The Butler

Regent Theatre, The Octagon, Dunedin

15/10/2010 - 16/10/2010

Clarence Street Theatre, Hamilton

24/06/2010 - 25/06/2010

Baycourt - Addison Theatre, Tauranga

22/10/2009 - 23/10/2009

Christ's College Auditorium, Christchurch

09/06/2006 - 11/06/2006

Production Details

Written by Joe Bennett
Directed by Mike Friend

Presented by CPIT's CircoArts

‘The Butler’ is the title of CPIT’s CircoArts first major production of the year, which opens at the Christ’s College Auditorium on Friday 9th June. The production uses drama, dance, music and circus elements to create a visually stunning and socially challenging feast presided over by the austere and remote Butler.

Visually there’s much to entertain as students’ perform on the German wheel, trapeze, hand-balance on chairs, straps, tissue, acrobatics, slapstick, Diablo, hat manipulation, bicycles and unicycle, tight-wire and aerial hoop. More than just a spectacle of circus tricks, ‘The Butler’ is a multi-media exploration of social behaviour and conventions placed on individuals within Western cultures, says Director Mike Friend.

“The young and gifted cast produce a show that is funny, sexy, breath-taking, provocative and multi-layered,” says Mike Friend. ‘The Butler’ is an insightful social commentary about our traditional concepts of society and manners.

Though Friend directed The Butler’, the 11 second-year CircoArts students, who form the ensemble cast, have been intimately involved in all aspects of the production. As well as collaborating on the plot and storylines, they have undertaken many other roles such as costuming, production and stage design, PR and promotion. The show has been run as if the second-year students were members of a small production company, giving them experience of what it is like to mount a show in the ‘real world’. Student Nele Siezen says the experience of working on all aspects of the show has been a big adventure.

“The whole experience of devising the production has been a fun and eventful journey”, says Nele. “During rehearsals if someone sneezed on stage and it worked, we found a way to keep it in. Everyone worked together on developing the show, on stage and off and that’s been really challenging.”

While ‘The Butler’ could be called an “art house” piece, Friend says it draws on the traditions of cabaret theatre, and will appeal to a mature audience interested in theatre that challenges.

The show’s unsettling themes and images encourage thinking about our most traditional concepts of society and manners. It will be spectacular viewing for the mind and the eye.


It’s funny, it’s sexy, it’s visually stunning and it’s fiercely satirical. Inspired by Peter Greenaway’s film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, critics have called it Cirque du Soleil for grown-ups and Pinter on stilts.

The central character of the butler presides over a bizarre dinner party.  He stands apart from the action having seen and heard it all before. In counterpoint to the butler’s gloom, the dinner party guests are all exuberance. Brittle as biscuits, they wind every social convention up to the pitch of parody and beyond.  Their dialogue consists of snippets, expressive of the shallowness of behavior, of the skull beneath the flesh.  Every trivial event – the taking of hats and coats, the saying of grace, the polite chit-chat, the serving of hours-d’oeuvres, expands by natural progression into grotesque and outrageous circus antics.
The resulting action is chaotic and delightful, but underlain with an emptiness that the characters must defy.  Here is the froth and bubble above the dark and the stark.  It’s like nothing seen before but it is instantly recognisable.
The must-see show of 2010. Last chance to see it before its debut London season>
“A raunchy and raucous show where circus and comedy collide…for once a standing ovation was not just appropriate it was necessary” Nelson Evening Mail
Contains nudity and explicit language, some content may offend
Performed by the Loons Circus Theatre Company
Written by Joe Bennett
Directed by Mike Friend

Thursday 24th June 8pm, Friday 25th June 8pm


Clarence St Theatre


Adult $32, Student $22


120 minutes (including interval)

Otago Festival of the Arts
The Regent
15 & 16 October 2010

Performed by the Loons Circus Theatre Company

Theatre , Circus , Youth ,

Dinner party evoked through dream-like logic, comedy, disturbances, visually rich mobile tableaux …

Review by Jonathan W. Marshall 18th Oct 2010

Circus-informed theatre, often called New Circus, is well established in Europe (especially France), North America (mostly Canada) and Australia—land of the highly influential Circus Oz, as well as many other less well known but equally prestigious companies such as Circa Rock’n’Roll Circus, Vulcana and Club Swing (see here).

