22/03/2007 - 31/03/2007
By Paul Rothwell
Directed by David Lawrence
The team responsible for Deliver Us, the most controversial show in Fringe 2007, are back with the premiere of another play by PAUL ROTHWELL. The Bovine University co-operative, in association with PlayMarket, are proud to present the premiere of Kissing Bone at BATS Theatre.
Digging the grave for a treasured cow who fell victim to a steep bank, Brittany unearths a mysterious bell that awakens forgotten memories. Her quest to uncover the secrets of the past leads her to her neighbours – an elderly cancer-stricken pervert on one side, and a struggling single mother on the other – and to her emotionally distant, sexy / psychic brother who has returned to the family home on a journey of his own.
The chorus of lowing from beyond the grave is unbearably loud … but which one is the voice of her one true love? Brittany’s discoveries draw them all into a vortex that takes them back to the day in her life that changed everything forever.
Kissing Bone is a story about love, sex and death. It stars Alex Greig, Ginny Spackman, Robin Kerr and Charlotte Simmonds and is produced by Zelda Edwards. It marks the fourth collaboration between playwright Paul Rothwell and director David Lawrence after Hate Crimes (BATS 2005), Golden Boys (Circa 2006) and Deliver Us (BATS 2007).
Ginny Spackman - Brittany
Robin Kerr - Norris
Charlotte Simmonds - Enid
Alex Greig - Mr Marrow
Eli Kent - Ryan
Producer: Zelda Edwards
1 hr 20 min, no interval
Mad, provocative, silly ...
Review by Melody Nixon 29th Mar 2007
A mad girl, possibly with Asperger’s Disorder, possibly just normal and we’re all mad, looks after her dying elderly neighbour while he fondles her breasts. An over easy single mum; desperate for some love and raunch with stereotyping, tries to seduce the mad girl’s brother. The mad girl’s brother calls her a slag while texting women he calls ‘losers’. (Oh and the mad girl’s brother is psychic.) What do exploding cows have to do with all this?
Kissing Bone, on this week at BATS, will no doubt add more pages to the Rothwell = theatrical genius versus Rothwell = ordinary kinda guy who likes to shock debate. Kissing Bone does shock, in an uncomfortable, exposing-the-peeping-tom kind of way. And likewise, it does have moments of brilliant tension, wit and absurdity that are fresh and exciting. Yet its value seems to lie in a mixture of the two, and in its murky, reclusive themes that require – albeit a little too much – probing.
For those unexposed to the vociferous debate of the past month, Paul Rothwell is the writer of the Fringe Festival’s Deliver Us, a self-proclaimed anti-abortion piece both lambasted and exulted by the general public and critical sphere. His themes are unashamedly in-yer-face, his poetic theatre a mash of cute, grotesque, racy imagery, and his general, precocious audacity unsettling.
Textually, Kissing Bone is a play rich with irony and wit, much of which revolves around a thread of meat/mad/cow discourse. Brittany (Ginny Spackman) is mad about cows, mad because of cows, and mad because of one particular cow; yet she is a staunch vegetarian. Her elderly neighbour Mr. Marrow (Alex Greig) was the manager of a meat-factory in his time, yet is reduced by Brittany to a “mere animal”, moo-ing desperately for her embrace.
Thus, principles conflict with desires, and ideas conflict with reality. All are explored via the thread of ‘meat’ on various levels; from the huge rotting carcass of Brittany’s dead cow, Sox, to the fleshiness of solo-mum Enid (Charlotte Simmonds) who believes her body her only asset. And from Mr. Marrow’s desire for flesh, in the form of young girls and the KFC that he quaffs unstoppably, and perhaps also the real-life flesh of his son; to the female flesh that Norris (Robin Kerr) both hungers for and rejects.
