Ground

BATS Theatre, Wellington

25/01/2008 - 02/02/2008

Production Details



Hon and Darl, a typical Kiwi couple, are thrilled to have grabbed THE perfect site at their favourite holiday park in Central Otago. But their ecstasy turns to despair when overnight a campervan painted a ‘nasty brown with squiggles all over it’ moves in and blocks their view. When a friendly request for it to be moved draws no response, Hon and Darl are forced to resort to tougher tactics.

This comedy from Fiona Farrell, a recipient of a 2007 Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement, asks: who ‘owns’ a piece of ground? What do we do to stake our claim, and how far will we go to protect it from others interference? The Quartett Co-op presents this light-hearted look at the human instinct to protect what’s ‘yours’.


Featuring:
Bronwyn Tweddle
Patrick Davies

Designed by Leanne Stevenson



Objective awareness fails to engage

Review by John Smythe 30th Jan 2008

Having seen the third performance of this show, as an adjunct to Thomas’s review (and Laurie’s, Helen’s & Lynn’s), I offer a theory: that Ground was initially written as a radio play. As such, the constant and often repetitive dialogue is designed to feed the listeners’ imaginations and keep reminding them were the characters are and what’s happening.

To bring such a text live to a stage without adapting it suggests poor judgement. And to then clutter the action with ineptly executed visual imagery seems like an act of wilful sabotage. This "Paradise" that hairdresser Hon and electrician Darl have won for their annual leave holiday – by setting off a day earlier than most and driving through the night to score the elevated lot 123 at Maxwell’s immaculate coastal camping ground – is largely lost to our imaginations because of the distracting device they employ.

To reiterate: as Hon (Bronwyn Tweddle) and Darl (Patrick Davies) play out the scenario on an empty stage, miming the props, director Andrew McKenzie manipulates miniature props on a model of the ground, using tweezers to set camping paraphernalia; float wine glasses, bottles, handbags and laundry through thin air … while a closed-circuit digi-cam transmits the disembodied (apart from McKenzie’s hands) action to a small screen.

The placing of the screen means I can watch either the actors or the prop manipulation but not both in concert. Besides, I soon realise the actions are out of sync, so even if I could visually blend them it would be as irritating as bad sound-syncing.

The characters are indeed two-dimensional, with all their talk and action focused on the glory of their position then the sudden threat to their status quo: the alien campervan – brown with strange squiggles – that mysteriously materialises t0 block their view. If the dialogue was minimal and even included a non-verbal vocal score that expressed deep-felt feelings, these characters could become engagingly clown-like in their existential universe. But no, everything is spelt out over and over in many, many words …

With no subtext, little incentive to empathise, few good puzzles to engage me, it’s mundane things that take my attention, like how out of proportion the miniature props are with each other, how strange it is to have prop deck chairs and real deck chairs, how wrong it looks to see the actors’ legs in the back of shot at times when a judiciously placed black screen could have masked them …

Then there are questions of plot logic. Why don’t they take their concerns to Maxwell? Why don’t they at least ascertain whether the ‘intruders’ are parked on a designated site? And when the reviled campervan also ruins Darl’s TV reception of a cricket test at a crucial stage in the game, why doesn’t he just go down to the communal TV lounge he’s always used before? 

Perhaps such details are considered to be unimportant because Ground is, after all, an allegory for white settler racism. Except this, too, raises more questions than it answers. If our upwardly mobile and would-be elitist middle class Kiwis are freaking out at the silent invasion of ‘foreign’ immigrants they’re too insular and ignorant to understand, how come the play includes no mention of the original Māori settlers? A simple reference to this Ground’s older history – perhaps involving its original, now mangled, name – would add a crucial sense of ironic injustice to the whole notion of proprietary rights over land and nature.

Objectively the finale – ruined, apparently, by technical failure on opening night – offers the salutary spectacle of Hon and Darl destroying everything they have by throwing it at the immutable and immovable object they now violently object to. But the staging, the lack of vulnerability in the characters and (consequently) my inability to empathise with them, produces no subjective response in me. My awareness that their inability to accommodate difference, and my appreciation of what the final carnage denotes, remain very much at arms length.

That the small audience didn’t know it was over is a pretty clear indication this play, as written (for radio?) then directed and performed in this production, simply and ignominiously fails.
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Entertaining yet unsatisfying

Review by Lynn Freeman 30th Jan 2008

So what would you do if you pulled out all the stops to get the best pitch at the camping ground – panoramic views, privacy, full sun – only to have a blasted huge campervan park in front?  How far would you go to claim back what was rightly yours? 