New Zealand has less history with the form, developments being kick-started in the 2000s with the foundation of the CircoArts programme at Christchurch Polytechnic.

The Butler began as a graduating show in 2006, directed by British expatriate Mike Friend. Since founding Loons Circus Theatre with some of the graduates in 2007, Friend and company have put in over 3 years of additional development on The Butler, as well as national and international touring. The result is an extremely fun – as well as quite erudite and abstract – piece which, while deeply rooted in New Circus and the work of the institutions cited above, has its own highly distinctive and engaging flavour. 

The text is crafted by Southland Times columnist Joe Bennett, and while I cannot confess any liking of his inimitable prose, there is no doubting Bennett’s wide reading and referential knowledge, which comes strongly into play with his script. Together with an equally impressive musical score (uncredited, but presumably a collaboration between Friend, Bennett, principal musician Pascal Ackermann and sound designer Justin Hayward), this has produced a densely familiar pastiche framework within which the performers play. 

Bennett quotes everyone from Shakespeare (closing with Hamlet’s famous last words “The rest is silence”) through to T.S. Elliot, John Larkin and others. Whilst I cannot identify each fragment within Bennett’s fertile montage, the overall tone is that of Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw. The Wildean-Shavian weariness in the face of social mores, and the brittle tendentiousness of interpersonal relations and of our miming of probity (or indeed, an equally shallow miming of sensual indulgence), strongly inform the text. 

This is supported by an equally well chosen set of musical allusions, beginning with Michael Nyman’s unrelenting Baroque pulses from his score to Peter Greenaway’s film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (a reference which introduces the work’s broad themes), through to Edith Piaf (Sophie Ewert does an engaging, totally over-the-top and over-extended version of ‘Ne me quit pas’) and even recurrent jokes about humans-as-monkeys and the old line about monkeys at a typewriter, causing the piece to conclude with the rousing lines of ‘Hey, Hey, We’re the Monkeys!’ coming out over the PA. 

The piece itself uses the conceit of a dinner party hosted by a cynically deadpan, endlessly put upon Butler, played by Tom Trevella. His restrained presentness as he stands upon the stage, and his smoothly delivered, sharp enunciation, serve as the rock upon which The Butler as a performance rests.

The initial small talk (wonderfully spoofed by intense repetition or the replacement of words with various orally-produced sound-effects and noises, right down to the crisply amplified ‘glug-glug’ of pouring wine) gives way to a bacchanal (a protracted, acrobatic orgy culminates in Ewert emerging topless from under the table bearing fruits in the manner of a classical statue) and finally games (musical chairs, punctuated by the losers standing at the rear of the stage and collectively giving voice to an overwhelming, body wracking cry). 

The performance is as much one of music and sound theatre, as it is physical or character based. Between Daniel Lee Smith arching and bending elegantly but foolishly as the Fop, or David Ladderman’s beautifully syncopated slouches as the Gatecrashing Punk (who, provided a bowtie by the Butler, becomes as snooty as his colleagues), the squeaks, grunts, whistles and sudden bursts of pre-recorded music give the performance much of its rhythm and punch. Nor is all the music pre-recorded, since—in addition to Ewert’s singing—we are treated to Ackermann on piano during the overture, and then again on bowed saw as the performance winds down.

The physical skills are themselves impressive. Tumbles, acrobatics and mime make up much of the circus material, although Skye Brodberg does a fine hula hoop routine, and there are two chair balancing sequences, as well as a chase-fight section. 

Overall though, as with the best New Circus, the acts themselves are often introduced largely to animate and punctuate the larger performance. The broadly episodic structure of the piece lends itself well to this, and Bennett’s text, delivered as a series of world-weary monologues by our ultimately rather ghostlike host, frame these sections well. 

The main purpose here is to create a complex, and at times highly challenging stage picture. The avant-garde New York choreographer Elizabeth Streb once bemoaned to me how little use is made of the space above the performers’ heads in most theatre and dance, and circus theatre provides an elegant solution to this conundrum. Major sequences here are literally multileveled, with considerable action flying above the ground based actors’ bodies. 

