Shall We Gather at the River

Globe Theatre, 104 London St, Dunedin

08/10/2010 - 17/10/2010

Otago Festival of the Arts 2010

Production Details


Shall We Gather at the River, by one of New Zealand’s iconic playwrights, Renée: a story about the bonds that hold families together, even when the core family as in this case consists of two step-sisters, Rusa and Grace, who have been estranged for 20 years.

They had shared a father and mother and a childhood filled with music but had gone their separate ways after a crisis that led one to overseas travel and a hostage situation and the other to more localised but equally isolating travel. They come together on this day, their shared birthday and finally discover that love, in all its forms, really is the strongest bond of all. 

The Globe Theatre is immensely proud that Renée, who spent several years at the Globe as artistic director in the 1980s, has chosen this theatre to stage the premiere of her new play and to have it directed by another of New Zealand’s theatrical icons, Louise Petherbridge. 

Place: Globe Theatre, 104 London Street, Dunedin
Dates: October 8-17, 2010
Times: 7.30pm Tuesday to Saturday 
           2pm Sunday Matinee Performances
Duration: Two hours with one interval
Ticket prices: $18 / $15 (concessionary)
By arrangement with Playmarket  

Rusa:  Terry MacTavish
Grace: Glenys Whittington
Den: William Needs
Mac: Andrew Cook 

Artistic Director:  Louise Petherbridge 
Musical Director:  Glenys Whittington 
Producer: Friends of the Globe Theatre Inc.
Designer:  Andrew Cook
Publicity:  Roslyn Nijenhuis  

Two more memorable women added to Renee’s crowd

Review by Helen Watson White 08th Oct 2010

This new play by Renee, although different from her work of the 1980s and 90s, shows the same passion for human truth and the same commitment to craft. It is a lovely piece, the writing by turns lyrical and hard-edged, sometimes funny, but just as often bitter, angry and sad.

The main characters are step-sisters, with a birthday on the same day; we meet them the day before their fiftieth, after they’ve been apart – by choice – for many years. Rusa (a shovel-bearing Terry MacTavish, fearsome in a Swandri) is visited by Grace (a bespangled, fey Glenys Whittington) in the remote cottage in the bush where Rusa remains on her own after her lover has drowned. Still raw from her loss, she can’t bear the idea of visitors, let alone her estranged sister, then her ex-husband Den, plus a man called Mac who’s come on a “reccy” to see the house that Den’s firm has contracted him to pull down. 

All the visitors bring the past into the present, from Grace remembering her jealousy when her widowed father married Rusa’s mother and brought two complete strangers into the family, to Den’s re-living his anger when Rusa ‘ran off’ with her lover William and (Den’s) young son Andy. Bits of background are fed to us gradually – that is, in chunks we can digest before the next secret is brought out. There’s a great deal of skill needed to combine the forward movement of the plot in the present with these backward glances into individual and shared memory.

The most powerful memories are of William and Rusa’s love and life together before his sudden death – in the same river that took her son Andy while he was still a boy. Although they are private to Rusa, we are allowed to share these intimate remembrances, in that tapes of William’s words (voiced by Ross Johnston, acting concurrently in The Pitmen Painters) are played now and then as part of an ongoing dialogue.

At several points it is remarked that the season is the one called Beltane, when spirits walk between the here and the there, and the veil is lifted between material and spiritual worlds. Rusa has the distinct sense that William is in the air around, and so she can address him with the question that is with her night and day: Why did you leave me? Difficult as it is to describe, the writing is delicate and sensitive enough to convey all this without crossing the line into sentimentality. Then too, the acting is sure and frank, though understated, so the idea – so different from anything in Renee’s earlier plays – really works.

The other male characters, Den (Bill Needs) and Mac (Andy Cook) are written rather differently, Den full of bluster and Mac (an ex-boyfriend of Grace, who won’t let go) unacquainted with subtlety. Den at one point is compared to the hero in a melodrama – which is a form of self-deprecation on the playwright’s part! Bill Needs has his work cut out to make him believable, he is so mixed-up in his responses and remembered emotions, and to cap it all he has found God. Andy Cook seems grateful, in the light of this confusion, that his character is allowed to soften, and even change his mind. 

The sisters, too, are shown to change their minds about their non-relationship, when it unfolds that they’ve both been through trauma recently. The reason Grace has made her way to this isolated retreat is that she’s heard of Rusa’s tragedy and wants to bring comfort. Rusa, in turn, heard of Grace’s imprisonment by terrorists when she was nursing in a foreign country, and “tried to ring”, she swears. Although for a long time they couldn’t bear each other’s company, they also had some early shared experiences of the old gospel songs, which Grace sang again and again for comfort when she thought she was going to die. Like the tapes of William’s voice, the haunting sound of children’s singing – for instance of ‘Shall We Gather at the River’ – is heard at various points, grounding the traumatised women in a sense of their shared humanity.

Terry MacTavish makes both Rusa’s toughness and her agony understandable and very real. Glenys Whittington’s Grace, too, is in the end solidly present as both terrified victim and sensible ex-nurse, although first impressions gave us a blue-green-pink wafty New Ager who sees auras and calls Rusa’s mask-collection a Life Wall. 

They say the devil is in the detail; the angel, the child and the clown is there too. Renee always said she wanted to write good female characters – not morally good, you understand, but, well, detailed. She’s done just that in this play, and added two more memorable women to what has become quite a crowd. 


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