Fiona Farrell send her creations, Darl (Patrick Davies) and Jon (Bronwyn Tweedle) to a remote camping spot in Central Otago, after a torturous drive, and we share with them the blissful anticipation of the perfect Kiwi summer holiday.  There’s even a perfect TV signal for the cricket test.  They look down at the campers below crammed in around the lake as they set up their home away from home.  Enter the caravan and what follows is a mini War of the Roses.

This is about possession and how far we’d go to hold onto our own little piece of paradise.

Tweddle and Davies are exceptionally good in their roles, both of them wonderfully physical actors whose skills are put to full use.  Davies’ Marcel Marceau standard miming of a desperate man trying to get a signal for the decisive last two overs of a cricket test nothing, is short of genius, while Tweddle’s atrocious bleach blonde Darl would be right at home on Kath and Kim. 

They were, though, let down a little by a script still in search of an ending, although to be fair there were opening night technical glitches which may have given our audience a bad steer.  The video footage suddenly cut out towards the end, just before the finale unfortunately, as animator Andrew McKenzie was lobbing miniature underwear over the miniature set.  Having live action props on screen while the actors performed is a nifty trick, though having seen the CSI miniature killer series on TV, it felt a little unnerving too.

It’s entertaining and extremely well done, yet ultimately a little unsatisfying.  
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Entertaining, if a little light weight

Review by Helen Sims 29th Jan 2008

Ground is set in an idyllic Otago camping ground and centres around Hon and Darl, a couple who have been coming there for years and have finally snagged the perfect spot. The play is split into five scenes and examines what happens when Hon and Darl’s possession of the plot is challenged by a large camper van with mysterious occupants that arrives in the dead of night and blocks their view. The play is light hearted in tone, but prompts a consideration about our possessive tendencies towards property, particularly land. Hon and Darl never contemplate a compromise that would result in their sharing the plot and view with the strangers they consider to be intruders. Instead they scheme in increasingly frantic fashion a way to re-establish their territory. In doing so they sacrifice their much longed for holiday.

Their possession of the camp site proceeds in stages. After staking their claim using their physical presence they bestow the highly unoriginal name of “Paradise” on the spot. Then they colonise the site with physical possessions like the barbeque, tent and food safe. Thirdly they lay claim to the site in writing – in this case a carefully worded postcard stuck under the windscreen wipers of the campervan. Then they mark the boundary and install security in the form of an alarm that only seems to go off when they move around. When the paranoia of the assailed pervades the final scene they defend “their” ground in a mock battle against the campervan and its un-responsive owners.

Throughout the play the stage remains mostly blank except for a couple of deck chairs and Hon and Darl. The accoutrements of a kiwi summer holiday are instead animated in miniature on a small plot of earth. Although it is absent miniatures of the human characters it becomes increasingly littered with their things. On the stage Hon and Darl mime using items such as wine glasses and pens. The miniature is videoed and projected on a screen on the other side of the stage. This was an excellent and original idea, but felt a little under-rehearsed as there were several incongruities between the action on the stage and the miniature. It really needed to be perfectly executed to succeed as a microcosm within a play that is set in a metaphorical microcosm. It was also a shame that they lost the video signal in the final scene.

Patrick Davies as Darl and Bronwyn Tweddle as Hon play their characters as thoroughly working class everymen, as their nondescript monikers would indicate. They deliver some classic lines such as “We’ve got six in a row and the bonus number” with great timing and comical sincerity. They become less likeable as the play proceeds. Despite being stock characters and stereotypes I thought there should have been some progression in their characters. Instead they started to annoy me a little – from the director’s note I see that their behaviour was meant to be infantile, so maybe that was the idea. In the final scene they really needed to come forward so that we could hear them properly over the action movie style music and really get the sense of an assault on the camper van.

Overall this play is entertaining, if a little light weight. Having seen an excellent student production of another of Farrell’s plays, Chook Chook, a couple of years ago, and also having read some of her fiction, I had high expectations of Ground. Whilst it does get its point across adequately it doesn’t have the same impact. I felt like the play either had to take on a more surreal or absurdist edge or a darker tone in order to really hit home. It didn’t really prompt me or my companion to think particularly hard about the issues it raised and was a little unsatisfying. However, it is enjoyable kiwi fare with excellent design aspects.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.
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Paradise found – and lost amid a welter of words

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 28th Jan 2008

Fiona Farrell’s Ground is, in effect, a comic précis of anthropologist Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative. Ardrey’s opening sentence of his 1966 work states that "A territory is an area of space, whether of water or earth or air, which an animal or group of animals defends as an exclusive preserve."

