Ella and Susn

Globe Theatre, 104 London St, Dunedin

01/04/2009 - 04/04/2009

Old Queen’s Theatre, 120 Hereford St, Christchurch

25/03/2009 - 28/03/2009

Production Details



Free Theatre Christchurch presents: Ella and Susn 

Returning to Christchurch for a brief season before going on to the 2009 Dunedin Fringe, Free Theatre Christchurch is restaging two works from its repertoire: Ella and Susn.

Originally presented in 2004 in Christchurch and Wellington to critical and popular acclaim, Ella and Susn continue the company’s 2009 season after a successful North Island tour of the award-winning* Faust Chroma. Again directed by Peter Falkenberg, these plays by radical German playwright Herbert Achternbusch present rarely heard voices from the margins of society.

In Ella a man, dressed in his mother’s clothes (á la Hitchcock’s Psycho), tells the story of his mother, abused and institutionalised. In Susn a young woman confesses to her priest how her first sexual experiences have caused her to want to leave the church.

In staging these works, Free Theatre Christchurch continues a 25-year reputation for presenting rarely staged plays. As with Faust Chroma, Ella and Susn were translated by the director and presented in English for the first time by the Free Theatre. This production has received particular attention for its unusual narrative style and "rich, satisfying prose" (The Press), which is a feature of Achternbusch’s unconventional and challenging work as a playwright, novelist, filmmaker, actor and painter. Despite being one of the most prolific artists of the past forty years, he remains largely unknown. His obscurity is primarily due to his unwillingness to adhere to the norms of art and society, most exemplified when he set fire to an art reward he received: a $20,000 cheque.

*Best Theatre, Dunedin Fringe Festival 2008; Best Production Design, Wellington Fringe Festival 2009

For more information on Ella and Susn, Free Theatre’s highly anticipated 2009 season and their North Island tour (including reviews) please visit: www.freetheatre.org.nz.  

"Achternbusch’s feast of delights… theatrical paintings, three-dimensional and verbal… Ella and Susn showed us the depth of creativity that so often distinguishes the work of Peter Falkenberg" The Press 

"…the kind of theatre that keeps you thinking and wanting to talk about it… gritty, provocative and stylish" The Christchurch Star 

"There is only one thing left to say, really, and that is: if you ever get the chance to see Free Theatre, grab it without hesitation. They produce theatre the way it should be and you will not be disappointed" The Critic 

CHRISTCHURCH
Wednesday 25 March – Saturday 28 March
8pm,
Old Queen’s Theatre, 120 Hereford St
To book please contact Te Puna Toi: 03 3653159

DUNEDIN FRINGE
Wednesday 1 April – Saturday 4 April
8.30pm,
Globe Theatre  
Tickets: TicketDirect, ph 03 477-8597

Website: www.freetheatre.org.nz  


CAST
(For SUSN)
Susn - Marian McCurdy
Priest - George Parker
(For ELLA)
Josef - George Parker
Ella - Nicola Nolet

Set Designers:
Chris Reddington and Richard Till 



Surprises to stimulate and delight

Review by Terry MacTavish 02nd Apr 2009

Nothing like a bare bottom for provoking a police response, and some well-deserved publicity. Yesterday in Dunedin, Free Theatre’s fine actor, George Parker, was marched along to the police station, for his courageous attempt to hand out a few leaflets, while sporting his costume for Ella.

How perfectly appropriate for a work by radical German playwright/ film-maker/ sculptor/ painter etc, Herbert Achternbusch. Achternbusch loves to provoke, and succeeds magnificently in this production, translated and directed by another innovator, Peter Falkenberg.

Susn is the first of the two monologues; a Catholic confession delivered by a teenage Jewish girl who is on the brink of chucking the church. We see the girl disappear into the confessional on stage, to reappear on a screen, her face eerily lit behind a grille. Thus we are getting, as it were, the priest’s view, and we are similarly placed on the spot, while incense burns and monks chant.

