07/11/2008 - 22/11/2008
A woman, a man, and a penguin – theatre of the Antarctic
Sometimes extreme conditions push you to the extremes.
It’s 1999 and a husband and wife scientific team hunker down inside a tiny, tightly packed survival capsule on the Ross Ice Shelf, wintering over in the vast frozen Antarctic, accompanied by only web-cam, sporadic radio contact, the amazing Aurora Australis, and a colony of male penguins.
Struggling to maintain a failing relationship, Stella (Kate Prior) observes breeding patterns among Emperor penguins, while John (Aaron Cortesi) monitors climate change – until the untimely introduction of a third character (Brian Hotter) blows their fragile world apart. Life in the hut takes one dark turn after another, caught live on ‘cam’ in an explosive climax where only two of the three will come out alive, just in time to witness the first vivid streaks of light as it dawns on the beginning of the endless day.
Echoing the real restrictions of life in the Antarctic and in the dynamic spirit of a STAB show, Heat will use self-sustainable energy means – powered off-grid with lights, sound and electronics from low drain and/or renewable energy. The production will look, as the Antarctic stations are increasingly doing, to partnerships with companies developing sustainable, renewable power sources.
2008 is the first International Polar Year for 50 years, so once again scientists, policy makers and governments worldwide are focusing on the precious and fragile qualities of the polar worlds. Heat brings together this scientific contemplation with those uniquely human qualities we all have.
With a new script originally commissioned by Circa Theatre, music by recent CNZ Antarctic Fellow Gareth Farr and design features by Afterburner’s Marty Roberts, Heat opens a rare glimpse into the extraordinary isolated experience of being an Antarctic scientist, being a human pushed to the extremes, and of the sheer beauty of a winter in the Antarctic.
7 – 22 November, 7.30pm
Matinee 15 & 22 November 2.00pm
BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Tce
Bookings: 04 802 4175 or email@example.com
Cost: $20/13. $15 groups 6+
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This production of Heat was commissioned by BATS Theatre for STAB 2008
The script was commissioned by Circa Theatre.
Both commissions were given with funding from Creative New Zealand.
Part of STAB 2008: commissioned by BATS Theatre with funding from Creative New Zealand. STAB originated in 1995 from BATS Theatre’s desire to initiate a commission that allowed theatre artists to experiment in a supportive environment. The STAB commission is an essential part of the BATS annual programme and can be accessed by all performance media: dance, theatre, opera, music, film, interactive media and magic! www.bats.co.nz Ice Floe Productions would like to thank Playmarket, New Zealand’s Playwrights’ Agency & Script Advisory Service, www.playmarket.org.nz ‘Heat by Lynda Chanwai Earle has been commissioned by Circa Theatre with a grant from Creative New Zealand, and received development assistance in a workshop partnership between Playmarket and Circa Theatre.’
Written by Lynda Chanwai-Earle
Directed by David O'Donnell
Sound designer and composer: Gareth Farr
Set designer: Brian King
Kate Prior as Stella
Aaron Cortesi as John
Brian Hotter as Bob
Barry Lakeman as Darren from Scott Base
James Davenport as the radio announcer
stage manager: Barry Lakeman
technical operator: Tamsin Lakeman
body make-up artist: Dianne Wheeler
construction: John Hodgkins, Rob Larsen and Nathan McKendry
production manager: Helena Coulton
publicist: Brianne Kerr
publicity photography: Stephen A'Court
graphic design: Dnation Creative
alternative energy: Lynda Chanwai-Earle and Marjorie McKee
producer and marketing manager: Marjorie McKee
alternatve energy system designed and installed by Graeme Ebbett of Ebbett Automation
technical consultation and construction by Don Blackmore
Challenging, exciting, engaging
Review by Helen Sims 15th Dec 2008
Heat is a play rooted in friction, passion and conflict, set in a cold and eerie climate. Yet it is also beautiful and lyrical, as well as intensely physical. This play of contrasts gripped me for its entire length.
Stella and John (played by Kate Prior and Aaron Cortesi respectively), are a husband and wife on separate scientific missions in Antarctica. He studies climate change, she is researching Emperor penguins. They are dropped off to a hut, remote from base, connected only by radio and a web cam. Although at first they are exhilarated, an uneasy tension pervades their relationship. It soon emerges that their application for research grants was prompted by more than scientific endeavour – they are escaping their guilt over the death of their son. Shut into a microcosmic world they can no longer avoid the emotions they tried to bury with their son.
Just as you begin to wonder exactly where the play is going to go in terms of the increasingly hostile relationship between Stella and John a third element is added – a penguin named ‘Bob’, who invades the hut after he is rejected by his group. Bob becomes the focal point of the suppressed feelings of Stella and John. She sees him as a replacement child, and at one point it would seem as a lover. John on the other hand regards the penguin with disgust, jealousy and finally as an object to compete with Stella over for affection.