The ‘animals’ in Ground are a Kiwi couple on a camping holiday. Darl is an electrician and Hon is a hairdresser, though she would probably prefer the classier title of ‘hair stylist’, and they have arrived at a camping ground by a Southern lake. The territory they have snared is Site 123, the best in the camp, isolated from "the Cortina crowd" below and with a perfect view of the lake and mountains. It is, as Hon keeps saying ad nauseam, paradise.

Next morning they wake to find a vast camper van parked in front of their site totally blocking their view. For the rest of the play they plot, scheme, fume, and fight to defend their site as an exclusive preserve so that Hon can read her magazines and Darl can watch the cricket on TV in peace and they can both enjoy the view, the sunsets and the exclusiveness of their posie.

Patrick Davies as Darl and Bronwyn Tweddle as Hon throw themselves into their caricatures with great energy and spirit. However, they have to cope with a script burdened with too many words. The opening scene, for example, in which Hon and Darl realize they have found paradise, could be just as effective at half its length.

Throughout the hour-long play and sitting stage right is an animator who works at a small table with a pair of tweezers, a board, a TV camera, and miniature props such as deck chairs, a coat hanger, and wine glasses. Stage left is a screen on which we can see these props being maneuvered as the two actors centre stage mime using them. It’s an interesting gimmick but after a while I ignored the screen but kept wondering how much time had been spent on making all the miniatures.

The funniest scene in the play was not one about the couple’s indignation about the intrusive camper van but about Darl’s determination to watch the cricket and being unable to get any TV signal. There weren’t too many words and the humour arose from his frustration and determination to see the final over as well as from the physical comedy created by the two actors.

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Cross-purposed script, performances and design

Review by Thomas LaHood 27th Jan 2008

Ground is the tale of a couple of ‘kiwi battlers,’ forced to share their perfect camping spot with an unwanted caravan that obscures their view and destroys their portable TV reception.  I have myself just returned from four days in Totaranui, perhaps the quintessential kiwi camping ground, and there I saw firsthand much of the fertile human drama and primal behaviour that the play seeks to evoke.  However, despite this fresh experience of my own, I could find little in Ground to relate to.

Fiona Farrell’s script is described by the director as ‘a playful and light-hearted nudge’, which intimates the lack of depth that is its major weakness.  Her characters, Hon and Darl are a grating couple, drawn more or less one-dimensionally, and without many endearing qualities with which to conjure pathos.  Perhaps the suspension of our disbelief of these two stereotypes could be extended by an outrageous sequence of events, but Farrell offers a sluggish, predictable escalation of conflict that climaxes just as it finally becomes interesting.

There is little, then, for the cast to work with.  With flat humour like this you can either work against it, underplaying everything and aiming for a sort of cool ironic tone, or you can ham it right up and hope for the best.  Opting for the latter, Bronwyn Tweddle nearly succeeds in making Hon funny, with her gormless gaping and well-observed physicality, but she struggles to bring range to the repetitious dialogue.  From the opening scene, Patrick Davies has Darl turned up to full volume, which leaves him nowhere to go but over the top.  He spends a good part of the play shouting his lines, and this suffocates the audience, and at times smothers Tweddle’s performance too.

Perhaps Davies and Tweddle have been ill-served by McKenzie, who seems to have his hands full with animating Leanne Stevenson’s highly conceptual stage design.  McKenzie sits onstage with a miniature version of the set before him, manipulating miniature props with tweezers in real time as the actors perform.  This miniature set is projected via live video feed to a screen on the other side of the stage, and thus, as Tweddle and Davies mime their actions, we see the disembodied props floating around on the adjacent screen.

The device is intriguing of itself, and even amusing at first, when the tiny wine glasses first make an appearance.  But the novelty soon wears off, and the fiddliness and split focus become quite distracting.  As it turned out on opening night, McKenzie was so caught up in trying to follow the actors that he failed to notice when the handycam turned itself off about ten minutes before the play’s end.  This decisively severed the bond with the audience and left the whole contrivance looking clumsy and foolish.  Such technical oversights are unforgivable when the AV component plays such a domineering role. 

If McKenzie were able to hone his animation skills to the point where the movement of the props seamlessly mirrored the movement of the actors, then perhaps it would be less of a distraction, but even then it adds nothing to the themes of the play.  It’s a commendably ambitious concept, but I struggle to see what Stevenson is trying to achieve.  If the liner notes can be believed, perhaps the purpose is to fit the show ‘almost completely in a suitcase for touring’.  If so, I would suggest that the cart has been put before the horse.

Ground suffers from its script, performances and design being entirely at cross purposes with one another.  McKenzie has unfortunately mismanaged these elements to create a confused production that struggles to engage its audience.

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