Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

03/11/2022 - 13/11/2022

Meteor Theatre, 1 Victoria Street, Hamilton

26/10/2022 - 28/10/2022

Production Details

Original writing by Janet Frame
Devised in collaboration by the Red Leap Theatre creative team
Artistic Director: Julie Nolan
Director: Malia Johnston

Producer: Zoe Nicholson

Presented by Red Leap Theatre

Considered the first great New Zealand novel, Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry follows the story of the Withers siblings and their lives in small town New Zealand following a family tragedy.

Filled with fierce heart and visual splendour, Red Leap Theatre’s energetic response to Owls Do Cry is a surprising and moving experience delving into the poetic world of Janet Frame.

Rather than creating a direct narrative staging of Owls Do Cry, Red Leap have taken inspiration from Frame’s rich imagery and poetry to create a multi-disciplinary dreamscape. This extraordinary tale is transformed into an exciting devised performance through Red Leap’s signature physical and visual styles, capturing and revealing Frame’s pertinent insights into society.

The result is an extraordinarily brave, jaw-dropping performance that is simply faultless.

‘There is not one wasted moment in the piece. It’s the best show I’ve seen this year.’— Veronica McLaughlin, The 13th Floor

‘I’m left with sheer joy of witnessing images of beauty, light and poetry.’— Rachael Longshaw-Park, The Pantograph Punch

Meteor Theatre, Hamilton
Wednesday, 26th October – Friday, 28th October 2022
7:30 pm
Adult: $47
Concession: $37

Circa Theatre, Circa One
3 – 13 Nov 2022
Tues – Thurs 6.30pm,
Fri – Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm
Preview Weds 2 Nov
Post-show Q&A – Tues 8 Nov
$25 – $54
12pm School Matinees on 4, 8, and 9 Nov – to book, please email: emma@redleaptheatre.co.nz

See 2019 season details and Review links here.

Devised by
Ross McCormack, Margaret Mary Hollins, Ella Becroft, Hannah Lynch, Comfrey Sanders, Arlo Gibson

Malia Johnston

Artistic Director
Julie Nolan

Cast (2022)
Margaret-Mary Hollins
Katrina George
Comfrey Sanders
Hannah Lynch
Ross McCormack
Arlo Gibson

Original devising cast member Ella Becroft

Set Design
Penny Fitt

Eden Mulholland

AV Design
Owen McCarthy

Costume Design
Elizabeth Whiting

Lighting Design
Rachel Marlow

Heather Timms

Dance-theatre , Theatre ,

1hr 15mins

Bold and clever show draws on Frame novel

Review by Emilie Hope 05th Nov 2022

Owls Do Cry will be a unique theatre experience for every person. Held in Circa’s Circa One stage, it doesn’t feel like Circa One anymore – in a good way.

The space feels bare but new; something fresh this way comes. Based on the novel of the same name by one of Aotearoa’s greatest writers Janet Frame, Red Leap Theatre have devised a show in collaboration with the cast, where even the audience participates at the beginning of the show. Don’t worry, participate from your seats. [More]


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A dynamic display of theatrical craft that amounts to less than the sum of its parts

Review by John Smythe 04th Nov 2022

To say Red Leap Theatre has lost the plot with its contemporary response to Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry may seem a bit glib, given the acclaimed novel is not exactly ‘plot driven’.

As the directors Malia Johnston and Julie Nolan note in the programme, Frame called her first novel “an exploration”. Steeped in the post-war values of small town New Zealand, it explores the objective/subjective, waking/dreaming, realistic/fantastic, together/separate lives of the Withers family in an eloquent blend of poetic and prosaic prose. “It has the freshness and fierceness of a mingled cry of joy and pain,” writes Margaret Drabble in her 2014 introduction to the Text Classics imprint.

As such it seems ideal as the source material for an innovative physical theatre production that explores and shares its embedded truths of universal human experience.

Here’s the dilemma:
If you have read the novel, you will spend the 75-odd minutes trying to find the family amid the welter of dynamic physicality and arresting imagery (as Red Leap’s Vision puts it).
If you are not familiar with the novel, you will wonder what has provoked the skilful blend of performative and technical elements that clearly have deep meaning for the cast but remain a mystery to you.

