SYDNEY BRIDGE UPSIDE DOWN

TSB Showplace, New Plymouth

07/06/2013 - 08/06/2013

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

21/06/2013 - 06/07/2013

Q Theatre, Rangatira, Auckland

07/08/2013 - 11/08/2013

Lawson Field Theatre, Gisborne

13/06/2013 - 14/06/2013

Production Details


Original book by David Ballantyne, adapted by Taki Rua
Directed by James Ashcroft

Taki Rua Productions


“There was an old man who lived on the edge of the world and he had a horse called Sydney Bridge Upside Down. He was a scar-faced old man and his horse was a slow-moving bag of bones, and I start with this man and his horse because they were there for all the terrible happenings up the coast that summer, always somewhere around.”

Set in Calliope Bay, the mythic place from our childhoods, where self-discovery plants its earliest and most potent seeds. Sydney Bridge Upside Down is an adolescent memory of when we begin to live in the twilight hours between night and day. Dreams become nightmares, friends become foes; things no longer seem to make sense as they once did. At the edge of the world a young boy tests the boundaries of his physical and psychological environment with devastating consequences.  Sydney Bridge Upside Down – a sinister love story, a darkly comic coming-of-age fable told from the perspective of a deteriorating mind.

Taki Rua Productions’ adaptation of David Ballantyne’s classic novel will be theatrical morbidity at its very best.

DATE & TIMES

TSB Showplace, New Plymouth, 7pm
7th & 8th June
Bookings: TSB Showplace Box Office / 06 759 6712
www.ticketmaster.co.nz / 0800 111 999

Lawson Field, Gisborne
13th & 14th June
Bookings:  www.ticketdirect.co.nz / 0800 224 224

Downstage, Wellington
21st June – 6th July
Bookings:  www.downstage.co.nz / 04 801 6946

Q, Auckland
7th – 11th August
Bookings:  www.qtheatre.co.nz / 09 309 9771

Strong language, mature themes and nudity


PERFORMERS 
Aaron Cortesi: Sam Phelps/ Mr Wiggins / Mr Dalloway 
Claire Van Beek: Caroline 
Maaka Pohatu: Dibs Kelly / Mrs Kelly / Buster Kelly 
Holly Shanahan: Susan Prosser / Mrs Baird   
Rob Mokaraka: Frank Baird (Father)
James Tito: Cal Baird
Tim Carlsen: Harry Baird    


CREATIVE TEAM 
Assistant Director – Aaron Cortesi
Set, Costume & Props Designer – Kasia Pol
Composer – John Gibson
Lighting Designer – Nathan McKendry
Projection & AV Designers – Rob Appierdo & Johann Nortje
Production Manager – Helena Coulton
Stage Manager – Amber Maxwell
Sound Engineer & Technical Operator – Matt Eller
Set Construction – Blair Ryan
Costume Construction – Mike Somerville 


Theatre ,


2 hrs 5 mins, incl. interval. R 13.

Intriguing adaptation visually lush but adrift

Review by Paul Simei-Barton 09th Aug 2013

Taki Rua presents a boldly experimental piece of theatre that is as intriguing and idiosyncratic as the title, taken from a little-known book that has been acclaimed as a neglected classic of New Zealand literature. 

David Ballantyne’s 1968 novel bears some resemblance to the work of Ronald Hugh Morrieson as it delves into the seedy underbelly of small town life seen from the perspective of a boy on the cusp of adolescence. 

The interpretation is a labour of love from a talented team of theatre practitioners and with no one claiming a writing credit, it exemplifies both the virtues and the pitfalls of devised drama. [More]

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Stylised, Sinister and Sexy: innovative theatre not to be missed

Review by Sharu Delilkan 08th Aug 2013

When I heard that David Ballantyne’s classic novel Sydney Bridge Upside Down was going to be staged by Taki Rua Productions I fought tooth and nail to get the chance to review this iconic New Zealand piece. But in retrospect I may have been a little bit too hasty as the show that unfolded was rather cryptic, making the task of reviewing rather daunting. However speaking to a number of the actors post show made me feel more at ease, as they admitted that the rehearsal process had been equally challenging.

