EVERYBODY’S READING ROOM
Captaine Bougainville Theatre, Forum North, 7 Rust Ave, Whangarei
13/06/2015 - 14/06/2015
Despite horrendous losses at Gallipoli, the anti-militarism of Dargaville draper Arthur Grace is opposed by many. Frustrated by the jingoistic fervour of his community, Arthur loses himself in writing a play and conducting an out-of-character affair. But with the war dragging on, he must again stand for his convictions, and on the eve of the Somme offensive, harsh consequences become inevitable.
Arthur’s story is based on the civil disobedience during WW1 of Alfred Gregory, a Dargaville draper, Quaker, and anti-militarist imprisoned for sedition in 1916 for refusing to display a poster in his shop (he was the first person in NZ to be prosecuted under the Military Service Act). The play also pays homage to Irish playwright, Fabian socialist and co-founder of the London School of Economics, George Bernard Shaw, who also opposed the war, but for pragmatic, rather than pacifist, reasons.
Shaw, pilloried and ostracized for his views by the ruling classes and the artistic community alike, buried his frustrations in his writing, and Arthur’s play plagiarises Shaw’s Heartbreak House, written during the war. Arthur’s marriage to Marion and affair with Bella owe much to Shaw’s platonic marriage to fellow Fabian, Charlotte Shaw, and his relationship with that Edwardian epitome of a “proper theatre actress”, Mrs Patrick Campbell.
historical/melodrama/Edwardian drawing room/realism/surrealism mishmash
2015 VENUES & DATES:
Dargaville Little Theatre 30-31 May
Otamatea Repertory Theatre, Maungaturoto 6-7 June
Capitaine Bougainville Theatre, Whangarei 13-14 June
Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 5pm
Whangarei season bookings online at Ticketek, or Forum North Box Office
Guy Smith (Maungaturoto) ARTHUR GRACE
Lizzie Carroll-Thom (Waipu) MARION GRACE
Sam Hartles (Paparoa) GEORGE COUTTS; TOWNSMAN
Milly Brown(Mangawhai) BELLA WARD; WOMENS PATRIOTIC LEAGUE MEMBER
Kate Davison (Dargaville) BETTY
Josiah Day (Tinopai) WILLIAM
Suzanne Lappin-Cripps (Maungaturoto) AGNES DOWD; MARGARET FELL
Nat Curnow (Kaiwaka) MATE BUBICA; WALTER NASH; TOWNSMAN; JUDGE PAGE; MILITARY POLICEMAN
Ian Sturt (Maungaturoto) SGT LLEWELLYN; BOB SEMPLE; TOWNSMAN; MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT; MILITARY POLICEMAN; PRISON GUARD
SET DESIGN ANNA PENDRED, NAT CURNOW
SOUND DESIGN WARWICK SIMPSON, ADAM CARROLL
ORIGINAL MUSIC WARWICK SIMPSON, EMMA PAKI
LIGHTING DESIGN PETER FLOWER
MAU RAKAU CHOREOGRAPHY EZRA REVELL
PRODUCTION MANAGER SHERI O’NEILL
STAGE MANAGER SHAR DORMER
WARDROBE JOAN MARKS, ANNA PENDRED, KATRINA DYER, MAURA FLOWER, MARGIE BAKER, JESS HOPKINS, SHERI O’NEILL
PROPS SHAR DORMER, ANNA PENDRED, MARGIE BAKER, JESS HOPKINS, SHERI O’NEILL
SET CONSTRUCTION JIM ROWLANDS
SET DECORATION ANNA PENDRED, MARGIE BAKER
SOUND OPERATOR ADAM CARROLL
LIGHTING OPERATOR JOEL STEPHENS
STAGE ASSISTANT/DRESSER JESS HOPKINS, MARGIE BAKER
MAKEUP MILLY BROWN, JESS HOPKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY KATHY STRONG
TRANSPORT JIM ROWLANDS, SAM HARTLES
FRONT OF HOUSE LORAINE ROWLANDS, MARY STEVENS, TERRI DONALDSON
Often affecting and affectionate but needs rigid discipline
Review by David Stevens 15th Jun 2015
This Anzac centenary year has not been kind to TV producers and dramatists attempting to explore to that seminal event in NZ history. From the dark and overtly partisan Field Punishment No 1 to the overly simplistic Anzac Girls (shouldn’t that be Anzac Women or is it meant to be ironic?) to the ambitious When We Go To War: a great idea diminished by a soap opera approach and the avoidance of the real stories. These multi-million dollar productions have not been rewarded with socko ratings.
Now along comes Everybody’s Reading Room, a new play by Shari O’Neill with a tiny budget but huge ambitions. It is nothing if not local: the tale of Arthur Grace of Dargaville, a Quaker conscientious objector, the first man imprisoned for sedition in NZ during WW1.
