Mates & Lovers

Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland

17/11/2010 - 28/11/2010

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

08/03/2011 - 12/03/2011

Fortune Theatre, Dunedin

22/03/2011 - 26/03/2011

Playhouse, Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts, Hamilton

28/06/2012 - 30/06/2012

Dunedin Fringe 2011

FUEL Festival 2012

Production Details

Written and Directed by Ronald Trifero Nelson

Presented by Fabulous Arts Aotearoa New Zealand (FAANZ)

“History brought to life with sensitivity and humour” Theatreview

Fabulous Arts Aotearoa New Zealand (FAANZ) presents the new season of Mates & Lovers.

The untold stories of our brothers, sons and fathers

Written and Directed by Ronald Trifero Nelson, Mates & Lovers is based on the 2009 Montana New Zealand Book Award winner Mates and Lovers, A History of Gay New Zealand by Chris Brickell with special arrangement with Random House New Zealand

The Basement Lower Greys Ave, Auckland
17th through 28th November 2010

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PlayHouse Theatre, Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts

Thu 28 – Sat 30 June, 8pm


New performers: Paora Taurima and Simon Leary
Produced by Ahi Karunahran and Ronald Trifero Nelson
New choreography by Taiora Royal
New score by Samuel Hollaway
New design by Matt Kleinhans
New lighting/audio by Ambrose Hills-Sammonsens 

Downstage season 2011
Bronwen Pattison: Set & costume designer & construction 

1hr 30min, no interval

Universal resonance

Review by Brenda Rae Kidd 29th Jun 2012

Actors Simon K Leary and Paora Taurima, (Ngati Kahungunu) carry this play with incredible strength. Carry, actually, is the wrong word, but to watch this work is to completely understand.

Acting is not the right definition either for the dynamic on stage. Performance makes it all sound like… performance. Leary and Taurima embody.  Yes embody. 

Playing different characters, 50 at least, the history of gay New Zealand is given a voice, a movement, a text. Chris Brickell’s Montana award-winning Mates and Lovers, a History of Gay New Zealand, is taken from page to stage by playwright / director Ronald Trifero Nelson.

Originally from the American Midwest, Nelson moved to Wellington nine years ago. So how does a boy from the Midwest in the USA understand the politics, the culture, the shame experienced by gay men in New Zealand from pre-colonial to modern day? I suspect, because, it is a universal theme.

Aided only by two chairs, two shirts (worn in the most imaginative of ways) and an imaginary dog, Leary and Taurima are stellar. Beyond just words, beyond just movement, they are.

Choreographed by Taiaroa Royal, the movement is as seamless as the words. I would like to acknowledge the collective work of Royal.  He is the patriarch of modern choreography in Aotearoa.

But – and there is always a but – the somewhat jerky translation from character to character and relevance of time-frames can be confusing.  That is more a case of this reviewer’s ignorance.

Read Brickall’s Mates and Lovers, familiarise yourself with the people in the story, as it is one worth knowing.

Mates and Lovers will resonate.


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Entertaining, informative and moving

Review by Ralph Body 12th May 2011

[Originally published in the Otago Gaily Times, Issue #68, May – July 2011]

Writer, director and producer Ronald Trifero Nelson set himself an ambitious task with Mates & Lovers, but has succeeded admirably. The play is a stage adaptation of Dr Chris Brickell’s landmark study Mates & Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand and covers over 200 years of homoerotic heritage, from Cook’s voyages to the present day.

The play is structured as a chronological sequence of vignettes, short scenes reimagining the stories and experiences documented by Dr Brickell. These include famous events and personalities from New Zealand’s queer past, such as the ministrations of Rev. William Yate, the attempted blackmailing of Wanganui mayor Charles Mackay and the amble bosom of Wellington’s Carmen. However, this is not a play about famous names, with the previously hidden histories of many “ordinary” men taking centre stage.

Actors Simon K. Leary and Paora Taurima skilfully portrayed this broad cast of characters, ranging from schoolboys and rural labourers to drag queens and psychiatrists. With tremendous energy and astute characterisation they were able to rapidly shift from one role to the next. The seamless transition between scenes in this fast paced production is also a credit to choreographer Taiaroa Royal.