So if you enjoy being challenged this show is definitely one you’ll relish. Unlike the run of the mill production that spoon feeds you and tells you exactly what to think, Sydney Bridge Upside Down is one that confronts both the heart and mind – something that is not seen often enough in Auckland. [More]

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A cocktail of surprise, dread and delight

Review by Gilbert Wong 08th Aug 2013

Will genre snobs leave this latest production from Taki Rua saying that David Ballantyne’s novel of the same name, published in 1968, has been done a disservice?  

Ballantyne’s novel was republished in 2010, and is now rightly regarded as a literary landmark that few appreciated at the time. Taki Rua’s production honours a near forgotten work. More power to them for doing so and taking the raw content, a decidedly gothic and bleak novel, to create an innovative piece of theatre. 

David Lynch would love this production. Think here of a 21st century response to The End of the Golden Weather. Bruce Mason’s classic has come to represent a certain nostalgic mythmaking, whereas Sydney Bridge Upside Down eschews the tired trope of the kindness of neighbours and the wisdom of the community, for a nightmare trip through dysfunction visited upon people isolated and slightly bonkers at the edge of the world. [More]

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Macabre seaside psycho-thriller offers different rewards for two distinct audiences

Review by Nik Smythe 08th Aug 2013

Taki Rua have taken a work of classic Kiwi literature, and transformed it into a multimedia production as avant-garde and quintessentially theatrical as anything originally written for the stage.  Beyond that I have no basis for comparison, not having read David Watt Ballantyne’s 1968 novel, purported by fans to be his masterpiece. 

The initial plainness of set designer Kasia Pol’s expansive stage, empty but for the sloping rise to the left, belies the extravagant, heady visuals that follow.  Rob Appierdo and Johann Nortje designed the eclectic video material, regularly projected upon any or all surfaces as appropriate, beginning with the opening scene’s bizarre video collage of the title character, local racehorse Sydney Bridge Upside Down. 

Ensuing imagery ranges from representational landscapes to abstract mindscapes, along with some highly appealing, if a tad distracting at times, closed-circuit gadgetry.  The lurid visual splendour is heightened further by Nathan McKendry’s arrestingly dynamic lighting design, making as much use of darkness and shadow as it does of illumination. 

The whole sensational package is then exponentially amplified by the composition and sound design of John Gibson, whose contribution is nothing short of a tour de force, enhancing his veteran know-how with modern holographic sound technology to superb effect. 

As much as all those production elements are stars unto themselves, serving to provide a profound theatrical experience independent of its literary origin, there is still a well-appointed, accomplished cast to populate it and a story they and director James Ashcroft all have to tell together.

It turns out the titular racehorse has virtually nothing to do with the story, save for belonging to sinister local grouchy old character Sam Phelps, in the fictional seaside town of Calliope Bay. And Phelps himself only appears to loom ominously and facelessly from the shadows and occasionally issue gruff warnings or oddly poignant comments.

The protagonist is local early-adolescent Harry Baird (Tim Carlsen); more than a mere narrator and central character, the whole story is effectively located inside his obsessive, confused, unhinged mind in a style that echoes Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures.  Harry and his little brother Cal (James Titio) are making the most of a stay-home summer ‘on the edge of the world’ with their one-legged dad (Rob Mokaraka), and without their mum who’s taking a holiday in the big city. 

There are questions from the start about the real nature of Mum’s holiday, first raised by local girl-down-the-road Susan Prosser (Holly Shanahan), when she divulges certain rumours to Harry leaving him racked with uncertainty and rage.  Then, right in the midst of his developing mother-crisis, he is confronted by his own first whisperings of sexual awakening with the arrival of their non-local cousin Caroline (Claire van Beek), a sensual, sophisticated city girl with a disarmingly liberal attitude to the forbidden pleasures.