Elements of this Bovine University production do much to assist the telling of the tale. A low-key Doctor Who soundtrack runs consistently throughout, adding much to the all round weirdness, and effectively pausing to emphasise moments of revelation and tension. There is an interesting use of props – for example, a large photo frame turned away from the audience until the final scenes – which aid the build up of plot.
Ginny Spackman gives a tremendous performance as Brittany, filling the stage with a complete lack of inhibition, despite the uncomfortable things she is subjected to. Her performance ties the show together, providing a core of empathy for the otherwise slightly bewildered audience. Robin Kerr as Norris is also well cast; he is appropriately sleazy and vulnerable, believably crafty and believably weak.
Though a difficult play to follow structurally, Kissing Bone follows some degree of causal development. It climaxes in the revelation of a string of past events – a favourite cow that explodes, followed by an even worse tragedy and a ‘twisted’ molestation – which explain many of the current oddities of the characters. It also includes an occasional mise en scene – Brittany, for example, dancing like a cow on roller skates – to remind us that the play is not all about its text, and that we shouldn’t take it too seriously.
But the largely unanswered aspects of the play are perturbing. While its evolutionary psychology goes some way to explain the madness of Brittany, and the misogyny of Norris, many aspects of the characters remain incoherent. Brittany’s exaggerated ‘forgetting’ – in fact, the widespread ‘forgetting’ of the cast – is still slightly obscure, in the sense that it seems too obvious a device to hint at the ‘mere’ denial of reality. Norris’ telekinesis, while adding comedic elements, seems to lead to a dead end.
The emotional investment required of us in Kissing Bone is too great to leave us much energy for analysis of what is actually happening. It is fresh and exciting to fill a stage with social taboos; Yes people do have sex, Yes molesting occurs – by both men and women – Yes trauma manifests in quirky and disturbing ways – but in order for that investment to be worthwhile, conclusions, links or questions should be hinted at in a mode that viewers will not have to flagellate themselves to understand.
Kissing Bone is mad play, both provocative and silly. It is for people who perhaps have a slightly twisted sense of what is entertaining – people who don’t wish to see yet another stream-lined classic being pulled out of the closet and stamped about upon by a well-heeled crew, but wish to be challenged on some sensory level, and, if they haven’t had enough Deep Thought for the week, on an intellectual level too. The number of viewers who fit into all of the above may not be very high. Kissing Bone is refreshingly different play, but expanding its scope, coherence and accessibility would make it a more worthwhile experience for many.
Originally published in The Lumière Reader.
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Bland to the bone
Review by Lynn Freeman 28th Mar 2007
Paul Rothwell’s plays are twisted, dark, weird and often divisive amongst critics, but until Kissing Bone they’ve never been dull.
Kissing Bone is still twisted but it fails to fire, there’s just not enough meat on the bones of the script to sustain an audience for 75+ minutes.
A woman who loves animals has the misfortune to have them keep dying on her, despite her desperate efforts to love them. Her brother is a badly messed up young man who turns the tables on his sleazy former babysitter who so tormented him. Her neighbour is a dirty old man who’s spent his life groping women only and not surprisingly to find himself alone and unloved as he approaches death.
They’re all horrible characters – even the woman who should be sympathetic but is just irritating – and that’s always a bit of an issue from an audience perspective. Why should we care what happens to any of them?
Charlotte Simmonds plays white trash Enid with a not so quiet desperation although even she can’t make the mutilated English lines Rothwell gives her character, sound anything other than a messy contrivance. Ginny Spackman invests poor animal killing Brittany with the necessary fragility and insanity to pull off the role, and Robin Kerr is genuinely unnerving as her revenge seeking sexually screwed up brother, Norris. Alex Greig makes for a disconcertingly convincing dirty old man as former Freezing Works Manager, Mr Marrow.
There’s an awkwardness in the way director David Lawrence has the characters move and interact on stage that echoes the oddness of the script, so that’s probably deliberate but still starts to grate after a while.