I had worried that a play structured around so many brief scenes would provide little chance to empathise or identify with the characters. However, thanks to the skill of both the playwright and performers this was not the case. Similarly, while the play was squarely focussed on sex between men (and featured a number of spirited sex scenes), it nonetheless spanned a range of emotions. In addition to sexual desire, the audience experienced moments of humour, warmth, sorrow, resentment, camp bitchiness, joy and righteous outrage.

Indeed, the much-vaunted nudity of the production was primarily used to convey moments of vulnerability. The one scene where both Leary and Taurima appear nude depicts a partner bathing his lover who is debilitated by AIDS, the evening the Homosexual Law Reform Bill was passed. A moment of triumph is tempered by one of tragedy, but also tenderness. When clothed, the actors’ costumes were sometimes inventively adapted, such as the transformation of two white shirts into the regalia of WWII drag queen Christy (a.k.a. Wally Prictor).

The costumes, designed by Bronwen Pattison, take their inspiration from the now iconic 1888 photograph of “Mr Greem and Mr Collie” that appears on the cover of Dr Brickell’s book. This ambiguous photograph is restaged throughout the play by different couples with different relationship dynamics. However, as the play moves forward in time prejudice and discrimination don’t simply “melt like lemon drops”. The final two couples are denied both the “family portrait” and “wedding day” specials by their photographers for failing to conform to established notions of such relationships.

The photographer’s studio is just one instance of a scene which makes reference back to its historical source material. One vignette features an elderly man’s recollections of his youthful escapades on Goat Island in Otago Harbour. Another shows two camp men reading a 1955 article about “gangs of homosexuals who live together for the sake of perversion”. Their mocking responses alternately endorse and dismiss its various claims, its voiceless subjects allowed to answer back. In darker moments the play draws upon psychiatric and legal discourse, such as the case file of Percy Ottywell, an inmate of Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, whose homoerotic desires were awoken by reading newspaper accounts of sodomy cases.

The highlight of the play for me was the song “Mates and Lovers” by Lachlan McKenzie, written in the style of Cole Porter and boasting double entendres that were anything but subtle. This light-hearted musical number provided a complementary contrast to the play’s more meditative score by Samuel Holloway.

While a play with such breadth could easily have felt fragmented and shallow, the creative team behind Mates & Lovers instead achieved a production that was entertaining, informative and moving.

NOTE: Mates & Lovers was brought to Dunedin as part of the Fringe Festival in March. A huge “thank you” to everyone who was involved in making this happen and to everyone who supported the production by going along to see it. (Tor Devereux, OGT Editor) 


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Forty years later, and for what?

Review by Aaron Hawkins 01st May 2011

The release of Chris Brickell’s landmark text Mates & Lovers in 2008 managed to evoke, with incongruous concurrence, despair that his history of gay New Zealand was the first of its kind, and relief that it was such a well crafted and sensitive affair. In an historical narrative that is marked by social persecution and legal prosecution, Brickell celebrated the lives and loves of his protagonists, and told of their struggles without making them victims. The saddest element of Brickell’s queer history was the realisation that the struggle for acceptance hasn’t been a linear one. Homosocial cohabitation, and the attendant sexual ambiguities, barely raised eyebrows in colonial New Zealand. The giant strides backward are still being reclaimed, and hopefully the dialogue – socially and academically – Brickell’s work should fire can go some way towards smoothing that path.

Three years later and Mates & Lovers the book is Mates & Lovers the play, a queer history in one act coming to a town near you. Any worthwhile historical fiction – biographical, speculative or both – has its origins in the work of historians, but putting said historians front and centre hardly excites one’s creative passions. But Brickell is no Michael King, or Sir Keith, and his anecdotal social anthropology makes for easy dramatic interpretation. Writer and director Ronald Nelson cherry picks his way through Brickell’s chronological assortment of man love moments and brings them to the stage, a beautifully staged cross-section of its source text, and it is the movement within the piece – quite literally the glue holding it together – that is its great strength. [More]


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A stunning piece of theatre

Review by Jennifer Aitken 02nd Apr 2011

Mates and Lovers (inspired by the book Mates and Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand by Chris Brickell, a lecturer in Gender Studies at the University of Otago), invites us to ponder how the past speaks to the present through the medium of the theatrical stage play.