Maaka Pohatu excels in multiple roles as Harry’s best friend Dibbs Kelly and his hilariously camp silhouetted mother, as well as Buster, a popular local lad who threatens Harry’s beloved companionship with Caroline, as do any number of the local male population.  Meanwhile, the strongest indication that we are inside Harry’s mind is the larger-than-life grotesque presence of local butcher Chic Wiggins (Aaron Cortesi) who, against all outward appearances, is apparently something of a ladies’ man himself.  

In the course of the two hour, two-act production, the recognisably Kiwi setting, characters and humour become increasingly infused with macabre undertones graduating to disturbingly sinister overtones, also recognisably Kiwi. 

The play concludes far from conclusively, and we’re left to deduce for ourselves as to which parts of the tale we have witnessed really happened and which were misinterpreted, exaggerated or completely fabricated by the borderline-hysterical narrator. 

Eavesdropping at half time, I surmise there are two distinct audiences for this play: people who have read the book, thereby able to interface more readily with the characters and the enigmatic narrative, and we who haven’t, requiring more cerebral effort to piece it all together.  As rewarding an experience as it is in that paradigm, I’m certain plenty of relevant components within the uncompromisingly avant-garde execution of this macabre seaside psycho-thriller were lost on me and conclude that those who have read it have a clear advantage.

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Powerful evocation of a derailed rite of passage

Review by John Smythe 06th Jul 2013

David Watt Ballantyne was born in Auckland, grew up in Rotorua and Hicks Bay during The Depression, and went to secondary school in Gisborne, leaving at age 15. He had worked as a journalist in Auckland, Wellington and London, published three novels, returned to Auckland and shelved a number of other literary works before Sydney Bridge Upside Down was published in 1968.

He has Māori heritage on his mother’s side, being the great grandson of Heni Te Kiri Karamu (a.k.a. Jane Foley), who is remembered for giving water to wounded British soldiers after the battle of Gate Pa (Pukehinahina)[i]

The director of this stage adaptation, James Ashcroft, reveals on the Taki Rua website that the book reeks of the East Coast where he too grew up. It seems clear that although he set it in the 1960s, and despite the lack of any Māori names or any mention at all of New Zealand, Ballantyne was reconnecting with his East Coast roots in writing Sydney Bridge Upside Down. The fictionalised setting is Calliope Bay, near Bonnie Brae and Wakefield; the family names are Baird, Prosser, Selby, Kelly, Wiggins, Knowles, Foster, Dalloway and Phelps; the first names are equally British. Hamish Clayton, who joined a post-show panel discussion last night and is currently writing a PhD thesis on the novel, is in no doubt that Hicks Bay is the model for Calliope Bay.

Narrated by young Harry Baird, the novel is not so much a ‘rite-of-passage’ or ‘coming-of-age’ story as one of a pubescent boy who got stuck in the swirls of hormonal turmoil. He’s that basement-dwelling street kid in the city whose stories – if you give him the chance to regale you with them – may or may not be totally true. But there is no doubting the subjective veracity of his emotional experiences.

Objectively, Harry Baird is recalling a summer holiday with an absent mother, a one-legged father, a younger brother who acquires his best friend when Harry out-grows him, an older female cousin whose acting out of provocative sexual behaviour suggests her Uncle Pember has something to answer for …

The last chapter, set in the city where Harry has been unsuccessfully searching for his mother, is written in the present tense which tells us this is the perspective from which his whole story has been told. “Would you believe me,” he asks a friend he calls “a hunter” (because Of his predatory behaviour towards apparently willing but soon despised young women), “that there was a castle where I lived? … that I once saved a beautiful short-sighted girl from being captured by a hairy monster? … that I slew the hairy monster and the skinny witch?”

Harry’s propensity for telling lies is brought into question a number of times throughout the book. His meeting with the fabled Uncle Pember is the last thing he mentions. Then he thanks his ‘friend’ for believing him (just as actors silently thank their audiences as they take their bows).

