primarily one person’s story.
Eigengrau isn’t a traditional play despite being cunningly well disguised as such with its form, structure and appearance anchored strongly in the British playwrighting tradition. It’s peopled by real folks doing recognisable everyday stuff but it’s not a narrative driven by one of the characters alone. These are powerfully etched, egocentric and ambitious characters and they fight – no holds barred – for their place in Skinner’s sun. There are no winners and no losers because essentially nothing much changes for the characters as they engage in the never ending visceral battle between intellectual ideology and programmed response and herein lies the play’s nihilistic fascination. It’s an emotional train-wreck and, as with all such events, we gaze on it with salacious, voyeuristic fascination. In a word, Gittins’ production of Eigengrau is magnificent theatre.
Cassie (Chelsea McEwan Millar) is a young feminist working for a feminist organisation and she doesn’t trust men much. She flats with Rose (Michelle Blundell), aged 23 going on 27, a sweet and manipulative hippie with a dodgy past who starts the play in the throes of sexual bliss with Mark (Calum Gittins), a man about town who works in the city and who is the ultimate example of the amoral modern roué.
Mark owns an apartment in Chiswick that he shares with Tim (Simon Ward), a sad fellow who has recently lost his Nan and who is currently looking for a job.
Eigengrau is quintessentially British in content and characters. It reminds me of Joe Orton at his blackest, not only because of the content but also because of the grunt in the lines and the power in the exchanges. It’s BritSpeak 2012 with lines like Mark’s, “Feminism? I didn’t think people still did that stuff”and, Mark again in predator mode, “There is hope. You did something here today. You changed me.” And Cassie’s “Why do you have to kill someone to be a hero?”
Eigengrau in the assured hands of this cast is assertive, authentic and raw, just as Skinner has written it.
Simon Ward’s Tim is a sweet, naïve and rather pathetic man who is lost in the mists of grief. Ward subtly underplays Tim but he’s there when he’s needed. We’re pleased when he wins. Sort of.
Calum Gittins is exceptional as Mark. He’s is a creep, a lecher, a predator yet we still rather like him. Just a tad.
Chelsea McEwan Millar makes a great fist of Cassie, the little Pommy battler who punches above her weight yet falls for the oldest line in the book. She carries the weight of the personal betrayal embodied in the title. She’s tight, controlled, angry and efficient. We like her too. It’s one of the ironies of this production – and the play – that such flawed characters end up with our sympathy.
Michelle Blundell is a fantastic Rose. She’s self-deluding and a ditz, she’s annoying, she’s dishonest, but this is a splendidly layered performance throughout and she hits every mark and presses every button. This is fine work when you add up what the actor has to do during the evening, the emotional journey she takes and all the potential pitfalls she meets along the way.
It’s one thing to applaud the courage of Skinner in revisiting the eye-gouging self mutilation of Oedipus in one of the greatest classics but making it work it a play with no kings, princesses, gods or oracles to fall back on is something else altogether. Then to find an actor who can bring this off while singing a karaoke version of Total Eclipse of the Heart without a snigger in the audience is real work indeed. Michelle Blundell does just that and she owns us all as she does it. Absolutely stunning stuff.
It somehow seems appropriate that the main thread of the play ends with the line “Anything is possible, you just have to believe”(Rose) because, to some considerable extent, this is what’s at the heart of the theatre experience. It’s where the actors and the audience meld into one and where we find the mutual empathy that makes us not want to go home at the end of a performance.
It’s Skinner, so there is, of course, a coda. Tim, because Rose has told him he must, returns to the beach he stands on at the beginning of the play holding his beloved Nan’s ashes in their appropriately naff jar. His eulogy to the departed is delicious in its heartfelt simplicity. Skinner still hasn’t finished with us, though, and has one last laugh to get.
I have a coda, too. As the women in the audience clapped like crazy and brought the cast back for a couple of extra well-earned curtain calls, the solitary man in the block opposite checked his watch. I could hear Skinner whisper: “I told you so.”
