Maidment Theatre - Musgrove Studio, Auckland

23/09/2011 - 01/10/2011

The Real New Zealand Festival

Production Details

Rugby. It’s a game. It has two teams, a funny shaped ball, goal posts, a ref, and a whole lot of rules. But here in New Zealand? It’s much more than that. It’s a national obsession and five friends are about to witness the greatest spectacle of their lives. An epic battle between warring nations, a matter of national pride. The World Cup final.

As they wait outside the gates to secure some of the last minute tickets on sale at the gate, we begin to see what it is about rugby that holds these friends together, and pushes them apart.

Before the dawn comes and they stand alongside all of New Zealand cheering on the boys in black, they all have to face their own battles.

Victory doesn’t come without a price but triumph is the only option for those who stand up like Heroes. 

Venue: Musgrove Studio
Cnr Princes & Alfred Sts, Auckland.

Shows: 23rd September – 1st October. Shows Tues-Sat at 8pm
except Sat 24th at 6. 30pm (so you don’t miss New Zealand play France).

(with support from The REALNZ Festival)
Book at the Maidment Website 

Featuring: Ben Van Lier, Jonathan Hodge, Chris Molloy, Peter Coates, Regan Taylor  

Courageous and beautifully crafted sports rich tapestry

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 25th Sep 2011

In 1980 Greg McGee broke with tradition and did what many considered to be impossible in Godzone, he wrote a populist play about rugby. It tore the scab off a rather nasty sore. He called his play Foreskin’s Lament and the rest is, as they say, history. Foreskin’s Lament has been produced often and was extensively revised by McGee as a screenplay for his self-produced film Skin and Bones.

Somewhat earlier – in or around 1979 – Campbell Smith, then Director of Fine Arts at the Waikato Art Museum, wrote Jubilee, another rugby play, this time about an ex-player returning to his old club for a jubilee celebration only to find that people have long memories. Jubilee received at least one production, in 1979, directed for Anderson’s Theatre Restaurant by, from memory, Dick Johnstone.

Both plays have the great game of rugby as context and the content for each is both rugged and raw exploring, primarily, the paradox surrounding what it is to be a real man in Aotearoa New Zealand. To date, in my opinion, these are the two best rugby themed plays to come out of this country but if it came down to a choice I would have to vote Jubilee to be the slightly better play.

That was until last night.

As of 9.25pm last night you might add Jonathan Hodge’s Heroes to that somewhat exclusive list and time may well see it surpass its illustrious forebears, for Hodge’s play has everything the others have and quite a bit more.

Writing a play is hard enough, getting it staged is a unique and fraught journey, putting it in front of a full house on opening night can be downright frightening. I have little doubt that “why are we doing this?” was a frequently pondered question through the rehearsal process but self-belief has got this team through to the finest possible conclusion. It’s reasonable to anticipate an audience’s response but until there is one, the director, writer and cast can’t possibly know whether what they’ve made is worthy of anything at all let alone success. 

This admirable team needn’t have worried. There’s a line in Heroes that somehow resonates more than the others. The line is, “It’s all about family.” So it is – and so it was. 

Heroes is the story of five mates lined up outside the gates of Eden Park hoping to secure some last minute tickets to the final of the Rugby World Cup. They’ve been summoned by their charismatic skipper Wayne (Chris Molloy) and, like good mates, they turn up without question armed with guitar, beers and a ball. On the surface they’re a standard group of blokes all of whom have played rugby at a pretty senior level so they understand the game – and the games that underpin the game.

There’s John (Ben Van Lier), the relative newcomer who has yet to be fully accepted into the brotherhood. He’s talented, has a future but he’s clearly a bit green.

Add David (Peter Coates) who’s given the game away but seems to have the respect of his mates. He’s likeable, a doctor, and, from the comments of the others, has been a more than competent player. They’re all a bit flummoxed that he’s not playing any more but, hey, they’re mates so no-one asks why. 

Joe (Regan Taylor) is the ladies man. Married with two kids, he has all the girls on a string. He’s Maori, funny, sharp and evasive and pretending, unsuccessfully, he’s not over the hill. 

Richard (Jonathan Hodge) rounds out the quintet. He’s a prop in the mould of Richard Loe. Say no more. 

So here’s where I leave out all the important stuff – no spoilers – and important stuff it is, for all of us. Suffice to say it’s sports rich tapestry with a few beers and a rugby ball thrown in – and nothing will be the same after it’s over. It’s iconic stuff, and courageous writing to boot, not only courageous, but beautifully crafted as well.

The set is consists of three interlocked hurricane wire fence units, a bench seat and a long strip of astroturf both equal in length to the fence. This is ‘outside Eden Park’ the night before the big final. Kate Burton’s lighting and set design both work wonderfully well. 

Once the guys have all turned up Hodge’s excellent script embarks on the task of unwrapping each man and his complex relationship with all of his mates. The banter is dreadfully real and it’s easy to recognise the emblematic tools the New Zealand male uses to get into the psyche of his mates and to reinforce his ever-changing place in the pecking order, a pecking order that Hodge adjusts and amends in ways that deny any textual stereotyping of his characters.

Tests are set and plays played out within a riotous verbal wrangle of sexist, homophobic and racist mockery, none of it truly serious, as these rugby-heads wait for their own Godot, a Godot who, like Becket’s, never comes but is eagerly awaited. It’s the male inquisition that we all know well full of dick jokes, sexist twaddle and veiled accusations of homosexuality. It could be monumentally tiresome. Somehow, it’s not. 