There are many precedents to which one might compare Friend and company’s work. Certainly Ladderman’s punk could easily have walked out of one of the highly influential, punk circus works of French company Archaos, whilst hula-hoop routines will never be the same after Kareena Oates (formerly of Club Swing, Circus Oz and Rock’n’Roll Circus before working with British dance-theatre company DV8) broke the world record for the number of hula-hoops rotated about the body at once (100! See it here).

That said, the overall dramatic focus of the piece on a dark, strange dinner-party meeting as a kind of metaphor for the shallow nature of life, in the end places the company closest to French-man Philippe Genty’s surrealistic, circus-inspired, abstract theatre. The associative, dream-like logic and introduction of both comedy and disturbances into a visually rich, mobile tableau underscores both the Loons’ and Genty’s work. 

Dramatically then, there are shades of Jean-Paul Sartre and the Theatre of the Absurd (No Exit), and especially some of the more raucous, excessive versions of the same (Barrie Kosky, Fernando Arrabal, etc). Circus performance as a bittersweet metaphor for life has indeed a long history in European culture, and one imagines that Jean Cocteau (author of his own circus ballet, Parade), Ferdinand Léger and their peers from Montmartre’s bohemian society, café-concért and Cabaret Chat Noir performances would have enjoyed the Loons’ offering.


With one international tour under their belt, and other new companies like the Dust Palace (Burlesque as You Like It) [and Awkward Productions (Adagio, Adagio Christmas and Deadly)-ed] emerging in the North Island, things seem promising for Friend and his colleagues in contemporary circus arts.

I would however remind those running the arts institutions of my new found home to not make the mistakes Australian funding organisations have over the years. Strange Fruit were one of Australian theatre’s most successful exports, but with a sudden vicious cut to their funding—because they were allegedly performing too often overseas, and not often enough in Australia itself—nearly led to the demise of this fabulous group. Contemporary New Circus depends on an international market, and so needs significant infrastructural backing at home to thrive. 

If New Zealand is to produce other works like The Butler which can knock boring and slight ‘sound and fury’ circus spectacles like Slava’s Snowshow or the garish Las Vegas schlock of Cirque de Soleil out of the theatre with their own sophistication and vastly superior ability to cater to both informed and first time audiences, companies like the Loons will need ongoing assistance. Here is hoping the denizens of state funding make the right choices, or Friend is likely to relocate to the Northern Hemisphere, and take his talented colleagues with him. 
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.


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Review by Matt Richens 29th Jun 2010


The Butler is a show about nothing, a story that goes nowhere, with a cast who say very little.

It’s not a bad thing. It’s brilliant. Written by Waikato Times columnist Joe Bennett and performed by Loons Circus Theatre Company, The Butler is the story of a zany dinner party that’s as wacky and odd as it is funny and spectacular.

It’s a cross between Cirque du Soleil and the Rocky Horror Picture Show, mixed with poetry, raunch and a large helping of satire. The audience walk out knowing they loved it, but having no idea what just happened.

The Butler pokes fun at pretension, the politically correct and all "normal" dinner party conversation and convention.

The storyline, for want of a better word, is almost an excuse: a vehicle to deliver the circus-style performances which are as extraordinary as they are athletically phenomenal. A mixture of acrobatics, gymnastic dance, tumbling and writhing bodies; at times there are almost too many things to look at.

The ridiculously talented crew dazzle in an intense opening sequence which leads into the dinner party. A butler is the calm among a storm of excitable, extroverted characters and remains uninterested at the most interesting of dinner parties. Tonight’s showing is the last in New Zealand before the group begin a four-week season in London.

In a word: magnificent!


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Do I dare to eat a peach (and more besides)?

Review by Vanessa Byrnes 28th Oct 2009

"Let us go then, you and I,
  When the evening is spread out against the sky
  Like a patient etherised upon a table…"

So begins TS Eliot’s 1917 immortal poem The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, which this stunning production references and – along with other literary works – is informed by. The highly physical show provokes its audience to ask, "Who are we? What are the rules? And what happens when the rules are given no boundaries?" Questions that Eliot, Shakespeare (also quoted), film maker Peter Greenaway and others have asked throughout time.