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Deconstructed modern romcom engages well at emotional level
Review by Paul Simei-Barton 15th Nov 2012
In choosing a recent work from a rising star of British theatre, Potent Pause Productions is looking towards younger audiences while building on its reputation for taking on challenging works from the modernist canon.
Eigengrau has an up-to-the minute contemporary edge but also demonstrates the value of critical engagement with the rich traditions of European drama. The play holds up a mirror to a protean generation that has proved too fluid to be pinned down by any tagline. The lively drama is carried by a quartet of sharply differentiated characters passionately searching for something to believe in only to find they are willing to believe in anything.
Playwright Penelope Skinner cleverly deconstructs the conventions of romantic comedy with sparklingly witty dialogue interspersed with glimpses of explicit sex. [More]
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More than black and white
Review by Matt Baker 15th Nov 2012
Meet Cassie. She’s just moved in with Rose, who’s just had a one-night stand with Mark, who’s fed up of living with Tim, who secretly loves Rose, who’s just using Tim to get to Mark (who she loves), who’s just become very interested in Cassie. While the magnitude of that sentence is slightly complex to envision with great clarity, this production of Penelope Skinner’s Eigengrau is anything but grey.
Though (potent pause) Productions is a somewhat obscure company – 13 productions in 11 years, with a slight emphasis on the works of Pinter and a bit of Mamet and Ionesco thrown in for good measure – it seems this company has a knack for not only stellar casts who make the most of poignant pieces, but also taking their time and developing a commendable and solid body of work. [More]
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The paradox of light within darkness perfectly cast
Review by John Smythe 27th Sep 2012
There is a certain magic that arises from excellent actors filling an almost blank space with characters and interactions that truthfully draw us into lives, concerns and worlds we recognise as very real. Human behaviour is endlessly intriguing.
But quite why English playwright Penelope Skinner called this, her second play, Eigengrau, is a mystery. Her first play was bluntly called Fucked, which doubtless won attention amid the plethora of plays on offer in London then the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008. Her more recent titles are The Village Bike and The Sound of Heavy Rain. It was Eigengrau (2010), I think, that won her a spot on the Royal Court Theatre’s Young Writers programme. But how do you sell a play with a title like that?
“Meet Cassie,” the publicity blurb goes. “She’s just moved in with Rose, who’s just had a one-night stand with Mark, who’s fed up of living with Tim, who secretly loves Rose, who’s just using Tim to get to Mark (who she loves), who’s just become very interested in Cassie.” All true. And intriguing. But given it is a highly accessible relationship drama with humorous insights into human frailty and vulnerability, why call it Eigengrau?
Googling reveals it is a German word meaning intrinsic grey, dark light or brain grey; the colour seen by the eye in perfect darkness; the light within what seems to be absolute blackness. Knowing that in advance may throw an even more interesting light on the stories that emerge.
Bats’ black box stage is the ideal starting point. Four dark grey boxes, a few other props, appropriate clothes and good technical support (lighting designed by Ruby Reihana Wilson and Ben Williams, and operated, along with the uncredited sound, by Williams) are all the four perfectly cast actors and director Paul Gittins need to bring the play to life.
The ashes in the urn that holds focus at the beginning and end, and plays a seemingly incidental ‘black comedy’ role in one scene, may also be described as ‘intrinsic grey’: ashes to ashes; dust to dust.
When Tim was a boy it was his Nan who brought light to his life. The dark days for him were at boarding school where unspeakable initiation rites were inflicted on new boys. But now, despite working in a fast food outlet while applying for other jobs, he lives with old school mate Mark, who is in marketing and wants it all – including his cold drink at the end of a hard day.
Simon Ward’s under-motivated, pliable Tim and Callum Gittins’ go-getting, ever-questing Mark make for a splendid odd couple, subtly calibrated to keep us asking who is using whom in the days of their lives.