As with Rothwell’s other recent play, Deliver Us, Kissing Bone has some killer dialogue and laugh out loud lines, and he is most definitely an original and distinctive voice among our playwrights. But it almost feels like he’s already churning out plays rather than honing them – we’re told he has another two coming up.
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Song of lamentation
Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 26th Mar 2007
The amazingly prolific playwright Paul Rothwell, who writes idiosyncratic, bleakly comic, troubling plays, is back again for the second time this year with a tale about a roller-skating animal lover who likes to think of herself as a vet but is in fact only an ex-voluntary assistant to a vet.
For an animal lover, Brittany’s tiny block of land is littered with far too many bleached skulls of cows and graves marked with crosses of once loved pets for comfort. Also there’s a terrible stench of a rotting animal which her odd-ball neighbours, Enid, a snooping, sex-starved solo mum on one side, and Mr. Marrow, an elderly cancer-ridden pervert on the other, complain.
Into this strange, bucolic setting arrives Brittany’s cool, apparently sophisticated, telepathic brother, Norris, who is as odd as his sister but far less ethereal which is revealed in the way he cruelly teases Enid who was his baby-sitter when he was a small boy.
There are comic scenes, surrealistic scenes, dramatic scenes, and dialogue which at times caused on opening night nervous laughter, intakes of breath and tut-tut sounds of shock. The story eventually and far too slowly works its way back to reveal an incident in the past which is the cause of the characters’ present loneliness and distress.
It’s bleak, odd-ball, funny but Kissing Bone never touches the heart, though Ginny Spackman in an excellent performance as Brittany comes close to doing so as she communes with her ghostly cows and struggles with the attentions of Mr. Marrow, who is forcefully played by a heavily made-up Alex Greig. Robin Kerr is suitably suave as Norris while Enid is played by Charlotte Simmonds who, when her words weren’t gabbled, finds some warm-blooded humour in the role.
Kissing Bone is, as the blurb says, a story about love, sex and death, but what it has to reveal about any of these mysteries, I’m afraid, escaped me, though I find that in my notes made during the play I wrote down the word threnody – a song of lamentation, which is I suppose what it is all about, albeit a semi-comic one.
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Challenging fun with toxic streams and exploding cows
Review by John Smythe 23rd Mar 2007
To say playwright Paul Rothwell is having great fun playing with genres is not to diminish the dark heart, penetrating social satire and fundamental quality of his writing.
Just over three weeks ago I described his hugely controversial Deliver Us – also a ‘Bovine University’ co-op production at BATS, directed by David Lawrence – as “‘Comedy of Menace’ meets ‘Gothic Horror’ meets ‘Jacobean Revenge Tragedy’ meets ‘Greek Tragedy'”, evoking “Albee and Pinter, Stoker and Shelley, Tourneur and Webster, right back to Sophocles”
Now, with Kissing Bone, Hawera’s popular novelist Ronald Hugh Morrieson* meets Ionesco or N F Simpson in a blend of rural Gothic tragi-comedy and theatre of the absurd. And again, this is not to diminish the unique voice the extraordinarily prolific Paul Rothwell (aged 25) brings to his work [12 plays since 2001, including Hate Crimes (BATS 2005), Golden Boys (Circa 2006) and Deliver Us (BATS 2007) all directed by Lawrence].
For a start, Rothwell is much more explicit in exposing what lies beneath the toxic sexual attitudes and warped behaviours of his characters.
If Morrieson had written Kissing Bone, his opening line might have been something like: “The day his nephew Ryan got run over, and Brittany and Norris became orphans, was the day Mr Morrow had his hand on Enid’s tit and Brittany’s cow exploded.”
But Rothwell chooses to start his play many years later and waits until the end to revisit the disastrous events that have formed / informed the strange behaviours of vegetarian animal welfare volunteer Brittany (Ginny Spackman) and her younger brother Norris (Robin Kerr).