Interspersed into the realism are brief oddments of monologue, evocative narrative and fantasy, the purpose of which becomes alarmingly clear as the narrative unfolds. In this world ‘tour bus rules’ are law and should any of the players lapse or back away from them, instant humiliation – or at least ignominy – is guaranteed with the only saving grace being that what goes on tour stays on tour.

Time-whiling games are played as the night grinds on, the most effective being the Great Losses Ritual and the inevitable round of Mexted quotes. During these we learn more about what bonds these men together and what could potentially tear them apart. Playwright Hodge uses seriously good craftsmanship to overcome the core issue of any text that seeks to expose the motives, aspirations and fears of men – especially New Zealand men – who will do anything to avoid exposing such critical workings of the self, that’s assuming they have the self-awareness to know what they are in the first place.

What on the surface appears to be adding to the knowledge we have about these deceptively simple characters is in fact a stripping-away that reveals the essence of each, an individual compassion that is both unconditional and heroic and exposes the primacy of the bond between them, the quintessence of Kiwi mateship. 

While it can be said that Hodge’s script is more than impressive it must also be said that the direction and performances more than do it justice.

At the centre of it all is Chris Molloy as Wayne. Molloy has the ever-challenging task of playing a charismatic character and he does it by being, well, charismatic. My last (and first) experience of Molloy was as the fledgling writer of Indigenous Theatre Company’s The Last Taniwha, an imposing first effort, and here he excels yet again. This year has seen some incredible performances by Maori and Polynesian actors but none is better than this one. Molloy’s performance is powerful when it needs to be but he never shies away from exposing a fragility that’s necessary if his journey is to touch us in all the ways it should. This is carefully conceived and heartfelt work presented with extraordinary clarity. The production concludes in the only way it can and the memory of Molloy in that final moment will remain with me for an awfully long time.

Regan Taylor plays Joe, a rather sleazy, predatory sort of guy but one of those personalities it’s almost impossible to dislike. He’s the guy with the gags, the ladies man with all the moves, the first to grab a guitar when a song seems in order but underlying all this bonhomie is a man in crisis. Taylor is an actor of quality and this performance verifies that belief. 

I’ve seen (and reviewed) Peter Coates three times this year and there’s a risk people will start to talk. I recall saying when I reviewed Gavin Puts Things Straight that Coates was having a very busy year yet here he is again. I think I rest my case. Here he plays David, the doctor, with a no-frills calm. David is the most complex character in the play, the one who makes sense of all the seemingly un-PC banter in a way that, in the wrong hands, could easily be misread. This is clever, subtle work and, in his busy year, Coates has yet to put a foot wrong. 

Ben Van Lier plays John with all the necessary naiveté. If there is a focus for all the randy, disrespectful rhetoric that punctures the early part of the play it’s John but playwright Hodge is much too clever to allow this character to become a stereotypical weak link in the structure and Van Lier, his director and playwright ensure that he walks the walk with confidence and credibility.

Jonathan Hodge wrote the play but also plays the somewhat monosyllabic Richard. Richard we are told is a prop as though that explains everything and in a way it does. He’s definitely old school. Hodge looks like a prop but, through his writing, we see a depth seldom exposed via the persona of individuals of that ilk and his performance is the same. Credible, stripped away, sensitive. I left the theatre feeling as though I’d met the ubiquitous and enigmatic Flo. That’s a real achievement. Enough said. 

Phillip Brooks as director is the unseen hand is this excellent piece of work. The opening night of a new play with the playwright in the cast and putting the monster – the production, not the playwright – in front of an audience for the first time can be fraught but there were no first night nerves, no ego in evidence, just a commitment to the work in hand and a confidence in the quality of the product that was both laudable and justified.

Brooks moves his actors with alacrity, narrative and characterisation are lucid, and the intelligence of the piece is well exposed. The rest is hidden and, to Brooks’ credit, there is no gurgling plumbing evident in this production!

Heroes is a wonderful addition to the repertoire of plays for men that is evolving in Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s gratifying to know that we have so many actors capable of playing these rich and multifarious roles to an international standard and young directors of intelligence and panache who can do so much more than merely stage a play.

It’s worth noting that everyone involved in Catalyst Theatre Company’s production of Jonathan Hodge’s Heroes has undergone professional theatre training here in New Zealand. This speaks volumes for the professionalism of our theatre teachers and for the commitment of our young performers. 

Heroes is a very fine play. This production of Heroes is a very fine production with, performances to match. I feel privileged to have attended the first performance of this play and doubly privileged to be able to write about it. 

All that’s left now is for you to go and see it.
Ā, upane! ka upane! Ā, upane, ka upane, whiti te ra!
(A step upward, another step upward! A step upward, another… the Sun shines!)

Long may it continue. 
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.


Editor September 27th, 2011

Playmarket's server is back up and this link now works: 

Playmarket September 26th, 2011

Playmarket has the script of Jubilee by Campbell Smith available via our website here

Lexie Matheson September 25th, 2011

Michael's film of the same name is based on a book by Nepi Soloman and the screenplay is by Michael Bennett. Neither Michael's film nor Derek Jarman's 1977 film of the same name are connected. I have tried to locate a copy of Campbell's excellent script but it appears to remain unpublished.

John Smythe September 25th, 2011

I wonder if Campbell Smith’s Jubilee (1979) had anything to do with the South Pacific Pictures-produced Jubilee film (2000), written by Michael Bennett and Nepi Soloman (story) and directed by Michael Hurst with Cliff Curtis and Theresa Healey.

I got that info from IMDb. Incredibly New Zealand Film, an illustrated history (Te Papa Press in association with the Film Archive, 2011) doesn’t mention it, nor any of the people mentioned above.  

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