And to burn a bit or two, parts of it put the TV epics to shame. But only parts, and not enough of them. I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. Everybody’s Reading Room is not – yet – a good play, but it has the potential to be splendid.
It begins (fairly sensibly) with Arthur Grace being beaten up for his pacifist ideas, and, injured, taken home by a considerate Maori, William/Wiremu, where we meet Arthur’s wife, Marion.
This relationship, Arthur and Marion, is the centrepiece of the play, and is often beautifully observed. Heavily based on the marriage of George Bernard Shaw and Charlotte Shaw (both Fabians – read Socialists), it is, like its model, an apparently celibate marriage.
There are scenes between Arthur and Marion (or parts of scenes) that are achingly honest, achingly truthful, beautifully evocative – a marriage of minds, and even hearts, but not overtly physical. I am quite touched, because I once knew people like this, it has the ring of how it was, or how it used to be.
This is true of much of the play. When Ms O’Neill gets it right, she gets it spot on right. The problem is, she has so much to say that sometimes we get lost in the flood of ideas thrown at us, and the central core of the play – or cores – get drowned in the flood. Ultimately, the play is not just about Arthur but also about his community: Dargaville during WW1.
Partly, the problem is that Arthur’s pacifism, while not forgotten, takes a back seat in Act 1, although it comes hurtling to the fore again at the start of Act 2.
In this (Act 1) mass of village life, there are some remarkable things. Wiremu, a minor character, is crucial to the piece and in some ways re-writes the supposed relationship with Maori at the time. I shall not soon forget the duet (I have no other word for it) between Coutts and Wiremu, when proto-Kiwi/British George Coutts adopts, with Wiremu’s support, Maori forms to express an idea. It changes my ideas about both characters.
And George Coutts is a genuine original. When he first appears he might be a figure of fun, a classic pompous ass, but gradually he is revealed as something much more, and his unlikely friendship with Arthur is as well defined as Arthur’s relationship with Marion.
You might guess from this that naturalism is abandoned, and the forays into a sometimes almost expressionist style easily find a place in my heart. Ms O’Neill is playing with form as much as content. It works extremely well for her in the first act and less well in the second, where it expands beyond Dargaville, which is the play’s natural home.
Several of the minor characters are very well observed. I shall not soon forget the line (about the education of the poor and working class): “When everyone is clever what happens – who will drive the night carts?”
So Dargaville is beautifully presented; Arthur, the putative hero, less so. He makes several speeches about his political beliefs and his pacifism, but few of them touch me; they felt second hand, borrowed from someone else, not organic to the character, platitudes rather than passion.
I am also less happy with some of the other elements. Arthur’s relationship with Bella, an itinerant actress presently washed up in Dargaville, feels shoe-horned in, again, taken from someone else’s life perhaps (George Bernard Shaw’s affair with the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell?). While I believe its resolution, I don’t quite believe the relationship itself. Arthur is presented as a deeply moral man and his fall seems too easy. I’m not saying he wouldn’t fall, but I need more of his motivation. The author is generous with other characters, stingy with Arthur.
I believe Betty, a young woman fallen on evil times, who wanders into Arthur’s world and who, with Wiremu, provides the satisfactory ending to the play (or the ending to the best parts of the play).
These same plaudits and reservations apply to the second act. Again, beautifully observed (the election campaign is both truthful and funny) but there is simply too much going on. Ms O’Neill is trying to show us too much and too much of the world beyond Dargaville – expressionism, however theatrical, fails her here. Similarly, Arthur takes his arrest and eventual imprisonment too phlegmatically for my money. Still it has some excellent moments and Arthur’s departure, near the end, is quite affecting.
As I said at the start of this, I don’t want to mislead you. This is far from expert playwriting, but it is passionate and – sometimes – very effective playwriting. It needs some rigid discipline, some serious pruning and the author needs to make up her mind which parts of the story are essential to the story she is telling, or even which story she is telling. On the simplest level, for example, I think it needs to build to Arthur’s arrest, which I’d put at the end of Act 1, not have it come as a bolt from the blue.
I think she needs to explore her central character, Arthur, more; to love him more. While I am completely sympathetic to the GBS/Charlotte Shaw role model, I‘d be happier if it was either less obviously (or more greatly,) explored. Charlotte, for all her celibacy, was desperate for a child, and found one in T E Lawrence (of Arabia). Marion only hints at children, and for Arthur’s sake, not so much her own.
But for all the many negatives, I come away from it with a clearer understanding of what life might have been like in New Zealand (or at least, the Kaipara) during WW1 than any of the multi-million dollar TV epics have given me, and it is often an affecting and affectionate view of that world.
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