Also present on that fateful day were solo mum Enid (Charlotte Simmonds), always looking to boost her meagre DPB income, and widower Mr Marrow (Alex Greig), the brittle-boned and sexually frustrated ex-marketing manager of the local meat works. But their personalities were already formed. And poor young Ryan (Eli Kent), living with his uncle because his mother had died of asbestos poisoning, was doomed to remain unformed.
Thus we enter the story as the tarty Enid addresses us directly on the joys of smoking, Norris sniffs around her to trace a rancid smell, an apologetic Brittany hauls on a rope that turns out to be attached to yet another dead cow and Mr Marrow lies ignored and immobile on the ground.
I call the play ‘absurdist’ because of the way close neighbours in this small community treat each other almost as strangers. Rothwell has taken their self-centred behaviours to an extreme, transcending the naturalistic bounds that might otherwise have rendered his tale prosaic and melodramatic. The warp he gives it makes us recognise parts of ourselves and each other that we usually prefer to ignore. Rather than explore existential questions, he uses absurdist extremity to advance his social critique of contemporary society; to squeeze out the toxins that slither within the hidden and polluted creeks of our psyches.
Ginny Spackman’s fresh-faced, determinedly positive Brittany – “My heart is done with grieving” – gives the play its innocent and comic heart. Robin Kerr’s vile yet vulnerable Norris offers the flipside of emotional trauma. Because both invest their roles with emotional truth, both keep their characters credible and make us want to know why they are like this.
Charlotte Simmonds’ Enid impresses at first with her ‘stuff you, it’s my life’ attitude, then challenges us to judge her sexual appetites and earns our compassion in the face of Norris’s emotional abuse, before jolting us out of our complacency with the realisation that she – Enid – was the first abuser. Simmonds’ idiosyncratic speech tones and rhythms render some dialogue detail hard to distinguish but her there-in-the-moment centredness keeps Enid real.
Unfortunately Alex Greig (who was so well cast as Dominic in Deliver Us and as Neville in Charlotte Simmons’ The Story of Nohome Neville and Unwholesome Clare who Worked in the Kitchens and Smelt like a Dish) is reduced to playing a young person’s idea of a retired “dignified country gent”. While he conveys the character’s wants and needs adequately, his Mr Marrow remains trapped in a two-dimensional plane of unconvincing cliché.
Eli Kent’s cameo as the nephew Ryan focuses us strongly on the reality behind the mutant lives that survived beyond his.
As with Deliver Us, the unusual way Rothwell structures this play is challenging for the audience. We’re not used to having to take on whole new characters and dimensions of understanding in the final moments. But I say good on him. We just need to know that to get the most out of his plays we need to stay alert (often key points are mentioned only once), take nothing for granted and never assume until the end – or even until hours after it’s over – that we have ‘got it’.
That said, despite an excellent music-sound-scape, there are some scrappy elements in this premiere production that reek of inadequate rehearsal and resourcing at too many levels. The set is rehearsal room crap and adds nothing to the themes of the play. The little strip of paper that serves as a programme also suggests lack of interest in detail.
Given such presentation, it is too tempting to assume that aspects of character or story that don’t quite add up immediately are also a function of shoddiness, and this could have a detrimental effect on our appreciation of Rothwell’s work.
I have had to think hard to discover the emotional core and intellectual coherence in Kissing Bone. While I am not suggesting all audience members want to be so analytical, or that all the answers should be overtly available without further enquiry, I do think better production values and a stronger sense that the play’s essence has been truly distilled would have a stronger impact on audiences and ensure it gets the exposure it deserves.
Either the Bovine University co-op – which we have to thank for bringing us Rothwell in the first place – has to be better resourced to deliver the goods, or the better-resourced companies need to produce his plays: the four most recent in particular. Or both.
Meanwhile I reflect on the abiding metaphor of the favourite cow who was happily in clover until she exploded.
*See Rhonda Bartle’s Puke Ariki essay on the genres of Ronald Hugh Morrieson.
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