Much could be said here about the history of homosexuality in New Zealand – the stories, the lives, the activism and the tears undoubtedly shed – but for this review I will focus on the play’s aesthetics. 

This production of Mates and Lovers exuded a very rough-and-ready aesthetic. Like the erotic adventures of many in “the Domain” or up on Mt. Vic, this production was rough, earthy and essential. Two chairs and simple costumes were all this production required to vividly evoke an innumerable number of characters, locations and encounters.

The actors, Leary and Taurima, embodied each and every character with utter dedication and compassion, their bodies moved fluidly and easily over each other both clothed and unclothed, and they possessed both grace and power throughout the choreographed sequences.

Claiming the cover image of the book Mates and Lovers as his inspiration, Nelson recreated this image throughout the narrative, the circumstances behind the image evolving as the play moved chronologically towards today. This was a quaint and simple device used to great effect, my only qualm being that our final two visitations from Toby and Ben propelled us through the latest decade of homosexual history with such haste it almost trivialised the issues of civil unions and gay adoption.

Granted, these issues could be seen as minor in comparison to the struggles of homosexuals up until 1986 (the year in which homosexuality was finally decriminalised) but they do represent the ongoing struggle of homosexuals for equal rights and acceptance within New Zealand society. 

All in all this was a stunning piece of theatre; the production was rough-and-ready, yes, but this aesthetic worked perfectly with the narrative. I simply cannot imagine this play working any other way. I just wish I had the space to say more. 
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A mosaic of gay history

Review by Charlie Holland 02nd Apr 2011

Charlie, from Huia Publishers, recently won our Mates & Lovers competition. She won two tickets to the Wellington play and a copy of the book, in exchange for writing a review of the show. Here’s what Charlie thought…

A mosaic of gay history 

Before I even start this review, I have to confess that I knew nothing of this play or the book of the same title written by Chris Brickell before entering the Booksellers competition. All I had in mind was an evening at the theatre on a Saturday night, considering it had been a while since I had treated myself to some good ole’ Kiwi entertainment. 

Very pleased that I had won the tickets and a book, I thought it best to look at some of the reviews and write-ups about the play before heading along. The reviews were nothing but praise for the writer, director, actors and music composer – my interest was increasingly growing. There was one prominent factor that did become very apparent: Mates and Lovers had a gay theme and that my knowledge of gay history was minimal. 

Then I started to wonder if I should speed-read the book before seeing the play? I had two days; could I read it that fast? Would I understand the incidents being portrayed in the play?  Would I know what characters were being referred to? In the end I decided to go and just enjoy it. 

I mentioned the play to my partner, who is usually averse to going within a five kilometre radius of a theatre and surprisingly said she would “love” to come. Four other friends decided to join us as well, so with seats secured, we all attended the final night of Mates and Lovers at Downstage Theatre in Wellington.

The play started with the two actors, Simon Leary and Paora Taurima, dancing and moving in such a way that at times they became one person. The music was nostalgic and I felt as though I were voyeuristically sharing the two men’s intimate space. The atmosphere suddenly changed as the actors began to portray life for gay men in very early New Zealand.

Starting in the 1700s and the European explorers with young Māori boys, the actors portray a series of different characters during different times. I did, however, enjoy how they commonly referred to Wellington landmarks like Miramar and Mt Victoria along with Wellington people such as Carmen and Fran Wilde who they named the dog after. 

They also referred to the modern use of the iphone application ‘Grindr’– a step up from the coughing codes in public bathrooms. With the characters regularly posing for photographs throughout the play, it was a clever way of showing ‘snapshots’ of history.

The whole play was made up of so many ‘snapshots’ that it would be too lengthy to mention all. They all seem to make up a mosaic of gay history, disjointedly connected to one another. I laughed at the war time singing, girls at the dock and the ‘brick letters’.