I loved this company’s brazen confidence to do something daring, largely non-verbal, and strong. It’s great to see this work emerging from Christchurch and touring overseas as they are about to do. The Tauranga Festival organisers have done well to choose such a bold work to open the theatre season in this year’s offerings.

Our Everyman guide in this eccentric yet strangely familiar scenario of a dinner party is a Butler, perfectly attired and astutely played, who pays attention to every detail in the canvas that comes to life before our eyes. He lights the candles, slowly but surely sets the scene, and off we go.

We’re taken on a bizarre, sexy, wild journey that exposes the gaps between social conventions and echoes the work of entrancing French company Philippe Genty.

The huge dinner table itself is the central stage that becomes a playground for sex, love, hate, near-death, appetite and every other vice or virtue in-between. It helps that these performers have such experience in circus skills. We have hula-hoops, acrobatics, opera, martial arts, and other stunt/ fight work. It’s a visual feast and everyone gets their chance to be challenged and shine. There’s a real sense of company at work here. 

"Do I dare to eat a peach?" Prufrock asked, and our all-knowing Butler also asks at one point. To dare is to live, the show seems to say. His guests eat much more besides a peach, including each other.

This is one wild exploration of the gap between instinct and rules. There’s a witty snapshot of the Evolution of Man not to be missed. I must say I wanted more snapshots throughout the production and I suspect the company will keep finding these as the work evolves.

There is an eclectic use of music from Michael Nyman’s signature overture from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover , to the Sex Pistols, to the Doors. (What a superbly sexy entrance to People are Strange – so well choreographed an executed).  Music is treated as a literal text as the lyrics are paramount, which is fine, but it does provide a mish-mash of styles that clashes somewhat with the highly stylised visual design of the piece. But I suppose that’s what a good dinner party will offer: variety, eclecticism and the anachronistic.

The show is a spectacle, well worth seeing. Language is few and far between, but the text that is there has earned the credit to be spoken by virtue of the physical work done. Mike Friend is to be credited for his adventurous direction and Joe Bennett’s wonderfully rich, politically ‘incorrect’ text/concept is sparse, but sophisticated. Less is indeed more. But the final accolade must go to the company for their excellent ensemble work.

I’m not sure about having the Director warm the audience up before the show; I’d prefer to let the work speak for itself. And I certainly hungered for more backstory amongst the characters – the show nudges at this possibility (as happens when the Stranger arrives) but would be stronger still for more through-line in the narrative which back stories would provide. 

See this show if you can. It’s a rare treat and was a thrilling evening for the 550 audience punters at Baycourt Theatre last Thursday night.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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Mythic physicality and sensuality

Review by Melissa Miles 21st Jun 2006

The Butler was a welcome change from word theatre: physical theatre communicating something of profundity (if dark) and providing a vehicle for the various and impressive talents of the Circo Arts students.

The cohesion and was excellently managed by direction of Mike Friend and the sparse but layered philosophy prose, abounding with literary references, was provided by Joe Bennet. The structure of the play is more like a piece of music or choreographed dance, to which physical theatre is so well suited.

Like a Louis Malle film it had a wonderful sense of dream about it. Like any mythic adventure it is set around a central character, the butler, the ‘everyman’, the naked man to be clothed in rules of behaviour by a motley cast of emotional ‘types’ provided by the rest of the cast in a lovely ensemble work. The actors provided much of their own music. Yet the open weave of the performance’s construction enabled each of the impressive performers to have more than one moment in the spotlight.

Like Commedia Dell’arte, the show has created a vehicle for social comment that segues into individuals tricks: hat tricks, juggling tricks, acrobatic tricks … Genuine tricks of skill. Revealing how quickly the veneer of civilization breaks down in the face of perceived ‘difference’, this dark intellectual onslaught is forever dissolving into a visual feast and sexual bouffon. It was lovely to see young Kiwi performers – the women especially – revelling in their sensuality.

The Butler was visually beautiful, with a lovely use of levels and depth added to by the use of a huge shadow puppet screen. The first part was brave in its adherence to regular pacing. And Mike Friend utilizes the emotion of music and movement to connect with the audience on a more ‘naked’, more ‘primal’ level then we have come to expect from a theatre of words and egos.

This was work I would not be surprised to see in San Francisco. It is modern (I use the term advisedly) circus and I thoroughly enjoyed it.


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