Harry’s emotionally and hormonally ‘stuck’ narrative voice – with which the reader inevitably empathises, even as the moral questions arise – brings great intrigue to the storytelling. The most lethal plot shocks are almost incidentally revealed as simple matters of fact. Clues regarding other major plot elements are also planted obliquely as the moment-by-moment preoccupations of pubescent boyhood take precedence in his consciousness. Cousin Caroline is likewise tantalising in her autobiography (as recalled by Harry), when it comes to revealing – or not – her Uncle Pember’s “amazing secret”. 

(As an aside, the way Harry narrates that last chapter gives me a flash of ‘Ratso’ in Midnight Cowboy, memorably played by Dustin Hoffman in the 1969 film.)

The ingenious subtlety of Ballantyne’s writing, the way you just know in your bones what has actually happened without its being explicitly stated, is why the book is now being touted – again – as a neglected masterpiece. The shifts in tone skilfully capture Harry’s changing states between lucidity and emotional turmoil; respectful behaviour and … something quite other. We are left in the position of a social worker, having to determine whether we are in the presence of a fantasist, a psychopath or something somewhere in between.

And so to this Taki Rua stage adaptation, which has been devised by Ashcroft and his team of actors, designers and composer John Gibson, whose score is stunning. Theirs is an astonishing collective achievement, without the benefit of an outside dramaturgical eye. It has continued to evolve as the seasons progress. Development occurred between and after the initial seasons (two performances apiece in New Plymouth and Gisborne) and during this Downstage season, where I witness its penultimate performance. Further development will doubtless occur before it opens in Auckland on 7 August.

Let me dispense with my few gripes first.

The book makes it clear that Sam Phelps’ load-carrying horse has a sway back, and that’s why it’s called Sydney Bridge Upside Down, so the play has to find a way of communicating that. It’s an unnecessary distraction to leave people wondering.

I am ready to sign up to a ‘bring back Uncle Pember’ campaign, albeit in his implicated form, because I believe he’s essential to our understanding that cousin Caroline is not as emotionally confident or in control as she makes out. I also felt absolutely certain, when reading the book, that her reason for not playing the naked running game with the boys one morning (yes, that is nicely evoked in the play) was that she has her period, so merging that moment with some of her most explicit sexual behaviour with Harry hits a very wrong note with me.

It also troubles me that the person who finally hears Harry’s final scene rant, and is thanked for believing him, presents as the defected school teacher, Mr Dalloway, whose role in the preceding story has been catalytic and who must surely be recognised by Harry.

While I accept the use of 21st century video, sound and lighting technology (some superb work here from Rob Appierdo & Johann Nortje, and lighting designer Nathan McKendry, with operator Matt Eller making it all work in performance), even though the presentational tail wags the storytelling canine from time to time and gets in the way of our connecting with Harry, I don’t buy the sudden intrusion of cellphones in the city scene. Apart from being an anachronism, people rushing about and babbling into phones is a hackneyed cliché compared with what has gone before.

Kasia Pol’s set design, with the narrow ridge on which Harry is wont to perch, and the sloping wall – used to evoke the novel’s key motif of the chute down which carcasses were tossed from the killing room at the now abandoned Works, which is now the children’s adventure playground – makes for a space inventively used by the actors, director and AV/projection designers. Most of her costume designs are excellent too but I don’t understand why Harry is sartorially dressed in a three-piece suit (Ashcroft style?) and the other boys are also clad in bits of suits.  

Given so much has been written of the difficulties audience members have in coming to grips with the story when they have not read the novel (and of course the stage play should stand on its own without requiring prior study), the least Taki Rua could do it list the main characters in the programme alongside the actors’ names. (I have taken the liberty of doing this in the production page.)