I was anxious and troubled at the “sheep-shaggers”, shootings and the night club brawl that resulted in the death of a young man. And, I had tears welling in my eyes by the character bathing his dying partner – their love was unconditional. 

My friends and I agreed that if the Mates and Lovers ever came to Wellington again, we would definitely go see it a second time.
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Living history told fluidly with care and love

Review by Patrick Davies 23rd Mar 2011

Mates and Lovers is a selection of short scenes of our gay history in New Zealand / Aotearoa, presented in a remarkably engaging and touching way. With just two actors, two chairs, two hats, and loads of character and characters, it really does bring that history to life. Comedy, drama, high jinks, dance and song bring people from our past to meet us directly on stage. I felt like they were my mates, full of yarns, sharing them over a beer.

Simplicity and beauty are wonderful things on stage and both performers (Simon K. Leary and Paora Taurima) move swiftly and carefully, and with great regard for the lives they portray. Sometimes screaming like diva, sometimes rough and tumble … I felt that sometimes the writing was a bit ‘scene / next scene / next scene’ but the playing and characterisations make these flaws minor.

Leary has the stronger acting background and Paora the stronger dance background and they work brilliantly together, both balancing each other out while bringing great style to their work. Their respect for each other and obvious joy of performance brings an energy that is easy to watch. That they’re both very easy on the eye also helps, but their partnership is very infectious and that they easily let the audience play with them makes the evening fly.

Several moments stand out but it has been a long time since I have seen such a sublime moment as when one bathes the other – his sickened lover. The tenderness of the action, acting, lighting make it sensuous and tragic and wonderful all at the same time. My heart almost burst with love for the characters; anyone who has lost, will recognise that moment. 

Ronald Trifero Nelson’s direction allows us these moments before plunging us at break-neck speed into the cavorting of other cohorts. The dance-like quality of the blocking easily melts us from one couple/place to the next, from one style of engagement to the next. He keeps control of the pace, keeping us engaged with lives rather than just stories, as this kaleidoscope of scenes could easily become.

Mention must be made of Samuel Holloway’s score which never overwhelms but underpins with subtlety. Its judicious support makes this production sing where it should – sometimes literally.

Ambrose Hills-Sammonsen’s operation was a little hit and miss for me. His lighting design is wonderfully chromatic and sepia and, as already mentioned in the bathing scene, thrilling. But – and perhaps it was opening night on the tour – occasionally the operation seemed to be a little disconnected with the actors; moments were felt differently rather than together.

It is a great production that deserves to be seen by everyone. Living history told fluidly with the care and love of a treasured mate.
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Grace, beauty and a lot to say

Review by Lynn Freeman 17th Mar 2011

Mates and Lovers is a beautiful work to watch, between Tairoa Royal’s flowing choreography, Nelson’s elegant direction, and outstanding performances by recent graduates Paora Taurima and Simon K. Leary. The play is taken from a book made up mainly of photographs and there is a photographic feeling to this production as well in its look and feel.

There is also a chronology to the work, starting with fragments of historic documents written in missionary times about illicit liaisons between one of the church and his brethren. We are taken into asylums where gay men are put to recover from their ‘illness’, into courtrooms where gay victims of beatings can’t get a fair trial, into bedrooms, toilets and most movingly, into a bath where a man tends his lover who’s dying.

Nelson’s direction is clever on several levels. The use of shirts for an intriguing mix of costume changes. The way he uses what is a lot of on stage nudity is for impact not voyeurism. The actors flow from one role to another, though you have to keep your wits about you to follow what’s happening. He has chosen his cast well, bringing out confident performances from his two young actors, though they both tend to rush their lines and either stumble or mumble at times.

Bronwen Pattison’s set is stripped back with great effect and Ambrose Hills-Sammonsen’s lighting is strikingly stark.

The script could do with pruning, some of what is effectively a series of short sequences could easily be lost, it does get a little preachy at times and there is too much reliance on ‘camp’ behaviour for laughs. Overall though it has grace, beauty and a lot to say. 
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Refreshing, sublime Mates and Lovers

Review by Steve Attwood 11th Mar 2011

Mates and Lovers is funny, irreverent, sad, tragic, serious, OTT, tongue-in-cheek clichéd and original, crude, sublime, stereotypical and fresh and innovative, all at once! And it works. 

