Maidment Theatre, Auckland

08/05/2010 - 29/05/2010

Production Details

Two great mavericks of New Zealand literature, James K Baxter and Ronald Hugh Morrieson, clash over booze, horses, women and the nature of the creative act in Ken Duncum’s inspired comedy HORSEPLAY at the Maidment Theatre from May 6. 
Starring Tim Balme and John Leigh as the wildly different but equally eccentric men of letters, HORSEPLAY is Duncum’s hilarious imagining of the two crossing paths in Hawera, 1972.
The absurdities pile up as the two find themselves sharing the stage with the rear end of a horse and enduring the interruptions of a dotty aunt and would-be girlfriend, Wilma.
“Ken Duncum’s HORSEPLAY is a forgotten gem of a Kiwi comedy and a wonderfully original take on literary rivalry,” says Auckland Theatre Company artistic director, Colin McColl,
“HORSEPLAY is a bloody good yarn,” says McColl “it’s full of witty and rambunctious language, a real cockeyed salute to literary genius”.
Simon Bennett returns to his theatrical roots to direct the play.
“Returning to theatre after 8 years is like coming home. To a slightly dysfunctional family, sure – but you get that. My first passion has always been theatre – it’s profoundly difficult and always challenging, but the energy released during a live performance and the relationship between audience and actors when things are going well is second to none,” says Bennett.
Now the head of drama at South Pacific Pictures, Bennett is a superb exponent of Duncum’s work having directed productions of his plays JISM, BLUE SKY BOYS, FLYBABY AND POLYTHENE PAM, and FLIPSIDE.
“Kens writing is multi layered, always with a strong sense of irony. He contrasts comedy and tragedy beautifully, and is the master of the dramatic twist. He writes theatre of epiphany, because his characters always undergo profound change,” says Bennett.
Bennett’s production of BLUE SKY BOYS which he directed three times is a keystone in New Zealand Theatre. The premiere season at BATS in Wellington transferred to the St James. All three starred Tim Balme and Michael Galvin as the Everley Brothers.
“The opportunity to work again with Kens words, Bryan Caldwell, Tracey Collins, John Gibson, Tim Balme and John Leigh is like getting the band back together. It’s a great privilege – and feels right.”
2010 New Zealand Post Katherine Mansfield Prize winner Ken Duncum is a leading New Zealand playwright and screenwriter. His scripts have won awards in theatre and television.
His plays CHERISH and TRICK OF THE LIGHT won best new New Zealand Play at the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards in 2003 and 2004. His script for television drama series COVER STORY won Best Script for Drama at the New Zealand Film and Television Awards and Best Writer – Comedy for WILLY NILLY in 2002. Duncum’s plays have toured New Zealand as well as internationally.
The New Zealand Post season of HORSEPLAY by Ken Duncum is presented as part of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.
NOTE: The playwright Ken Duncum is currently in France courtesy of the New Zealand Post Mansfield Prize. An interview with Ken by Philippa Campbell can be found below.
Maidment Theatre
6-29 May
Opening Night: 8 May
Tickets for the play can be booked directly
with the Maidment Theatre, 09 308 2383
or from .
ATC programme interview by Literary Manager Philippa Campbell.
Q: It’s rather exotic to be interviewing a New Zealand playwright resident in the South of France. Congratulations on being the 2010 winner of the New Zealand Post Mansfield Prize. How is Menton treating you?
A: Very well – Menton has orange trees in the streets, and underneath them roam the ghosts of many a writer and artist. And there are echoes and shadows of forty previous Katherine Mansfield Fellows (I’m the 41st). It’s strange because this little part of the world has been so comprehensively written about by New Zealanders that there’s hardly a place you can visit or a vista you can look at that hasn’t turned up in a NZ poem or novel. We’ve colonised it!
Q: Where did the idea for HORSEPLAY come from? Were you a fan of  Morrieson and Baxter before you began writing the play?
A: A bit of a fan of both – but I had to learn more about each of them to be able to write the play. That was fun – both Ron and Jim are good company.
Q: Creating stories around writers and their work is generally considered to be fraught with dangers. You face this head on in HORSEPLAY. Was the risk of putting two great writers together part of the attraction?
A:I did want to write something with characters who could really use language, who weren’t stuck in ‘ordinary speak’ – and who showed what a New Zealand version of Shakespearian language could be like, both in its poetry and its slang. It was a bit scary when I realized that my writing in the play would have to blend seamlessly with that of two of our greatest writers – no pressure – but I was having fun by then and forged on regardless. The major reason writing about writers can be tricky is that they often don’t do a lot – just kind of sit around and scribble or angst about writer’s block – but Morrieson’s own characters are always carried along in a whirlwind of macabre and bizarre plot and event, so I figured a story with him in it should do the same thing.
Q: The play is the story of an imagined meeting between the two men. Could you tell us a little about the processes you went through fictionalizing your protagonists?