All that said, I’d rather see an ambitious production like this ‘in progress’ than something safer, easier and more predictable. Leaving aside the important question of whether this fits Taki Rua’s Māori theatre mandate and mission – ‘Ensuring the foundation for Māori voices to be heard worldwide’ – which Maraea Rakuraku raised in her review, it stands as a compelling story increasingly well told by a formidably talented ensemble.

In the pivotal role of Harry, Tim Carlsen is brilliant, capturing the ‘madness’ of puberty and the vulnerability of a boy confronting manhood from multiple angles that have us flipping from compassionate empathy to horrified objectification.

All the other characters are filtered through Harry’s boyish and hormone-addled perspective, which allows for legitimate distortions. Aaron Cortesi’s menacingly greasy Mr Wiggins and disturbingly enigmatic Sam Phelps, and Maaka Pohatu’s silhouetted Mrs Kelly are the most extreme examples, while the suave ‘normality’ of Cortesi’s Mr Dalloway makes him even more sinister.

Rob Mokara opts for a lightweight reading of Frank Baird (Harry and Cal’s one-legged dad), which takes me a while to adjust to (I’d seen him as more staunch; a silent sufferer, keeping it together for the sake of the boys). But Mokara claims his interpretation convincingly and his happy-hoppy dance (at what I take to be the carnival in Bonnie Brae) is a memorable moment.

Despite lacking the support of her back story, Claire van Beek demands we see Caroline as something more than a shallow tease.  The dance sequence that delivers her from Mr Wiggins to Buster Kelly speaks volumes. 

Pohatu plays both Kelly boys – Dibs and Buster – as well as their mother and his ‘death scene’ as a soldier is hysterical and simultaneously sobering in its boyish innocence, compared with the actual deaths that occur. But why he sits before a blood-stained mattress with a butcher’s knife before the show starts eludes me completely. 

Holly Shanahan pitches Susan Prosser, the vexing girl next door, as a very real and self-contained person who in no way deserves her fate, and that is just as it should be.  And James Tito completes the cast as Cal Baird, the prepubescent and relatively carefree counterpoint to his troubled older brother.

The use of a live video feed to show us child-like drawing and writings has great value but elsewhere it gilds the lily a bit too much. Less could be more in a number of respects, especially where it brings us closer to Harry and therefore to our own awareness of what we might be capable of. But overall Sydney Bridge Upside Down offers a powerful evocation of a derailed rite of passage, the implications of which could be debated at many levels.

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Play a rare beast, joy to watch

Review by Michaela Manley 28th Jun 2013

Director James Ashcroft writes on Taki Rua’s website that his desire to adapt David Ballantyne’s novel for the stage arose from a personal connection to his own childhood experiences. He invites us to a live conversation between Ballantyne and the art of theatre.

Set and costume designer Kasia Pol uses surfaces, angles, and materials that appear lean and stark, yet are a rich, elegant bed for interactions between audio visual elements and performers. Projections add to the sense of dimension and the imagery has strong identity, whether underpinning the intensity on stage or coming to the fore as a feature in its own right. [More]

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Disturbing

Review by Maraea Rakuraku 26th Jun 2013

From the outset, the ominous tone is set in Sydney Bridge Upside Down. There is something bad coming to Calliope Bay, or is there? No hold it, something terrible happened there one Summer. Okay then.

Based on the novel by David Ballantyne, apparently this is the New Zealand classic that never was. No disrespect intended. Having not read it I can’t say. However I have read and seen screen adaptations of works this reminds me of; Ian Cross’s – The God Boy and more specifically Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s, The Scarecrow. There are even some aspects of Atonement by Ian McEwen thrown in, in the way a child interprets and describes what he sees. And, dare I say it, the opening images remind me of the horror flick, The Ring.

As is the case in every small township, everyone knows everyone’s business. There are literally larger-than-life characters and your best friends are as likely to defend you or give you a hiding. Just like The Scarecrow, a girl is the centre of attention and a boy wants to save her. Only it’s unclear which girl and for that matter, which boy? 