An adaptation of Chris Brickell’s beautiful photographic book, Mates and Lovers, A History of Gay New Zealand this is a docu-drama of New Zealand’s gay male history from the time of Captain Cook’s voyages to the advent of AIDS, Homosexual Law Reform and the Civil Union legislation, to the renaissance of Takataapui, to the modern day.

At once complex, with its rapid-fire stringing together of a series of dozens of vignettes, the play is also at its core superbly simple, a couple of chairs, a couple of guys, some lighting, and some dance. But the stories evoked are far from simple, revealing the complexity of gay lives in a society that, for the most part, forced such men to be invisible and live in a world dominated by secret codes and covert sexual innuendo. [More]  
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The little-known history of gay NZ

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 11th Mar 2011

A somewhat unlikely and lesser known part of NZ’s history is currently playing out at Downstage. Gay culture in NZ was exceedingly well documented in Chris Brickell’s award winning book Mates and Lovers, A History Of Gay NZ which has now been turned into a successful stage play written, produced and directed by Ronald Trifero Nelson.

Simply staged with just two chairs and a couple of hats Simon K Leary and Paora Taurima energetically and confidently take their audience on a journey through gay life in NZ from early colonial days to the present. 

From the very haunting opening sea and bird sounds with Leary and Taurima lithely dancing around each other to their final moments in similar pose they each individually and together give a once over lightly of the many people and incidences that make up New Zealand gay life. 

The vignettes portrayed are funny, sad, poignant and liberating – the passing of the Homosexual Law Reform bill one example of this. A Judy Garland impersonation to the troops in the desert, exceptionally well sung by Leary, and an American serviceman’s encounter on “Victoria Mountain” with a “may –ori” nurse were particularly funny while cleverly juxtaposed with haunting images of gay persecution such as Leary rocking in a chair being incarcerated in hospital receiving electric shock treat for his condition with the comment – “they give medals to men that kill men but torture men who love men”. 

And of course the Aids epidemic gets a mention, with the actors as two lovers, naked washing each other, one slowly dying, making for one of the most poignant moments in the play.

The production moves with fluidity and pace and the seamless transition from scene to scene, aided by Ambrose Hills-Sammonsen’s evocative lighting, is to the credit of both Nelson’s writing and direction as well as the actors ability to take on many guises and personas with ease. 

While they rapidly take off and put on their shirts for yet another character it is obvious that these two actors have a real affinity with the piece. While background knowledge to some of the incidences, such as Wanganui Mayor Charles Mackay’s encounter with poet D’Arcy Cresswell in the 1920s, would help in understanding what was going, on Mates and Lovers is nevertheless a thought provoking, yet entertaining piece of theatre about a major but little known part of our NZ history. 
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Riveting theatre

Review by Anna Loren 11th Mar 2011

A stark black backdrop. A pipe and a brick. Two hats, two chairs, two increasingly sweat-soaked white shirts. 

It is in this simple setting that the myriad stories that make up this stunning piece of theatre are played out. The frustrations, hopes, triumphs and fears of gay men throughout our country’s history, as chronicled in Chris Brickell’s 2008 non-fiction book Mates and Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand, are brought to life with compassion, humanity and, yes, an ample dose of humour.

Each short vignette follows the one before it chronologically. Here is the sailor on Captain Cook’s Endeavour; here is the 1950s-era gay man undergoing cruel electro-shock therapy to cure his ‘condition’; here is the scourge of AIDS and the Civil Union Bill. The two lone performers, Paora Taurima and Simon K Leary, switch seemingly effortlessly between each of their respective characters. The stories, each a scant handful of minutes long, are separated only by a few moments’ darkness. While it’s a touch jerky and confusing at the beginning, the fast-paced structure only takes a short while to adapt to.

The 90-minute play is bookended by a tender, sensual dance in which the performers undress each other, and their costumes never stay on for long – plain white shirts become halter dresses or turbans to convey different time periods and settings, or simply hit the ground. The accompanying score, by Pukekohe-born Samuel Holloway, is hauntingly beautiful. Taurima is graceful, refined, almost regal, while Leary’s dynamic feistiness brings a strength and passion to certain scenes that isn’t easily forgotten.