Either way, despite being awed and impressed by the spectacle, I doubt anyone will feel the disparate components add up to more than their sum.

To be fair, much is offered to apparently honour Frame and her novel. In the pre-set, as projected effigies of the performers stand in line against the back wall, key words flicker above them. Later a projected Word Cloud generated from the novel adorns the walls, front and back. There is wordplay: ‘Weather’ morphs into ‘Wither’, ‘Other’ to ‘Mother’, ‘Bother’ to ‘Brother’. And every now and then rivers of text ripple across the actors, props and walls.

Meanwhile, after the opening song, ‘In Waimau’ (delivered in the way that makes the lyrics hard to discern), copies of the book itself are handed out to each and every member of the audience. And Arlo Gibson – who establishes the performative genre by stepping through an imaginary door – leads us in creating interesting percussive sounds with them, his being amplified by one of the six microphones that dangle in the space.

In the latter part of the show, however, even more copies of the book are ‘innovatively’ used and abused in various ways that I finally find disrespectful – much like a teenager taking for granted those that gave them life, in the process of breaking away to ‘be themselves’ and make their own way in the world. Maybe that is the point. As for the fate of ‘our’ books at the end – I won’t reveal that.

There is a brief ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ projection of actors’ names linked to character names. Those in-the-know will make the connections of who is being whom and what, from memory, is being evoked.

Presumably Ross McCormack, weighed down in a tangle of six folding chairs, is evoking Bob Withers/Dad: the demands of shift work; of being the provider and Mr-fixit-man for a family of six. Is he still being Bob with his comedic evocation of Waimaru in the ’50s and his rationale for not buying a house up high? They are edgily entertaining routines but a departure from the Bob his wife, Amy, fears in the book; the Bob who thumps the table for silence when he wants to be heard.

The novel also has Bob sprinkling powder on his feet “to stop them from becoming athletic.” This is just one of the many child-view perceptions that this show chooses to ignore.

A sequence in which Margaret-Mary Hollins’ is invaded by the others, climbing under her clothes then peeling them off her, may be seen as capturing the fate of Amy Withers. Their lot as parents is briefly offset in a bit where they dance together.

Arlo personifies the son/brother, Toby. Is it Bob who’s being mean to him about not being able to go to school “looking like that” or is Ross now taking the role of the bully schoolboys who make his life a misery. What of the epileptic fits that Toby is prone to, the dirty fingernails that also embarrass his family, his obsession with money and always counting it, his continuing as an adult to scavenge at the tip – as they all did together as children – and turning it into a business, his unrequited love for Fay Chalklin, his increasingly demanding dependence on his mother as role-modelled by his father? None of this is touched on here.

The men do get their come-uppance by having their pants pulled down and shorts torn off by the women. And later, there is a poignant segment where father and son attempt but fail to hug.

Hannah Lynch gets a laugh when, “on the edge and looking down”, she asks if anyone knows what’s going on; we can all relate to that. It turns out she’s representing Francie, the daughter/sister who dreamed of being an opera singer but fell into a fire, was burnt and died. There’s no mention of her having to leave school early to work in the much-mythologised woollen mills, then as a home help for Mrs Mawhinney up the road, let alone of the fate of her bicycle. Instead we get a metatheatrical response on how, being “just an actor” Hannah can’t act dead for the rest of the show. So she sings, powerfully and impressively (and again in a way where few words are clear).

When the memory of a huge hole is evoked, its meaning, as metaphor, is largely left open. I find myself thinking of the gap left by their rejection of the script that had evolved from months of devising workshops. Here it becomes the repository for ‘trash’ which raises the question of what is ‘treasure’. Toby thinks it’s him but is quickly disabused of that. In retrospect I also wonder if the respect for the books then tossing them aside is another way of playing with the trash-or-treasure theme.

One of the constantly impressive dimensions of the multi-layered novel is that while Daphne (“or should it be Daffy?”), who we all know is code for Janet Frame herself, is written off as the ‘mad’ daughter/sister confined to an insane asylum, she is the one who has written this extraordinarily perceptive book.