Brian Hotter meets the challenge of playing an animal that has human emotion projected upon it superbly. He is strikingly penguin-like in his behaviour, but just as we begin to mentally accept the body-painted man as a penguin we are startled back into the realisation that the penguin is in fact a man. He becomes a strange and stunning catalyst for the huge emotional journey of the other two characters. The humour as well as despair that Bob injects into the situation is refreshing and riveting.
Brian King’s set design conveys the wide expanse of the frozen continent within the small space of BATS. The cramped and tightly packed cabin is nicely contrasted with the bare and icily lit landscape outside, with its only feature being an abstract block of ice. I enjoyed the playful, Brechtian way the characters ‘broke’ the walls and roof of the hut – it was a contradiction this play explored well through its script, characters, set, sound and lighting design. The line between fiction and reality is often at stake in theatre – it was great to see a play that confronted that so overtly.
As a STAB commission I questioned whether heat was particularly experimental. The play did not seem to meet its claims of sustainability – it seemed the original marketing of an environmentally sustainable production had changed simply to one that was “off grid”.
Heat may not be flawless, but it is challenging and exciting. It’s a thrill to see performances of this quality. O’Donnell and his team should be proud, and this emerged as one of the best and most engaging theatrical experiences I have had so far this year.
Originally published in The Lumière Reader.
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From chipper to bleak
Review by Jackson Coe 19th Nov 2008
Heat is an adventurous and ultimately absorbing show, although I must admit that for some time I wondered where it was headed. It seemed to be a rather ordinary entry for the Stab Festival, but the moment Brian Hotter waddled onstage as Bob the penguin the show came together and I found myself excited and engaged by this production.
Written by Lynda Chanwai-Earle and directed by David O’Donnell, Heat is set in a hut on the lonely and isolated wastelands of Antarctica. A husband and wife, John and Stella, are on individual research missions, she investigating penguins and he studying climate change. Their confinement and isolation soon forces them to confront the loss of their young son and the show becomes a wild ride of rage, grief, denial and finally forgiveness.
The play’s actors all excel at what they do. Aaron Cortesi plays the fiery John with gusto, while Kate Prior as Stella gives a persuasive and compelling performance. While both performers are excellent, the real star of the play is Brian Hotter as the nude penguin Bob. Hotter’s performance is simply amazing, and observing him inject a visible psychology into an animal was just superb.
The set, designed by Brian King, seems to be a remarkably lifelike rendition of an Antarctic hut (I say seems because I have never been to one myself). Tucked into a corner and embraced by audience on two sides, it develops a physical intimacy across the course of the show which allows us access to the feelings of cabin fever experienced by the two characters. The exterior set components are more abstract, with a jagged glacier leading to a block of real ice, which works well but isn’t quite as fascinating as inside the cabin.
Some of the lighting is emitted directly from onstage sources such as small lamps and torches, contributing to the naturalism of the show. There are also some more standard pieces of lighting equipment which help create an almost spooky ambience. These are said to be powered by sustainable energy sources such as solar panels, which is an excellent and thought-provoking idea. However, some claims that the power sources may not be as efficient as we are lead to believe may diminish the show’s credibility in this area. (see here to debate the details)
Gareth Farr’s haunting soundscape is another of the show’s strengths. The hollowness of the Antarctic is beautifully invoked through what could be the distant cries of whales or animals. At first his compositions don’t seem to totally match the chipper dispositions of the characters, but by the end of the show they have grown to mirror their bleak emotions which helps us make sense of what they are going through internally.
Heat is a great play which takes some time to warm up, but come the ending it is clear that it is a worthy addition to this year’s Stab lineup.
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Heat generates own excitement
Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 10th Nov 2008
Heat, which is the second experimental STAB production for the year, is as exciting and intriguing as the first, Apollo 13. While it is the first off-grid theatre production in New Zealand with a generator, solar panels and windmill placed outside Bats Theatre and giving a foretaste of the Antarctic setting inside, the technology is swiftly forgotten as a gripping and moving tale of magical realism unfolds in a hut on Cape Crozier, north of Scott Base.
Unlike artists who have visited and been inspired by Antarctica, such as Graham Billing in his 1965 novel Forbush and the Penguins and more recently Gareth Farr and Paul Horan with Terra Incognita, Lynda Chanwai-Earle, who hasn’t been to the continent, uses it as a place where her protagonists eventually discover, in the words of a character from Kushner’s Angels in America, that it provides ‘Cold shelter for the shattered. No sorrow here, tears freeze.’
Her ‘shattered’ characters are a husband-and-wife team, both scientists; Stella studies the breeding patterns of Emperor penguins and John climate change. Their arrival, unpacking and adjusting to their new home is full of excitement and laughter.