New Zealand place names, slang and humour are played for maximum effect, and there’s a murmur of ownership and pride when gay icons such as Carmen and K’Road are mentioned. Some of the stories are familiar – we have, or know people who have, stories like them. Others are terrifying, heartbreaking, shocking. There are tears in the eyes of audience members on more than one occasion. 

But Mates & Lovers features plenty of upbeat moments, too. Bawdy jokes abound (“Seafood!” one drag queen character exclaims of a foreign sailor) and the show is peppered with a cappella pieces of song and dance. Yes, there are stories of violence, of fear, of mourning, but throughout it all there is an air of undefeatable spirit – of humour and confidence and delight; of respect for the ones who came before us and hope for the world we will leave behind.

You wouldn’t think that a non-fiction book could be translated into such riveting theatre, but writer and director Ronald Trifero Nelson has managed it with perfect aplomb. Mates & Lovers is captivating, moving and almost flawless.
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An eloquent ‘tasting menu’

Review by John Smythe 10th Mar 2011

This is a whole new production of the play Ronald Trifero Nelson adapted (from Chris Brickell’s award-winning history of gay New Zealand, Mates & Lovers) and directed for his major work towards his MTA in Directing (staged at Bats in 2009 and reviewed here). Its Auckland premiere late last year was comprehensively reviewed by Jack Gray.

The first thing to say, now, is that its fluid, fluent, deeply insightful, sometimes amusing and often moving evocation of the gay male experience in New Zealand throughout recorded history needs to be seen by all New Zealanders, not just the gay sector. It is part of our history, all of us are implicated, and it behoves any straight person with a relation, colleague or friend who is gay to apprise themselves – through 90 engaging minutes of stimulating theatre – of how this love which dared not speak its name played out in its parallel universe.

The second thing to say is that it remains a ‘tasting menu’ of the full history, so those who have read it will have a greater understanding and appreciation of specific incidents. Yet although it has a once-over-lightly feel to it much of the time, many moments cut deep in their dramatic impact.

Paora Taurima is more at home with light and bright but nails the stronger moments when he has to. He moves and sings especially well, and paces his performance beautifully. Simon K Leary follows through with the promise he showed in his Toi Whakaari solo, inhabiting each role fully and without effort, making it all look easy.

Book-ending their eloquent performance-de-deux, both express a gentle yet intense sensuality through Taiaroa Royal’s lyrical choreography, to Samuel Holloway’s exquisite score.

Ambrose Hills-Sammonsen’s lighting is also subtly effective, although I couldn’t help noticing how often the greater intensity of light (from the footlights) was on the actors’ crotches. Perhaps this is intended – given the theory that posing for pictures on back-to-front chairs is intended to frame the crotch – but it became a distraction when I kept wondering if the actors were failing to find their lights.

As with its first outing I am left wanting more detail and dramatic complexity but that’s just me. As it stands, Mates & Lovers is an important contribution to the lexicon of our stories as told through theatre.  
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Two-man show moving history for all (gay) men

Review by Janet McAllister 21st Nov 2010

The opening night audience for Mates and Lovers was overwhelmingly male – after all, the two-man show is based on Chris Brickell’s history of gay male New Zealand. But one doesn’t have to be male – or gay – to be moved by the history of struggle.

Written and directed by Ronald Trifero Nelson, this loose, chronological collection of vignettes is mostly upbeat, and told with sly innuendo. Many characters use their gaydar to flirtatiously sidle up to one another – theatre-loving was once a promising sign of a fellow "Oscar" (wink, wink to the audience). [More]
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History speaking to us

Review by Jay Bennie 21st Nov 2010

Slowly the history of men loving men in New Zealand is emerging. We are appreciating that, despite the narrow moralities and dour facades which prevail in the imagery of our country’s past, there have always been men quietly lusting after, romancing and even living with men, on maraes and in towns and especially in our cities. 