In this performance, Comfrey Saunders represents Daphne. Her moment to ‘shine’, so to speak, begins with a stunning effect (by AV Designer Owen McCarthy) that bisects her longitudinally with laser-light precision then puts her on a cross that radiates into a sparkling asterisk before holding her head in a golden glow as a jet-black inkblot bleeds out to extinguish all that surrounds her.

The text Daphne pours into her mic is presumably from the recurring “Sings Daphne from the dead room” passages that poetically capture the inner monologues that flow through her brain in the asylum. But the audio accompaniment to the visuals render the words (so vivid on the page) unclear. The simultaneous evocation of shock treatment is visceral and, yes, deeply shocking.

I take it that the climactic anger of the women, advancing on the audience as they vent their rage into hand-held mics, is the Red Leap response to this abomination – quickly followed by the 1950s prevailing attitude of shutting it all away from public view. Arlo, Margaret-Mary and Ross bundle Comfrey, Hannah and Katrina into boxes and wheel them about as their captives strain to lift the lids and yell, “Let me out!”

Having brought silence by stepping through his imaginary door again, Arlo muses on how scary and freaky angry women are: “What to do with them?” Is this Red Leap having a bob both ways or provoking us to interrogate our own responses? He also launches into a seemingly satirical rant about story structure and punctuation – “For God’s sake what happened to the full stop!?” – which may or may not be a pre-emptive strike against complaints (like mine) about what they’ve done with and to the novel.

Or is it just that it feels like an ending but no, there is more to explore in performance – not least the afterthought child, Chicks (so-called because of the way she trotted about in the wake of her siblings) who, as an adult, only answers to Teresa. But in this performance Katrina George tells us she wrote a diary but they can’t find a way to fit it in: “Someone always gets left behind, put in a box.” And this time Red Leap, and no-one else, who has done that.

The substantial diary entries in the novel gently satirise upwardly mobile middle class values and the lot of women trapped in suburbia (decades before The Female Eunuch and all that followed). I find it unconscionable that no hint of that has survived in this ‘response’.

It’s not so much that they’ve ‘lost the plot’ as diminished the themes – objective/subjective, waking/dreaming, realistic/fantastic, together/separate – that give the novel its energy source and make it so compelling. When I read the book, I’m drawn into the extraordinarily ordinary reality of the Withers family. I’m astonished, amused and moved. When I see this production, I feel as if random fistfuls of it have been scooped out and thrown at us.

I’ve been a fan of Red Leap productions ever since The Arrival, which I saw in 2010. There I felt warmly invited into a shared experience that each of us could conjure with. Here I suspect that through all their workshopping, devising, rejecting, re-devising and revising, they’ve lost sight of what inspired them in the first place. Instead they are offering a dynamic display of theatrical craft that amounts to less than the sum of its parts.

(I know I am a dissenting voice among many who have raved about it, so please revisit them here and those from the original 2019 season.)


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Triumphant Response to Frame

Review by D.A. Taylor 27th Oct 2022

To read Janet Frame is to read her own life – her experiences with psychiatric hospitalisation, her struggles with schizophrenia, her poetry-as-experience. But there’s also a craft to her texts that is so successful on the page that transposing her works into another medium – and containing a bit of that lightning that made Frame so compelling – requires an act of magic that few could pull off.

However, from the first moments the seating lights at the Meteor Theatre dim, and all the way to the refrains at the end, Red Leap Theatre’s interpretation Owls Do Cry is a masterful, prismatic experience as stirring and evocative as Frame’s own words.

Director Malia Johnston, along with previous Artistic Director for Red Leap Julie Nolan abandoned a more literal script about the unconventional Withers family to instead refract the novel Owls Do Cry into an audio-visual, physical, poetry-laced, urgent tour-de-force.