Marian McCurdy as ‘Susn’ is every adolescent, fascinated by concupiscence, and furious at the perceived hypocrisy of adults, who insist on her innocence, but are all ‘at it’ themselves. Who hasn’t been there? The words tumble out, and all the priest can say is, "You have seen terrible things, Susan, you have to tell me everything, and then you will feel better."

And Susn tells the stories, half-understood, of her sexual awakening; of Rose, Rita, Lee, alluring Lily, and the mysterious ‘Refugee’ – "I wanted to see his art of seduction, but most, I wanted to stab him!" McCurdy is credible, controlled, and ultimately compelling.

The second of the monologues, however, is the more truly radical. The confessional spins to reveal a substantial hen-house, with real hens, one crooning and clucking in the arms of George Parker, who wears nothing but his feather wig and white apron. He plays Josef, who from this cosy cage, speaks as his mother Ella, telling her story of humiliation and abuse.

With his sweet simple smile, and high-pitched sing-song delivery, Parker disarms and mesmerises. He is matter-of-fact, as he makes coffee for the audience ("or would you prefer poison?") and tells of childhood beatings that caused permanent damage; of forced marriage, incarceration in prisons, and mental institutions where punishment is ‘injections to make you puke’. And at last, sanctuary, of a kind – brought home to live in the hen-coop.

Meantime, a woman has been led from the audience to be seated on the stage, stripped of her coat to reveal that she too wears nothing but an apron. She says nothing, but stares at a TV screen that shows endlessly a pitiful battered hen, relentlessly pursued by a rooster who alternately attacks and mounts her. The symbolism is clear.

Although this is a story of brutal exploitation and repression, the visual imagery conveys such delicate absurdity that it is at times both funny and charming.

However sleep-deprived and grumpy one becomes, the Fringe still holds surprises like this to stimulate, and delight. To remind one of the transcendent power of theatre to create images that are ineradicable. And then there’s the irresistible mental picture of the worthy Dunedin constabulary, contemplating in bewilderment that feather wig, that trim bare bottom…
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Reality through the surreal

Review by Lindsay Clark 26th Mar 2009

Tucked away down a city alley, in graffiti land, this venue lends itself happily to the risky enterprise of fringe theatre. For the work of this unconventional playwright and the Free Theatre team, committed to escaping anything hidebound or expected, it could hardly be bettered.

It asks only that we leave our mental baggage at the bottom of the stairs, be prepared to scoop up our seat from the pile of chairs strewn like pick-up sticks in the performing space and then pay attention. This is not hard to do.

Both plays are about cages of one sort or another and both are virtual monologues, though with a second important presence in each.

In Susn which plays first, a schoolgirl pours out to an ineffectual priest the ‘confession’ of events and ideas charging her awakening sexuality and rejection of the church. It is the priest’s view of her enlarged disembodied face that we see, projected on to a screen beside the confessional booth. The distortion of her features, pixelated by the grille, is more interesting than her accounts, though as delivered in a sturdy NewZild accent with the strange lilt of rising inflexion at every phrase, they are authentic enough.

Ella presents a very odd set up. We see the back of a woman (Ella) drugged by the television screen in front of her, where repetitive images of domestic chickens roll endlessly. The confessional of the first play has been turned to reveal a hen house with live birds and a man (Josef, her son), dressed as the mother in the chair, that is, naked except for an apron. He is wearing, too, an extraordinary wig constructed of chicken feathers.

Speaking in a soft, feminine voice, he tells the woman’s story. She has been unwanted throughout her life, beaten, institutionalised, reduced to a caged existence. The hypnotic telling ends suddenly and shockingly, leaving only the birds, stepping their distinctive way about the back of the cage.

These are both difficult pieces, full of broken sequences and awkward shifts, but both principal actors are spontaneous and fresh in their roles. George Parker moves from the prompting priest in Susn to an indelible Josef in Ella with complete assurance, and Marian McCurdy holds her own as the troubled teenager.

It is not for everyone, reality through the surreal, but if we accept that the main job of theatre is to be theatrical, to make us see freshly, Peter Falkenberg and his team are right on track.

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