SKY CITY Theatre, Auckland

10/03/2007 - 17/03/2007

Auckland Festival 2007

Production Details

CONCEIVED AND CREATED BY Christian Penny, David Geary, Penny Fitt and Jade Eriksen
DIRECTED BY Christian Penny and Jade Eriksen
WITH CONTRIBUTIONS FROM Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School Graduating Class 2004

Designer: Penny Fitt
Lighting design: Vanda Karolczak

Epic and ambitious, Penumbra is a journey through the interconnecting lives of over forty characters spanning three generations. Full of wonderfully realised portraits reflecting our own dreams and disappointments, the story touches some of the waypoints of New Zealand’s history, from the 1953 Tangiwai Disaster, to the Bastion Point protests, to the 1999 Solar Eclipse.

A young New Zealand girl with Dutch heritage, working for Air New Zealand in the late 1960s, makes a phone call home from LA airport. So begins this sweeping family history, which travels from Auckland to Hong Kong and Amsterdam, weaving together a dramatic portrayal that is intensely personal and tender.

Penumbra is contemporary storytelling at its best. Reminiscent of the epic works of Robert Lepage, it is a journey through time. Penumbra is drama in which the scale of issues is directly related to how close they are to a person’s heart.

When:  Fri 9 March Preview, 7pm
Sat 10, Tues 13 to Sat 17 March, 7pm
Sun 11 March, 5pm

Where:  SKYCITY Theatre, SKYCITY


Premium $55
Pr Friend $45
A Reserve $45
A Friend $40
A Group 6+ $40
A Concession $40
B Reserve $35
B Concession $30
C Reserve $25

Duration: 3 hours 50 minutes,
including two 20 minute intervals

Bookings: TICKETEK
Ph (09) 307 5000 or book online

Accommodation packages available

Nick Dunba
Jessie Alsop
Tahi Mapp-Borren
Tim Spite
Mark Ruka
Abby Marment
Te Kohe Tuhaka
Sam Selliman
Madeline McNamara
Katlyn Wong

Daniel Baker, Mathew Sutter, Broken Chord, Mark Dancigers, Laughton Kora and others

Theatre , Music ,

3 hrs 50 mins, incl. two intervals

Flawed but touching epic

Review by Kate Ward-Smythe 14th Mar 2007

Penumbra will speak volumes to many New Zealanders, through its personal inter-generational, multi-cultural stories, which incorporate defining moments from our country’s recent history. Because the content comes largely from the ideas and experiences of bright, fresh New Zealand minds, younger generations in particular, will empathise with Penumbra.

We follow the lives of 3 siblings – Judith, Harmen and Annamieke van Dooren – which are shaped by the Mâori, Asian and European New Zealanders they meet, as they navigate the profound and accelerated changes within New Zealand’s social, economic and political landscape, from 1966 through to 1999.

The issues are obvious yet rich, reminding me that we all came to these islands from some other country, and have rapidly, sometimes hazardously and brutally, tried to fuse these external influences and cultures, to become one unsteady nation.

Grappling with issues such the clash of generations and cultures; racially mixed relationships; pregnancy out of wedlock; drug dependency along with looking for love in all the wrong places and moving from country to country, all as attempts to numb deep-seated childhood pain and loss of identity; the dislocation from England and her pleasantries that people experienced, as they tried to cope with the harsher aspects of Rural New Zealand; the random treatment of European immigrants by our Government; the draconian response of Muldoon’s Government in 1978 to the Bastion Point occupation (and the surprising disclosure that in terms of ethnicity, there were as many pakeha as there were Mâori making The Point theirs); career-obsessed men in the 80’s attempting to balance work with parenting; and the emptiness of ecstasy…

There is no doubt, therefore, that Penumbra is significant and far-reaching, in terms of an historical reference and commentary, from young contemporary New Zealanders’ perspectives.

However, while Penumbra could have been an iconic timeless work, overall it falls short of its full potential due to uneven performances and pace, which at times is painfully slow and pedestrian, with many scenes (and scene transitions) dragging on well after their point has been made. As Penumbra made the progression from devised student production at Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School, (with a large input from the class of 2004: obviously a very dynamic year), to headline work at an International Arts Festival, judicious direction and editing needed to occur.

Other isolated technical devices, such as using torches, suitcases and dolls to tell one back-story, fail to connect with the narrative. A plank and some wooden ends used to play out Abel Tasman’s unfortunate visit to Golden Bay, while useful to reinforce the Dutch connection of our characters, fails to give any dramatic justice to Tasman’s contribution to our nation’s history. It feels gratuitous.

That said, the large collaborative creative team, have much to be proud of.

Designer Penny Fitt makes full and excellent use of Skycity’s expansive stage, with most of her impressive tableaux or scenes – suitably indicative of the time and location represented – complementing the story very well.

The opening set of lime and terracotta arches and curves, depicting Los Angeles International Airport in 1966, could be straight from, ‘Catch Me if You Can’. By immediate contrast, the next scene, the family farm house in the Wairarapa, staged as a isolated box with old furnishings, with railway lines running through it, (appropriately the railway lines are the permanent fixture of the set), is very affective. When the broken siblings return to the home in need of family support, their approach and departure looks like walking the gang-plank, as they face the judgement then rejection of their mother.

Costumes are equally clever, in particular the use of colour: bold red airline hostesses uniforms depict the confidence of international travel, and of our young leading lady, as she steps onto the world stage. Embracing it all as her oyster, she ditches the muted teal tones of her old Air New Zealand uniform. Other youths depicted abroad exude similar confidence and flair, notably Lawrence the leader of the Mâori show band, in a flashy white suit and bow tie.