Mates and Lovers takes as its starting point the remarkable book of the same name by Chris Brickell. The book was serious hit, so that’s half the work done. But to take that richly populated and detailed book and distill its essence into a 90 minute stage show was always going to be a hard act to pull off. Despite the lack of a clear narrative thread this production mostly pulls it off rather well. Our gay male history comes alive, real people and events and social climates are given life and vitality. [More]
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Come out Come out wherever you are

Review by Jack Gray 20th Nov 2010

Mates and Lovers is playwright/director Ronald Trifero Nelson’s densely packed two-man play – based on the pictorial non-fiction book of the same name “Mates and Lovers, A Gay History of NZ” by Chris Brickell – part of his FANZ (Fabulous Arts New Zealand) arts initiative seeking to “reflect, engage and inspire” the GLBT communities.
Though the show had originally been incubated in Wellington as part of his Master’s in Theatre Arts project (Victoria University and Toi Whakaari NZ Drama School), the director’s notes inform us he “spent the last year rewriting, rebuilding and researching” (and recasting) for this, it’s premiere in the big smoke, Auckland.
The work itself merges together a dizzying collection of stories, anecdotes and characters (historical, personal, imagined) through kaleidoscopic jet sprays of text. The timeline is not entirely linear or a clear progression in a narrative sense. Rather it faithfully attempts to present as the advertising says: “ The untold lives of our brothers, sons, fathers…300 years of the private (and-not-so-private) lives of men who love men”.
It is accompanied (like a delicious dipping sauce) by the simplicity and most sensual of dance imagery (choreography by Taiaroa Royal), and is an intended (and successful) cross collaboration between the worlds of theatre and dance. Uniquely this show features two young, fit, virile ‘performers’ – distinct in their differences and cohesive in the melding of their energies. Part of the recasting process included having to find the right blend of performer who could both act and dance. It can be fair to say (without having seen the first version) that in this resurrection, Nelson has undoubtedly come up trumps. 
Paora Taurima, well known in the NZ dance scene (having performed for the likes of Raewyn Hill, Atamira Dance Company, Footnote, Ann Dewey among others) confidently takes his first foray into the theatre-acting scene. While recent Toi Whakaari graduate Simon K Leary shows that while he is no slouch on the dance floor, shines most brightly when he has a chance to ‘talk the talk’. As such their connection comes across as real, genuine and joyously warm (with a little bit of extra chemistry that glides us smoothly over potential road bumpy intimacy).
As an online culture vulture, I was (distantly) privy to the comings and goings of the show and the cast’s ‘movements’, quietly following the ‘threads’ of their production rehearsals in Wellington via Facebook – where I became most intrigued by the choreographer’s regular status update countdowns: Taiaroa Royal is off to Te Whaea for Mates & Lovers rehearsal…oh by the way —> NAKED DAY tomorrow!!! ((Blush)). With such a well-supported lead in (including links to their trailer on Youtube) I felt adequately aware of what to expect yet open to the magic and unpredictability of live theatre.
Greeted at the theatre entrance by Nelson, dryly saying “I don’t know if I should hug a reviewer” in his American Midwest drawl and by the evergreen Royal (casually resplendent in black singlet and mocha brown tan), I was shepherded amongst the throng of crisp-shirted men (it was like being at K Road’s Family Bar – but during the day!) to our “Reserved” seats. Soon after, everyone else dribbled in to sit in the spring-warmed concrete bunker of the Basement, easy chatter amidst the crash of waves.
Lights fade. Taurima and Leary walk out wearing white shirts. Taurima recognisably has immediate grace, alignment of a dancer, his focus sharpened through years of technical training, his energy drawing our attention with a magnetising pull. Their eyes meet, they circle, touch hands, an intimate gaze that speaks of lovers lying in early morning light.
Hand cupping ear, stepping into an embrace, hand over shoulder, soft hand gently clasps the others thigh. It is a dance of tenderness. I smell a women’s perfume – my senses attuned and opened by Royal’s sensitive and immaculate choreography (he was rightfully honoured for his life’s contribution – thus far – at the recent Tempo Festival of Dance).