But they cannot escape their past, the death of a child. Grief, says Stella, is hot, it burns. She becomes obsessed with a penguin that is rejected by the group that she is studying. She names him Bob and he slowly infiltrates their lives causing John to be jealous and Stella over-protective.
This odd triangle of tangled, over-heated emotions is played out in the cold winter darkness with tragic results. The playwright mixes humour (a webcam sends back to a New Zealand school sights the pair would rather not be seen) with powerfully written scenes of scalding emotional intensity. She once said in an interview about her plays that ‘even where there’s a death at the end there’s hope’ and this is realized as the rising sun ends the long winter darkness.
As with all David O’Donnell’s productions the play is impeccably cast. Aaron Cortesi and Kate Prior miss nothing in the roller-coaster ride of emotions their characters go through, playing the comedy and the tragedy with complete commitment. As Bob, Brian Hotter, who spends a lot of time on his knees and covered in black make-up, is superb: funny, touching, heart-breaking, and not for a second cutesy or Disneyish.
As with all O’Donnell productions the backstage support is also impeccable: Gareth Farr’s fine sound design and music is both realistic and evocative and Brian King’s detailed setting for the cramped and cluttered aluminium-framed hut is realistic, while the outside world is represented by a symbolic block of illuminated ice.
Heat is a strange, powerful and absorbing piece of theatre in a year of some extraordinary productions. Warmly recommended.
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Intensity on ice
Review by John Smythe 08th Nov 2008
It has taken a long time for this Heat to rise to the surface. Commissioned and workshopped by Circa Theatre six years ago as part of their 25th birthday celebrations, it was not produced by them, although it would have been ideal for Circa Two.* It came off the ice, so to speak, when BATS commissioned it as a STAB 08 production (along with Apollo 13).
Apart from Brian Hotter’s stunning performance as Bob the penguin, Heat‘s key experimental element (allowing "theatre artists to experiment in a supportive environment" being the cornerstone of the STAB commissions) is that it is powered completely ‘off-Grid’ by solar, wind and generator, to replicate the energy sources used in the kind of Antarctic huts the play is set in and around.
With minimal lighting beneath a huge black tarpaulin, Brian King’s cluttered aluminium-framed hut reeks of reality while an outdoor strip of snow and a glowing block of ice are more stylised. This is where Stella (Kate Prior) and John (Aaron Cortesi) winter over to conduct scientific research.
But what the play is really about is how they have put the heat of grief – the death of their child (from meningitis, it is implied) – on ice, how a penguin rejected by the group becomes something of an obsession for Stella and an object of jealousy for John, and how it all burns through to explode with a murderous intensity before resolution is achieved.
Abetted by Gareth Farr’s subcutaneous composition and soundscape, it is a huge emotional journey from lightness and joy to darkness and desperation and in to the early glow of a promising spring. Facilitated by director David O’Donnell, Prior and Cortesi navigate it all with great fidelity to every moment, be it passion-filled, relaxed and amiable or numbed.
And Hotter’s Bob, innocent and absolute in his wants and needs, is the catalyst for their full range of emotions as well as the comic relief, thanks to a beautifully rendered poker-cum-penguin-faced physicality, upon which we inevitably project our anthropomorphised empathy.
These are the aspects to focus on. I did find myself distracted, to no great benefit, by non-naturalistic elements like characters walking through the imaginary wall to the outside, being able to see in the apparent dark and looking high in the sky to the first sunrise, which surely would have been but a peek over the horizon that flooded the landscape in front of them with something wondrous to behold.
Certainly once you have an actor playing a penguin you have moved on from the rigours of naturalism. Even so, I’d have thought the concepts of claustrophobic closeness, the inability to escape and the stark difference between inside warmth and outside cold might have been more usefully exploited.
Mainly, I don’t want to be flipped into objective mode, critiquing the arts of theatrical presentation, when the play calls for strong emotional empathy for all three characters, what they are going through and how they subvert and, sometimes, support each other. But my companion tells me she was riveted throughout so maybe it’s just me.
Maybe Heat‘s contractions are the point: heat and cold; reality and fantasy; truth and artifice; intensity and indifference … Whichever way you look at it, it is a remarkable piece of theatre.
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* A media release from Circa, dated 2 December 2002, reads in part:
"The recipient of the 25th Birthday Commission is Lynda Chanwai-Earle for her play Heat, while Dave Armstrong has been awarded the Circa Creative New Zealand 2002 Commission for his play entitled The Tutor … Susan Wilson, Ross Jolly, Katherine McRae and Linda Wilson were the selection panel for these commissions. Announcing the award Sue Wilson said "We value our New Zealand playwrights and hope these opportunities for new New Zealand work will assist in the long term development of New Zealand theatre. Circa was delighted to receive twenty-two ideas from nineteen playwrights for these two current commissions and hope to see productions of both plays in 2004." The Tutor opened in Circa Two in November 2005, directed by Danny Mulheron and won the Outstanding New NZ Play award that year.
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