With over two decades of experience in Aotearoa New Zealand’s dance industry, Malia Johnston’s choreography and direction have left serious marks on our cultural landscape. She’s worked with the likes of World of Wearable Art and The New Zealand Dance Company, creating powerhouse shows that occupy big spaces. Along with creative collaborators Rowan Pierce, Eden Mulholland and Ian Hammond, Johnston heads up Movement Of The Human (MOTH), an arts organisation specialising in movement design and live performance.

I had a chance to speak to Johnston about a week before opening night at the Meteor, to try and understand how she and Red Leap worked with Frame’s text. She explained to me that she’d worked on a few projects collaborating movement and text before, but when Nolan started pursuing the works of female writers, the opportunity to look at some of Frame’s work surfaced. With the permission of the Frame Estate, Owls Do Cry became a key project.

“I’ve been inspired from a show perspective for a long time,” Johnston explains. “Owls Do Cry is very much image-based writing; there’s lot of metaphor and meta-textual play, and ways of conjuring irony and contradictions in the way that Frame writes.”

When asked about the connection between the text and the physical theatre she’s led, Johnston describes the need to bring language play into the physical space; that a literal interpretation wasn’t what they were ever going to pursue with Red Leap’s talent; that what they followed, in the end, was a response to Frame’s writing and her style that folded in and contained the novel. She’s quick to credit three other women key to the process: Heather Timms, the dramaturg; Penny Fitt, who led set design; and Julie Nolan as artistic director.

“Together we framed the design and feel of the show. We challenged each other, too. There was a lot of workshopping, of pulling apart the book. There are some really playful ways of playing with language. And it’s really affecting writing; the feelings you get change your brain. I really like things that make you question your standpoint and perspective of the world.”

A script was prepared and then abandoned. Three-hour improvisation workshops were undertaken with the cast. Grand ideas for the set were stripped right back.

“We tried things out. We were searching for something that worked for the whole team. In the end, the theatre would be a blank canvas – and in that way, we would be looking at the bare stage as the mind. The book exposes the thought processes of our characters – so we use that to fill the space, then wipe it away.”

Capturing the essence of Frame and her work, rather than the page-by-page story she wrote, became the guiding principle for Johnston and the team – pushing us through the poetry of her characters and the spaces the show occupies.

As it was in 2019, the show opens with the six actors – Margaret-Mary Hollins, Katrina George, Comfrey Sanders, Hannah Lynch, Ross McCormack and Arlo Gibson – against the back wall, double-visioned with projections of themselves. From here they move to their spots beneath suspended microphones, breaking out into the song ‘Down in Waimaru’. Wheeled theatre storage crates become multi-purpose props. Copies of Frame’s novel are handed out, becoming percussive heartbeats, rain. Characters are undressed and become topographical maps. Microphones swing past mouths to capture the cacophony of voices – as they continue to stir minutes later, they’ve become a pine forest. The books are, at the climax, scrubbing pads, stilettos, mouths, fans, archers’ tools. We weave from concept to concept, never on complacent ground.

Watching Red Leap’s Owls Do Cry is the closest thing to a dream that I’ve ever seen.


Eight days before opening, I caught Margaret-Mary Hollins, who plays the role of Amy Withers, the mother. I’d interrupted one of the rehearsals with my call; the cast were practicing one of the (many) dances in the show and locking it in before the show. Having been on a Covid-induced hiatus, it was necessary to brush up on the complex physical aspects of the show again. But, Hollins says, they’re very excited to be together now.

Like many of the cast and crew, Hollins’ achievements are swelteringly impressive. With 35+ years in the performing arts industry, Hollins’ experience as an actor, director, tutor and producer has taken her around the world – and back, to Frame and her deeply local story.

“Each time you come back to it, you have to get back to the physical connection you had. That means remembering the dances, yes, but also growing the work again. Not so you can create a new work, but so you can reach another level of what I think of as Janet Frame – her heart, the essence of her.”

“Her phrasing is very visual. And there’s a lot in the book. But we’re not trying to tell the same story – the story of this family. We’re capturing the essence of the book. The path we ended up traveling along is the essence of Owls Do Cry. We all feel very privileged to have had that experience – and it’s meant that we’re very connected to this piece and each other. There’s a lot of creative collective respect in the space.”