A: I read as much as I could about both – and I read their work also. I remember going to the National Library to watch some video of Baxter reading The Ballad Of Firetrap Castle, trying to fix his voice in my mind. But after that, when I started to write, I tried to extrapolate from what I knew. Having got an idea of them (and knowing it was only an idea) I threw them together round a dead horse and figured out step by step how I thought they’d react, how they’d bring themselves and their preoccupations into the situation.
Q: How did you deal with the balance of honouring the reality of Baxter and Morrieson and telling a good yarn? Did you approach this play differently from a work of pure fiction?
A: Not really, I tried to use the homework I did as a kind of base for everything. It was there at the bottom of my brain, I didn’t go back to the books, it was time to invent, to play Baxter and Morrieson at their own game – making stuff up. Mind you, in both their cases their writing is very much an amalgam of the real and the fictional, and so is Horseplay. All fiction is about inventing a lie that tells the truth. I used to say ‘James K Baxter and Ronald Hugh Morrieson never met – and this is about the night it didn’t happen’. I like to think that my lie gets at a truth or two about them both.
Q: Were there any pieces of fascinating research that you weren’t able to include in the play? The play is set in 1972. Apart from being a few months prior to the deaths of both men, were there other memorable things about that particular year that inspired you?
A: I was 12 in 72. It was a strange time. The hippie flower was fading, the sixties dream was over, but in many parts of the country the 60’s hadn’t even started because the 50’s were still going strong. You could hop in your Anglia or Vauxhall Velox and drive into the past. Somewhere between Country Calendar and BLERTA we were a confused little country.
In terms of things I loved that couldn’t fit in the play – the Elvis Presley Memorial Record Room in Hawera springs to mind (I’ve still got the souvenir comb I bought there in the 80’s); a lot of Baxter’s poetry (particularly more of the Pyrrha sequence); and The Chimney, one of only two short stories that Morrieson wrote, and absolutely brilliant – perfect, my favourite NZ short story.
Q: What do you think would have happened if Morrieson popped into Jerusalem one afternoon?
A: Nothing. Morrieson would have been far too uncomfortable at Jerusalem (and even W(h)anganui was too far away from home for him) and probably would’ve popped straight out again. Baxter wouldn’t have engaged with Morrieson, I think, being too much on his own turf with his own band of followers and wrapped up in his own concerns. That’s why in the play Baxter is thrust into Morrieson’s world, at a disadvantage – and it’s just the two of them, so they naturally become each other’s audience and have to interact.
Q: You have spoken about Baxter and Morrieson being ‘verbal thoroughbreds’ and the play resonates with a powerful celebration of language. What kind of opportunities did this open up for you as a playwright?
A: Poetry, wordplay, jokes, insults, metaphors, idioms, prayers – New Zild is a rich language with many unnamed and uncelebrated writers having contributed to it. Who invented ‘cackleberries’ or ‘up the creek in a barbed-wire canoe’? Whoever you are, you’re a poet and we salute you. I love it, I love the visual imagery of our language at its best – and the way it simultaneously represents down-to-earthness and flights-of-fancy. That’s us. We’ve got our own way of speaking and it reflects who we are. And so do these two guys.
Besides, writing a play about inarticulate characters is like chipping your way out of prison with a spoon.
Q: You’ve been writing for New Zealand theatre and television for over twenty years and you currently run the MA in screenwriting at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University in Wellington. How has the theatre scene evolved over the time you’ve been involved with it and are there any particular challenges it faces?
A: I don’t think we know how amazing the theatre scene in NZ really is. There’s so much of it for a start. It has boomed in the time I’ve been writing, there are so many playwrights now, and the general standard of work is so high. And it just continues to grow.
I think the most interesting change is that 25 years ago the audience was suspicious of New Zealand written work, now there’s a prejudice in favour of it – New Zealanders are more likely to ask why they should bother to see a British, US or Australian play, how’s it going to be relevant to them? We’ve come a long way.
Q: HORSEPLAY enables us to get to know Ron and Jim, and Wilma and Aunty for one highly entertaining evening. And thankfully we don’t have to clear up the mess.  Who is the playwright-hitchhiker you would most like to pick up and spend the evening with?
A: In the world, Tom Stoppard maybe? I saw his play Rock ‘n Roll in London in 2006 and again last year at Circa Theatre in Wellington. Brilliant. Made me laugh and cry and think – and it reveals something new every time I read it.
In terms of NZ playwrights I’m lucky in that I know most of them – a perk of having been around for this last very interesting 25 years – but I never did meet Bruce Mason, who started the whole thing rolling. When I was 15, at the South Pacific Festival in my hometown of Rotorua I saw him perform pieces from The End Of The Golden Weather – so I guess I’ll have to be satisfied with that. Unless I write a play about him …

