BATS Theatre, The Propeller Stage, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington

05/12/2017 - 09/12/2017

Production Details

“I wanted to sink into the snow and bury my hands in its wonderful whiteness. To dig and dig and dig to make sure it was real and wouldn’t disappear. I had to go there. I had to go to Mount Cook.” – Freda du Faur 

This is a new play that looks at the lives of two brilliant women mountaineers. Freda du Faur, an Australian, was the first woman to scale Aoraki/Mount Cook in 1910. Lydia Bradey, a New Zealander, was the first woman to scale Mount Everest solo and without oxygen in 1988.

Playwright Jan Bolwell brings these two women together across time to challenge and confront each other about their climbing prowess and the challenges and difficulties they faced in both their professional and personal lives.

A few words from Jan Bolwell …

I am a South Islander and I adore the Southern Alps, and I have always been fascinated by the story of Freda du Faur, the first woman to climb Aoraki/Mt Cook in 1910. When I read Sally Irwin’s biography of Freda Between Heaven and Earth I decided ‘this is it. I have to write a play about her.’

As this is my sixth play I wanted to challenge myself as a playwright. Instead of writing a conventional historical play I decided to bring Freda together across time with Lydia Bradey, the first woman to scale Mt Everest solo and without oxygen. Lydia agreed to my dramatising her story, so off I went. The result is my play Taking the High Ground written on a residency at the Robert Lord Writers Cottage in Dunedin. I am thrilled that our premiere will take place at Bats Theatre 5-9th of December this year.

I play the older Freda looking back on her life. She gets into some amusing conversations with twenty-something Lydia, played by Emily Retgien, as they have a verbal wrestling match about their climbing feats and personal trials and tribulations.

Young Freda, played by Isobel McKinnon arrives at Aoraki/Mount Cook and challenges her guide Peter Graham, played by Simon Paenga, to take her up the mountain. We see a growing relationship of mutual respect as Peter realises what a talented climber Freda is.

Freda introduces to this climbing world her lifelong partner and trainer, Muriel Cadogan, played also by Emily Retgien. Their lives changes radically when they travel to England just before WW1 and become heavily involved in the English Suffragette Movement.

In other climbing scenes we accompany Lydia on the famous El Capitan rock wall in California and up Mount Everest and into the controversial fallout that followed her remarkable solo feat. A scaffolded set, designed by the fabulous Lisa Maule, who also designs the lighting, provides an actual physical challenge for the actors. The climbing sequences are performed on a four metre high structure, and choreographed by the talented Sacha Copland of Java Dance Company.

Bringing all this together is our experienced director, Annie Ruth, former head of Toi Whakaari, NZ Drama School and producer Shirley Domb. What a team!

As you can see this is not a small undertaking! I would welcome your financial support for our production costs, in particular our fantastic set design which is going to add such an exciting dynamic to our play. Any contribution, large or small, would be most welcome. I hope after this initial season to get the play around the country so the rest of New Zealand can enjoy the Freda/Lydia story.

Thanks, in anticipation from me and all the ‘High Grounders’!

Taking the High Ground is being produced independently without government agency funding. Handstand Productions, Jan Bolwell’s theatre company, is using accumulated funds to get the project under way and over three quarters of the funds needed are in place.

Bats Theatre, The Propeller Stage, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington
Tues 5 Dec – Sat 9 Dec at 6:30pm
+ Sat 9 Dec at 2pm 
Full Price $22
Concession Price $16
Group 6+ $15 

Lydia Bradey:  Emily Regtien
Young Freda:  Isobel MacKinnon
Old Freda:  Jan Bolwell
Muriel Cadogan:  Emily Regtien
Ecceleston du Faur:  Simon Paenga
Peter Graham:  Simon Paenga
Charles DuPain:  Simon Paenga
Doctor Morton:  Simon Paenga
Dougal Stevenson:  Simon Paenga
The Tourist Guide:  Elizabeth Harris
Mrs Harris:  Elizabeth Harris
Mrs Fitzpatrick:  Jan Bolwell  

Playwright: Jan Bolwell
Director: Annie Ruth 

Choreographer:  Sacha Copland 
Composer & Sound Designer:  David Downes
Set Designer:  Lisa Maule
Lighting Designer & Operator:  Zoë Higgins
Dramaturge:  ralph McAllister
Stage manager:  Neal barber
Set construction:  Taylor Jones, Ashley Mardon, Joshua Tucker
Producers:  Shirley Domb & Jan Bolwell

Theatre ,

1 hr 20 mins

Women on Top

Review by Ewen Coleman 08th Dec 2017

The lives of well-known sporting heroes are often emulated through various media after they have become famous.  