But the first interaction is between Mark and Cassie, who are strangers. Mark has just spent the night with Rose, the flatmate Cassie acquired through gumtree.com. As a feminist activist who lobbies parliament and gives speeches, she is susceptible to aggressive confrontation when faced with such sublime ignorance as Mark exudes – and Chelsea McEwan Millar nails the role absolutely. Amid the darkness within which so many women still suffer, she is a light-bearer for change.
Cassie and Rose are poles apart too. Rose believes in fairies, fairy-tale romances, and that the universe will provide. There are hints that much darkness enclosed her early life so who would begrudge her this means of moving onward – except when the rent is due and she has no sense of responsibility towards it. Michelle Blundell makes every delicious and infuriating aspect of Rose utterly real.
Skinner’s script is strong on character and the interactions between them as she dramatises the relationship dilemmas of modern life. What elevates it from the turgid agitations of soap opera is her perception of paradox within the human condition.
I won’t be specific but if, in general, you are fascinated by the deeply sensitive people who try to protect themselves by bullying, or the politically powerful people who frequent B&D parlours, then you will like this play. Likewise the inner conflicts between head and heart, ideals and urges, principles and instincts – as manifested by this exemplary cast – feed the fascination factor as the plot’s intrigues deepen.
There are some credibility issues: an act of theft has no consequences; a debt problem is never resolved; the requirement to use fake cigarettes that don’t burn down compromises the final image. And a simulated sex act carried out long enough to be credible slackens the otherwise well-modulated pace.
As for Rose’s self-inflicted solution: it verges on the melodramatic but bathos is avoided thanks to the authenticity each actor brings to what follows, as well as to their actions throughout. Again, considering the paradox of light within darkness lifts what happens to an extra-ordinary level.
I saw the second night with a very small audience, which prompts me to urge Wellington audiences not to be parochial but to support Auckland shows in the same way we hope Wellington shows will be supported in Auckland – especially when they are as well done as this.
(potent pause) Productions has a strong following in Auckland and the rest of New Zealand deserves to enjoy their work. Eigengrau is well worth seeing.
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A mildly entertaining, often amusing play
Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 27th Sep 2012
The perception that what we see is not always what we get, especially in relationships, appears to be at the heart of English playwright Penelope Skinner’s Eigengrau. The title hints at this in an oblique way, being German for intrinsic grey, the colour seen in perfect darkness.
What starts out as a comic scenario between four disparate and disconnected people, each looking for the elusive perfect partner, fighting what their head tells them over their heart, soon turns into a very graphic horror story that leaves nothing to the imagination.
First there is Cassie (Chelsea McEwen Millar), a parliamentary activist on women’s rights and an ardent feminist, clinging to the ideals Germaine Greer trumpeted 30 years ago. She meets slick urbane PR man Mark (Calum Gittins) after his one-night-stand with her flatmate, the dizzy, away-with-the fairies Rose (Michelle Blundell).
Being a self-confessed ladies’ man and unbeknown to Rose, Mark decides to hit on Cassie, seeing her as a challenge to overcome her prejudices of the “typical” male. When he tells Rose it’s all over between them she decides to use his flatmate Tim (Simon Ward), an overweight loser grieving over his dead Nan, to inveigle her way into their flat. Unbeknown to Rose, Tim falls in love with her during her buttering him up to get into their flat.
A mildly entertaining and often amusing play, it is nevertheless difficult to know what it is trying to achieve or where it is going, other than showing the deprivation people will go to for love.
However, the strong cast under director Paul Gittins’ slick direction makes the ludicrousness of the characters and their situations as believable as possible and creates some moments of real tension, especially towards the end.
In particular, Blundell gives a wonderful performance as the daft and dippy Rose, who actually ends up the sanest of the four, but who has to do some extraordinary things on stage in order to get there. Her ability at conveying the flightiness of Rose coupled with the character’s vulnerability was exemplary.
And Mark, the cad who can never see his own faults, is well portrayed with an air of arrogant confidence by Gittins, making this rather strange play one that is nevertheless interesting to watch.
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