This is a sinister coming-of-age story and I don’t say that lightly. There are some parts where I find myself physically shrinking into my seat and hiding behind hands. There is something very uneasy about this story and I think it’s because it feeds into a type of truth that exists in New Zild, and on reflection I actually don’t think a story like this could be as potent anywhere else but here, with our picturesque scenery hiding sinister undertones.

There’s something disorienting and frankly disturbing about Sydney Bridge Upside Down. Seeing this is like being assaulted with everything that can be thrown at a production what with the multiple clever uses of screens, lighting, sound and image distortion and video projections that at one stage remind me of the short film Teach you a Lesson (2000) by Gregory King. In relation to music, I just may be permanently traumatised by the use of the track of a favoured song, ‘You Don’t Know Me’. Before intermission it is starting to feel like sensory overload with no respite or light. Mind F**k.

If it is the intention of the director, James Ashcroft, to present a play about a novel, he’s succeeded. Information is revealed slowly and right to the point of almost losing interest. That’s the thing with book adaptations: you already have the gold in your hand; now, interpret it. The interpretation of this is impressive.

One of the characters looks like a Richard Ponder portrait, is that purposeful? I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to look at those paintings quite the same again. There are fantastic elements – weight depicted through sound which fortunately provides well needed and timed comic relief. It seems particular attention has been played to cadence in the delivery of dialogue by the characters. Bravo.

Rob Mokaraka’s Mr Baird has a provincial older man ring to it and Aaron Cortesi’s Mr Wiggins/ Sam Phelps/ Mr Dalloway are standouts. It does seem like Maaka Pohatu always plays variations of the same character no matter what the production. Even so, it’s a joy hearing him sing; along with fellow cast member James Tito (Cal) in another life offstage, he makes up half of suited boy-band, Modern Māori Quartet. 

Claire van Beek (Caroline) – wow! – with Holly Shanahan (Sue Prosser), brings taut, ratcheted-up tension and (like any good writing) shows rather than tells.

Even the way Tim Carlsen switches up his accent and tone is impressive. It really feels like nothing is wasted in his performance but really, while the supporting cast are good and evenly paced, Sydney Bridge Upside Down is about Harry Baird, and with that Tim Carlsen: his use of voice and all that dialogue. Jeesh. Good on him because it’s a shitload of scripting to learn. He basically does the verbal equivalent of what Te Kohe Tuhaka did in Michael James Manaia and that’s not accounting for the physicality of the role either.

Every single actor is all over the set. I don’t quite get the mattresses thing and, as a self identified rule-breaker, I’m up for it. Is it a wharetipuna? Is the opening a karakia? Or am I looking for obvious tohu Māori because this is a Māori theatre house and some of the actors are Māori? There’s just so much information in this production you lose track and there are a number of red herrings. Although this adds to confusion, it doesn’t shirk from the eventual horror of realisation which is well played, even if everything that follows pales.

At times I find it irritating that I can’t settle on the time this is based because there is something about this story that is so centred in a particular time. The phrases thrown around by the Dibs character are so out of sync with those of other characters, they add to the confusion. The music and costuming don’t help. Are they Amish, cowboys, Amish cowboys?

Have I mentioned I find it disturbing and therefore find myself naturally leaning towards not liking this? Even so, this would have to be one of the better Taki Rua productions I’ve seen. Ever. How much of this is due to the script or direction, it’s unclear. What’s feeding what? Is it the play feeding the novel feeding the play?

One of the audience members reckons it’s the novel feeding the play. That’s why he came. I, on the other hand, am not too sure and here’s why:

Why the commitment to this work? As Ashcroft reveals he only read the book in 2011, to have a full production up and touring two years later is impressive; gobsmackingly impressive. With the additional kaupapa that includes sending copies of the book, which until 2010 was out of print, and then encouraging readers to comment on a facebook page – well, who needs a publicist when you have the country’s leading National Māori Theatre Company backing you. Now if that isn’t an endorsement I don’t know what is, which brings me to this. 