The current early evening play at Bats Theatre, Taking The High Ground by Jan Bolwell, however, takes a fascinating look at a pair of equally famous female mountaineers whose achievements have gone almost unnoticed over the years.

The fact that both are female, and controversy surrounded their sporting prowess, may also be a factor in their lack of recognition.

The success in their mountain climbing is separated by almost 90 years, yet the structure of Bolwell’s play is such that the interweaving and juxtaposition of their lives and the obstacles they had to overcome to achieve success are not too dissimilar. [More


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Elevated history is dramatically dynamic

Review by John Smythe 06th Dec 2017

By interweaving the particular stories of two mountain climbers – Freda du Faur, an Australian who was the first woman to scale Aoraki/Mount Cook in 1910, and New Zealander Lydia Bradey, who was the first woman to scale Mount Everest solo and without oxygen in 1988 – playwright Jan Bolwell has created a lively metaphor for the changing nature and status of women over the 20th century. 

With Taking the High Ground (her sixth play, by my count)* Bolwell has literally taken her craft to another level by bringing these two women together across time, and by having young Freda confront her 52 year-old self. On Lisa Maule’s scaffolding and white-slab set punctuated with trans-generational furniture, director Annie Ruth, choreographer Sacha Copland and the five actors combine to elevate the action and interactions with a focus and energy that dynamically shares Freda and Lydia’s experiences. That is, the play – which is about much more than climbing – is driven by Lydia’s enquiry into Freda’s life, although Lydia does also evoke her Everest climb for the edification of the long-dead Freda.

The silent fascination with which the constrained and bulkily brown-clad Young Freda observes physically liberated Lydia in colourful lycra establishes the theatrical conceit from the outset. It quickly becomes apparent that the desire to climb is the only thing they have in common: Freda is privileged with an independent income and a professional guide to support her passion while Lydia was brought up by a solo mum and has made it to multiple heights on her own – including, literally, her Everest feat which remains controversial on a number of levels.

Isobel MacKinnon captures beautifully Young Freda’s determination to break through the constraints of Edwardian conventions, the excitement climbing gives her, her relationships with her father Ecceleston du Faur and her hired guide Peter Graham, and her ‘special’ relationship with gymnasium trainer Muriel Cadogan.

Emily Regtien is loud, stroppy and physically impressive as Lydia Bradey, and much more complex as the initially confident then progressively troubled Muriel Cadogan. The range of psychological states and emotions she has to navigate over both roles is as exacting as the terrain she gets to traverse as Lydia, and Regtien rises to the challenges with compelling skill.

As ‘Old Freda’ (I suppose 52 seemed ‘old’ in 1935) Jan Bolwell brings a more grounded perspective to Freda’s story and Lydia’s enquiry, raising intriguing questions – which the play does answer – as to why her personality has changed so much. And Bolwell’s Mrs Fitzpatrick joins Elizabeth Harris’s Mrs Harris at The Hermitage (Mt Cook) to give horrified voice to Freda’s lack of ladylike modesty and decorum. Harris also delivers a cameo as an early 20th century Tourist Guide.

All the male roles are deftly sketched in by Simon Paenga. Freda’s father, art enthusiast and patron Ecceleston du Faur, is putty in her hands. Professional Kiwi mountain guide Peter Graham supports and challenges Freda and gives her the respect she deserves. Aussie gymnasium owner Charles DuPain happily espouses the prevailing notion that women are fragile emotionally and too much strenuous exercise will endanger their primary child-bearing role. Dr Morton diagnoses Muriel and Freda’s lesbianism as ‘inverted hedonistic persuasion’ and treats them accordingly (you’ll have to see the play to discover the outcome). And Dougal Stevenson delivers the news of Lydia’s Everest escapade.

The catalytic effect of bringing Freda and Lydia together is a dramatic dynamism that injects great energy into the production while the chemistry between Freda and Muriel is ever-changing. There are surprises in the way things turn out and it’s a great credit to all involved that the way the play resolves is as compelling, in a different way, as all that’s gone before.

Composer and sound designer David Downes, lighting designer and operator Zoë Higgins add excellent value to a production that deserves to be seen well beyond this initial 5-day season (6 performances).
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*Jan Bolwell’s previous plays include Standing on my Hands, Here’s Hilda!, Double Portrait: Finding Frances Hodgkins, Dancing in the Wake and Bill Massey’s Tourists.
Full disclosure: I was in Dancing in the Wake


John Smythe December 7th, 2017

Here is the link to my RNZ chat with Jesse Mulligan, which discusses the wealth of women-led homegrown theatre currently in Wellington, following Body Double last month: Taking the High Ground (reviewed above); Desperate Huttwives; Peter Pan the Pantomime and – about to open – Question Time Blues and Cynthia and Gertie Go Baroque

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