Undoing the shirt, it comes off and is wrapped. They kiss, naked torso, a waltz. The shirts unravel, pants release, they crawl out and lie down. My feeling is that it is rare to be presented with the image of men being shown in such an intimate and loving way.
I think of all the great love stories we know, Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Robin and Marian, Hinemoa and Tutanekai even, and wonder why there are not more/any gay ‘ever-afters’ that just as easily spring to mind? (Bert and Ernie? Noddy and Big-Ears?). The rumour mills seem to have their roots deep.
Swiftly into a torrent of short scenes, the performers eat through a mountain of vernacular in multiple accents (proverbial, rural, class, historical) to show a plethora of characters, all swarming on a honey trail of homosexuality in New Zealand (spanning the past few centuries since colonial times). “Queen Charlotte Sound 1770” announces Taurima in fey British voice, talking about the fortified village and the Ma-ori men, the appeasing of relations between Maori and Pakeha through the gifting of slaves for sexual favours (the Maori “girls” were in fact young boys).
From there we freewheel breathlessly through the homosexual underground. Past the church missionary, Mr Davis’s home, English colonies, policemen, shock treatment, medical examinations, desperate letters (“repugnant of my feelings but I could not help it”), sheep shearing (shagging), suggestive flirtations (“seen through my little ruse” or “your keys however elude me”), whispered Cantonese in the darkness, typical allusions to Oscar Wilde, an adorable Chattanooga Choo Choo song and dance between a United States Marine Corp and a Ma-ori guy (“Can you dig it? It was swell”), a troubled Joey Kehu from the 36 Maori Battalion, a gratuitous yet funny episode of” illicit oral sex in a cubicle, to a hilariously modern hooking-up scene on K Rd using ‘Grindr’ – the iPhone urban male tracking device!
One of my favourite characters was ‘Christie’ from Dunedin. Leary draws the audience in spectacularly with his drag renditions (a la It Ain’t Half Hot Mum) singing the Judy Garland favourite “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (reminiscent of the Baz Luhrman ‘Australia’ movie and the use of that song in themes of freedom from repression). Though an initially light-hearted mock comedy it ends up being an emotive whiplash of rage and anger of believing the fairytale of a place “where troubles melt like lemon-drops” during the backdrop of homosexual law reform in 1986. He scores a rapturous applause for his efforts.
Taurima has many gorgeous moments. He has an inner light that he uses wilfully, variably infectious, mischievous, child-like, manly, feminine yet always enlivened. Dancing with gestures while talking, manipulating props with aplomb and purpose, creeping in the dark, tiptoeing the edge of the small stage area and bursting out with his tiger-like attack. The penultimate scene of him bathing his dying lover (the AIDS spectre was mercifully subtle throughout the show) is one of grace and just bloody good acting.
The finale of the show is bookended with a Royal wave. After episodes of mostly top, back and front-lit scenes (crafted masterfully with a subtle palette by designer Ambrose Simons), it finishes with a contemporary dance side-lit look that enhances the skintones and defines the muscle and sweat of the body. As the dance duet unfolds, undresses and dissolves into the anticipated nakedness, I find myself responding to the purity of the moment between two lovers and feel their connection without a veneer of voyerism.
While it is a scramble to keep up with the pace, what is remarkable is the skill required to make the 90 minutes balance the freneticism of the action yet still deliver an emotional punch. In hindsight I think the play is less about ‘two men’ (so to speak) and more about society. It is about people going to see Mates and Lovers because it is good theatre not because it is a piece about sexuality. We could swap the themes for racism, political struggles or class differences, about all the things that segregate and pull us apart.
A chat to the cast/creators at the bar afterwards I toss out the idea of whether it would be ironic to tour to all the small towns that featured in the play such as Taihape, Palmerston North or Te Kuiti. I was informed that when Brokeback Mountain came out at the DVD store in Timaru, that even though it was a multiple Oscar (pun) award winning film all copies remained firmly on the shelves. [If we think this is a historical context think again. Today’s Southern Times headline reads” “City Park on “Gay Cruise’ Listing” with all the subsequent bigoted attitudes shown in full force.]
This is important theatre. It is on till the 27th of November, so Aucklanders come out come out wherever you are and support it.
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