Does a novel enjoy a second life with a stage/ screen adaptation? Absolutely. Whalerider and Once were Warriors spiked in book sales following their film productions. It’s a publishers dream. For others already well engrained within NZ literature scene, like , maybe not so much. Though Taki Rua do seem to have gone further by actually purchasing books (I’m ready to be corrected if this isn’t the case), distributing them and encouraging feedback via a facebook page, which is either a clever marketing trick or not. 

Ki te whakaahua ko te hīkoi tēnei a Hare i runga ai te facebook, kātahi te karo nanakia. Kō te whakaiiti tēnei i te reo me te pēhi i te tino mana mōtuhake ō taua reo. Tēna ahau ki te whakamātou ake i te pūtake o te arahi i te kaupapa i runga i te facebook, he mahi pōhēhē kei te kāpō kāore i te kitea kei te ko te Māori te papa o te whakahoki mai te rawa kia whai hua tēnei kaupapa. He aha ano tā koutou take? Why would you do that?

Whatever – it has me questioning why the premier Māori Production House of 30 years standing isn’t focusing this level of attention and care to the development of Māori works? No disrespect to David Ballentyne, his whānau or any member of the creative team involved in this production. Sure, there is the annual Te Reo Māori Season and a recent collaboration with Court Theatre, Christchurch sees the inaugural appointment of a resident playwright, Chris Molloy. However, having got this full production up in two years I can only imagine the boost it would give for Māori novelists to have their works interpreted with this level of development.

Kelly-Ana Morey comes to mind. Am I saying there are Māori novelists like David Ballantyne? Undiscovered and overlooked. Hells yeah. Am I saying they are as good as Ballantyne? Well, time may determine that, as it has with him, but as the tūakana of Māori theatre Taki Rua enjoys a position of acceptance within the wider New Zealand demographic and with that, a responsibility to the Māori community upon which it was built. 

I wouldn’t be saying this if Māori theatre was well and truly ensconced within New Zealand but it isn’t. We don’t even have a whare! Apart from Tawata Productions, which actively develops new work – which means it has a flow on affect to new writers, production staff and actors – it has me wondering at the commitment Taki Rua actually has for Māori-centric work that, inevitably brings us to the elephant in the room of what is Māori theatre? Something with a Māori in it?” I asked a group of College kids who attended the night I did if what they saw was Māori because it had Māori in it. They all replied, “Nah.” I then asked them if they’d seen any Māori theatre – again, “Nah.” But then they also couldn’t fathom why it was called Sydney Bridge Upside Down when the horse for which this is named barely features. Like me, they left the theatre with further questions and illustrated first-hand the disconnect between Māori punters and Taki Rua. 

I have no doubt this work will bring a level of respect to Taki Rua but as the tūakana there are responsibilities to your own. This story is sexy but – c’mon! – so too, is Māori storytelling! Mehemea he Māori a David Ballantyne, he Māori te wairua tito i tēnei korero paki, ka eke ano ki runga i nga taumata whakahirahira o te rākau whakapapa ō te pūrakau Māori. Kare kau pea. E tika ana me hiki tana mana. Ae pea!

Now to the cut: did I enjoy this? Noooo. Is that because it wasn’t any good? No. What were the actors like? Excellent. Would I recommend it? Unsure. Does it make me want to read the book? Yes. Will I read the book? Probably not (though after writing this, I’m thinking, yes though I am a scaredy cat so maybe not). Would I see it again? Probably. Am I less confused after writing this review? Kinda. Will I have nightmares about this? Most definitely. Is this a classic story that could be classic theatre? Yes, yes I think it is. 