Back in New Zealand, the costuming of Judith’s mother in the Wairarapa in 1969 is suitably conservative and dull. In later decades Fitt balances New Zealand’s tendency towards no fuss comfortable clothes, with trademark fashion statements of each decade, to a tee.

Lighting by Vanda Karolczak is mostly good, though patchy at times, resulting in some scenes with key character development being under lit. However, her use of the cyc is admirable and the solar eclipse of 1999 is climatic and suitably dominating.

Script co-ordination by David Geary ensures the dialogue is engaging, well researched, and very much in the vernacular of the time. The script throughout the 80’s, especially Kevin Swanson’s lines, is particularly entertaining.

Music (by Daniel Baker, Mathew Sutter, Broken Chord, Mark Dancigers, Laughton Kora and others) plays an important supporting role, with the use of original composition and sound scape, as well as iconic covers that define their time, such as Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’ and Hello Sailor’s ‘Blue Lady’.

The cast has a strong core. Nick Dunbar gives an extraordinary performance as the complex and lost Harmen van Doorman. Jessie Alsop and Tahi Mapp-Borren deliver their best work alongside Dunbar, playing his sisters.

Tim Spite relishes bringing Kevin Swanson, a cocky stock-market shark clutching his 1980’s brick, to the stage with full noise. Mark Ruka delivers emotional punch as he tries to reconcile his whanau commitments with his political and personal interests, in the midst of the Bastion Point occupation.

The colourful characterisations from Abby Marment: gushing Peggy, strangely stylised Queen Elizabeth II, upfront Dutch landlady and irrepressible Sophie, are each as engaging as they are enjoyable to watch.

Te Kohe Tuhaka portrays Lawrence Hiku as a well crafted dead-cert for the young Howard Morrison, complete with one-dimensional jokes, smooth crooning for the ladies and cheesy grin. When we meet the deflated Lawrence back in New Zealand, Tuhaka brings new depth to his performance. His interplay with Sam Selliman playing Trish Chan, is entertaining, real and very effective, with the actors feeding off each other naturally in their key car scenes.

Madeline McNamara playing the emotionally locked up matriarch, struggling to articulate her profound sense of loss and regret, is moving in her later scenes. Katlyn Wong shows good craft as her character Alex Wu balances necessary deference to her culture and tradition, with her strong personality.

However, some scenes, such as the two hander to show mother-daughter conflict between Grace and Annamieke, are awkward to watch, as the actors stumble through clumsy blocking and struggle to find the right connection and between text, context and characters.

Ultimately, this large gifted group need to trim Penumbra, to make it the unforgettable New Zealand theatrical experience that it could be. Despite that, like most in the audience on Tuesday night, I came away moved. Even with the flaws, it is still a touching piece of theatre.


Helene Bertroux March 23rd, 2007

As a visitor and an audience member not familiar with the tapestry of New Zealand history, I was very interested to view Penumbra, which was described to me as almost like a historical documentary and in tune with the works of Robert Lepage, and to see if it held me, if the storytelling was able to pull me in and offer a deeper understanding of the substance of this place. I must say I was very interested in this work and its inherent roughness, something which my partner complained about, but something I actually enjoyed. I was wondering, what sort of time frame is a work like this made over in this country? I enjoyed the ambition, and I salute the ambition to make something of this size, but I couldn't help but feel these practitioners were always a little out of step with their audience, (and that this may have been due in part to the problems of getting a work of this scale performed in the first place). I think the number one reason for this was the space- and I understand the financial need to place a festival show of this size in a venue this big- but if ever I have been in a poorly designed auditorium for theatre, this was it. And a poor choice for a show this long... (my bottom remains unsympathetic, but my enduring sense of distance and cavern is what truly aches!). I felt that there was a lot of interesting material and subject matter in this work, but that the inherent distancing and lack of intimacy provided by this space gave a great challenge for the audience to engage with it. It felt like a cinema that had pulled its screen up for the night to accomodate a few actors, rather than a theatre venue. The lack of acoustic design seemed to make it neccessary to mic the actors, and I think this also made it difficult to relate to this work- it felt to me like this work was something that wanted to be raw and coarse and rough and intimate, and instead was forced to be tamed, homogenised, caged. It was in this expanse of space that I felt many of the actors were found wanting- I felt like there was no bridge between us in terms of the energy in the room. There were exceptions to this of course- the elderly matriach clamboring carefully over the train track in the third act was a very moving moment of theatre where the entire energy of the room and the audience was shifted through the interplay of theatrical composition and nuanced physical performance- but elsewhere I felt this work was too filmic- (And I make a distinction here between filmic and cinematic because I actually think cinema has an epic scope through the nature of its magnification)- by filmic, I mean a reduced scope, a removal from the liveness of its audience, characterised by undynamic, introverted acting. The prime offender for me was the first act, and a good example of this perhaps was the scene of the hostess with her brother. In fact, that whole strand seemed problematic to me- off key comedy not really committed to, which seemed to relate little to the brother's haunting, which I could have been intrigued by if it were worked through the rest of the piece more. Which I guess leads me to discover for myself my key disappointment in this recommended piece of theatre: An overriding and enduring sense of a lack of theatricality. In my time in Auckland and in New Zealand I have been struck by how little of the theatre here is actually theatrical. If I go to the theatre I really want to see theatre, if I want to watch television I stay at home. And there were real moments in Penumbra (despite the problems of the auditorium), in its investigation of design, in its grappling with scope, and in its juxtaposition of storytelling devices, where I felt there was theatre becoming alive. So in my round about way, thank you to the creators of this work for offering me those moments, I encourage to keep going, to keep developing this work, I'm interested to see this show again in a year in a different space. And perhaps this experience of the problems of this space will be helpful in terms of crafting more dynamic theatrical solutions to the problems of weaving together the broad and (enjoyably!) rough strands of this work.

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