In particular, Hollins notes that phenomenal duo of Eden Mulholland and Owen McCarthy – on AV and sound respectively – made for “luxurious” improvisation sessions, bringing live multimedia responses to the spaces and helping them discover more about Frame’s text and the characters.

“We were working out what we liked and what we didn’t. One improvisation, I put a whole lot of books in my jacket – and that became a moment in the show that stuck.” That organic of discovery is clear throughout the show, negotiating the chaotic with the contained to channel the spirit of Frame.

These moments of discovery have made the show something far more honest and real than any literal interpretation. As Hollins explains, “It’s not a play. It’s a physical response – a physical adaptation – of what Frame was trying to convey in the book.” And it’s helped her connect with her own story and whakapapa too.

“Frame is an observer of the human spirit. And she’s a listener, a watcher. And we know she was quite reserved and shy – but the loss of the people whom she loved deeply, this observation of the human condition. Her writing is something else, and we’re all the richer for it.”


Owls Do Cry belongs in a genre of ‘total theatre’ – one that commands the entire stage and audience space and subsumes it with sound, light and action. Because the set itself is virtual and conceptual, the show is different in every theatre. As Johnston explains, “It’s up to the actors and the AV to fill the space – and for the audience to meet them there. That means it’s really cool in a contemporary space like the Meteor, and just as exciting in a traditional space like the Oamaru Opera House.”

As one of the most exciting, poetic and disciplined pieces of theatre I’ve seen, the triumph of the show is in its evocative totality – its ability to combine all the elements of stagecraft, a fresh treatment of an established and highly regarded text, and bring a distinct sense of life to them that is both clearly original while also being wholly true to Frame.

The actors make for a tautly controlled, outrageously talented cast of singers, poet-performers, musicians and dancers fluidly moving between roles and identities, and it’s clear that the collaborative spirit has paid off. At times they’re channelling Selwyn Toogood or the locals of fictional Waimaru; other times they languish or explode with language and the fractured internal lives of the Withers family. It’s hard to single out any performer for their work, since each are so fiercely powerful and glowing, working in harmony with the staging and audio-visual.

This layering commands the full space of the Meteor in a way that consumes the audience. The true genius streak of Johnston and Nolan (who has since departed Red Leap) gives the show its wider vision. It’s a question to Frame, and an answer. Johnston explained, over the phone, that they wanted the show to be as experimental and innovative on the stage as the book was in 1957; they imagined Frame in the theatre, saying “Right, what are you guys going to do with this book.”

I hope she’d adore it and its reaction. It is, after all, just one interpretation of Frame’s work – but what Johnston described was the need to create something contemporary in form that channelled both the book and the artists’ skills.

“[The book] has such a huge weight, and you’re holding the weight of that piece in the theatre, as a director. It’s our responsibility to do that justice. We’ve all had that weight on us, as creatives. That is a good thing – but you can get stuck in it. We wanted to create something that was contemporary in form – and have the book there to understand that. But this is just one response, and there’s so much room to continue to explore it. A different group of creatives would create something different in the future – and that’s great.”

For this reason, Owls Do Cry is also a horizon-widening experience too – and a showcase of what’s possible. Drama professionals and amateurs alike across the country should pay attention. It is not a show that lets you off lightly; that uneasy agitation keeps the show on its edge from those first double-exposures. But, as Johnston describes, it should also inspire readers to pick up Frame’s book and make you want to be with the Withers family in Frame’s words.

The show’s function is to respond and evocate Frame’s work – not repeat it word by word. It is an attempt to transpose to the stage what Frame herself transposed from her inner life. It’s exposed and defiant, heart-wrenching and sexy, funny, raw, brutal and delicate. It writhes in woollen jumpers and makes us choose between the money and the bag. It makes a plea for trash. It asks why we’ve fallen out of our lives. It shows us the agony of what can’t be said. Red Leap Theatre’s Owls Do Cry is as perfect a translation of a text to the stage as we will ever see – not because it is a precise adaptation, but because it is a precisely executed embodiment of a text’s spirit made unique. Red Leap should consider this show an exceptional work on the stage.


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