A lot of work and production value has gone into Sydney Bridge Upside Down. It’s sophisticated, daring theatre. Mēna he pātai mehemea me puru te taikaha ō nga rawa ki roto i ngā kaupapa pūrakau Māori. Ko te whakatau ko te tikanga, Ae. E mihi kau atu ana ki  te tāonga kua whāriki-tia mai na e koutou. Do I resent the inevitable success of this production, absolutely not. The creative teams hard work should be celebrated, as too the work of David Ballantyne, and I’d like to thank Taki Rua for introducing me to a writer I’d never heard of. 

E kare ma, ko te kupu ō tātou tipuna e hara ana ko te Kaimahe, engari ko te kaimahi.

E hoa ma a Taki Rua, nga whanaunga tāne whakapiripiri, hine whakapiripiri Kia mau, kia ū ki nga tūranga matua ō a tātou mātua tīpuna ahakoa pēhea. He mihi kau atu ana i te tāonga kua whārikitia mai e koutou. Ngamihi.

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Rich, raw theatre

Review by Ngaire Riley 09th Jun 2013

Anyone who has grown up in rural New Zealand knows about abandoned dairy factories and freezing works. The stark set of Sydney Bridge Upside Down incorporates the ‘roof’ of such a place where danger, darkness and daring characters play and lurk.

All the characters are hauntingly entertaining and exciting. There’s a shadowy Ronald Hugh Morrison figure (Aaron Cortesi) who could be alive or dead. He hovers behind Harry Baird (Tim Carlsen) as Harry gabbles a prayer /mantra /whakapapa, Lucky style (as in Waiting for Godot).

Harry has a brother (James Tito) and they are strangely obedient sons. Their father (Rob Mokaraka) is one-legged and scarily still, except when using a whip. The boys and their father wear suits and this gives a timelessness to the characters, of both age and culture. I like the choice. It takes away the potential to judge these people as just another screwed up poor family.

Susan Prosser (Holly Shanahan) is a neighbour of about Harry’s age. She watches. Usually she sees life through a live video which snoops and lingers like a visual hand. We follow her foci on a large screen which also creates the silhouette of a clucking, gossipy neighbour. Then there’s Caroline (Claire Van Beek), a cousin who arrives and is seductive in dress and manner. Her relationship with the butcher (Aaron Cortesi) is creepy and sinister. These black, macabre people stalk and prowl in the space and we must watch.

A stunning use of multimedia (Rob Appierdo, Johann Nortje) helps us experience Harry’s mind as it struggles to manage the pain of a home without a mother, a remote father and Harry’s dreadful sexual awareness. His memories tumble out in a stream-of-consciousness confusion which is created by the superb use of sound, light, colour and video: the use of echo, repetition, amplified and natural voices; real flames, torches, vibrant washes of colour, shadows, silhouettes, the roving camera in the present, fast forward videos of the waves in Calliope Bay and distorted facial and architectural structures. This powerful sensory experience amplifies the characters and their actions.

What I lost in the performance was the ability to follow Harry’s story. To begin with I struggled to sort out who was who in the initial scenes. The non linear arrangement of the story also meant that it was often hard to make sense of time and situation.

There are motifs that work superbly. The school room scenes are always crisp, regimented and funny. Susan’s repeated comments and her sneaking, crab-like, are fascinating. However there are times when patterns are carried on too long, or seem to lack relevance to events – like the breaking of glass, Caroline’s lolling on the ground when she arrives and the circular moving of mattresses.

Harry’s agony strongly reminds me of Ian Cross’s Jimmy Sullivan in The God Boy. Jimmy’s blocking rituals, like plunging his hands into boiling water, are reflected in the patterning and motifs of Harry Baird’s mind.  With further work on its clarity, this show has the potential to tell another compelling story in an emotive and absorbing way.

Thank you also to Kasia Pol (set & costume design), John Gibson (composer), Nathan McKendry (lighting design), Helena Coulton (production manager), Amber Maxwell (stage manager), Matt Eller (operator), Blair Ryan & Mike Somerville (set and costume construction).

And especially James Ashcroft for his direction of this devised adaptation. Thank you Taki Rua for such rich, raw theatre. 

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