James K Baxter: Tim Balme
Ronald Hugh Morrieson:  John Leigh
Wilma: Toni Potter
Aunt: Elizabeth McRae 

Costumes: Tracey Collins
Set: Tracey Collins
Lighting: Bryan Caldwell
Sound: John Gibson

Absurd, rambunctious literary romp

Review by Janet McAllister 10th May 2010

Horseplay is rambunctious and humorous, full of drink and literary allusions with a touch of rural gothic horror (cue screechy violins). This is all satisfyingly suitable for a play depicting a fictitious chance meeting between The Scarecrow writer Ronald Hugh Morrieson and poet James K Baxter – two of New Zealand literature’s most charismatic, maverick, alcoholic bawds.

It’s a fantastic, Stoppard-like scenario and both Ken Duncum’s farfetched, pun-laced, real-time script and this Simon Bennett-directed, larger-than-life production more than live up to it. There are Baxter self-quotations and talk of cut-throats and fowlhouses for literary experts to spot, but you don’t have to know a line of the great men’s work to enjoy the play and its absurd tableaux involving half a dead horse. [More

[See Forum: Horse Play, Horse $#%&]
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Erudite hilarity, gripping yarns, private sadness and some regret

Review by Kate Ward-Smythe 09th May 2010

Part farce, part slapstick, yet all heart, poetry and inspired language, Horseplay gives celebrated New Zealand playwright Ken Duncum an abundance of poetic and comic licence, as he boldly empowers himself as the voice-box of two great New Zealand literary artists: poet James K Baxter and novelist Ronald H Morrieson.

The unlikely (and yet entirely possible) premise – that in 1972, while on the run from Jerusalem’s turgid expectation, Baxter hitches a lift with Morrieson to Hawera; becomes inextricably linked to the dead horse Morrieson collects on the way; meets his doddery Aunt and frustrated impatient would-be girlfriend; then finds out that he is Morrison’s nemesis – allows Duncum to communicate brilliantly to his audience on several levels.

Not only does he immerse us in poignant verse and evocative prose (in the styles of Baxter and Morrieson), plus hurl side-splittingly funny dialogue at the situation, but he also takes the opportunity to depict how these literary giants withered in their twilight years, and failed in their personal lives – as family men, providers, and nurturers.

The overall result is a unique mix of erudite hilarity, gripping yarns, private sadness and some regret.

Director Simon Bennett, who shifts back into theatre gear after years of driving television productions, does a superb job of navigating through this complex beast. Baxter and Morrieson both died as relatively young men in 1972, their bodies and dreams broken and ravaged by alcoholism. Bennett guides his gifted cast through the farcical journey with just the right mix of wit and angst.

With pace and presentation in good synch, Bennett’s decision to reunite a “dream team” of actors and creatives from his Watershed theatre days of a decade ago, pays off.

Tracey Collins’ set design puts a nice distorted angle in an otherwise typical Hawera weatherboard family home, and creates the perfect familiar domestic environment.

As the play takes place in the same naturalistic setting, lighting designer Bryan Caldwell has limited opportunities. However, his subtle changes in illumination and intensity are all that is needed to enhance our enjoyment of the night.

Sound designer John Gibson adds a nice “Psycho” touch to the first half’s melodramatic cliffhanger. 

Toni Potter does well with her portrayal of Wilma, the brash aging town tramp and long suffering girlfriend of Morrieson, desperate to settle down. Potter throws herself into the role enthusiastically, yet skillfully gives Wilma some believable vulnerability and takes full advantage of any blunt honesty scripted, such as when she tells Baxter to “dump the doom and gloom and get back to your wife and kids.”

As Morrieson’s (equally long suffering) Aunt, Elizabeth McRae is wonderfully understated yet familiar. She is an absolute pleasure to watch, as she seeks to re-establish the order of any day, with a nice cup of tea. Or a quick sherry.

However, understandably, the night belongs to John Leigh and Tim Balme.

Each consumes their character as their rivalry and jealousy thickens. Leigh masters the Kiwi vernacular and the heart of angry man Morrieson, stuck in the past, stuck in Hawera, struck with inertia after the death of a loved one. A bare-foot Balme, with wild blue eyes and a disturbing obsession with death and failure, is the embodiment of Baxter.

While they are the perfect comic duo – each actor feeding off the other as they fight then bond over women, booze, critics, cramps, authority, expectation and recognition – whenever either break into pure poetry, both Leigh and Balme single-handedly own the stage. In particular, Leigh’s ‘Ode To Hawera’, is sublime.

Full marks to the Auckland Theatre Company for resurrecting this hilarious literary gem, 16 years after it’s first (and only other)* professional production at Bats in Wellington; and in synch with Auckland’s Readers & Writer’s Week: sweet poetic justice. 

Footnote: Don’t be late: In the opening minutes, thanks to the clever work of ATC’s technical production team, there is a physical commotion on stage that you simply won’t want to miss.
– – – – – – – –
*See Tommy Honey’s comment below.
[See Forum: Horse Play, Horse $#%&]
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. 


Tommy Honey May 9th, 2010

Great review Kate; frustrated that I won't get to see the show as I think it is one of our greatest comedies.  A small point - it has had another professional production in Dunedin in 2000, directed by Gary Henderson.  I was lucky enough to design it.

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