Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

29/04/2023 - 27/05/2023

Production Details

By James Cain
Directed by Harriet Prebble

Presented by Red Scare Theatre Company

A Coven of Literary Witches Meet Again at Circa Theatre  

In April, the Weird Sisters “meet again” at Circa Theatre with a spinoff from a local Wellingtonian writer, James Cain. The Coven on Grey Street follows the lives of Sybil, Daphne and Fay, the three witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who have settled in Hamilton, New Zealand and are finally reuniting after a long estrangement. Directed by Harriet Prebble (Dungeoning & Dragoning), Red Scare Theatre Company’s latest production features an iconic cast of Irene Wood, Hilary Norris, Helen Moulder and Peter Hambleton.

A Shakespearean send-up and an exploration of the thorny but inseparable bonds of sisterhood, The Coven on Grey Street may appear like pure pastiche from the outset but it’s got a real heart to it, says writer James Cain. “I love the idea of mythological figures having just as much difficulty with family gatherings as we do. By humanising them it holds up a mirror to our own lives. Families are tricky and the idea of the three witches bickering in the Tron was just a perfect way of realising that”.

No strangers to the stage, part of the appeal of Coven is seeing this cast of acting heavyweights go toe to toe. Irene Wood, recently awarded ‘Best Actress’ at the 2022 NZ Television Awards, plays Sybil, the head witch who is dragged by Fay (Hilary Norris, The Light Between Oceans) to see Daphne (Helen Moulder, Meeting Karpovsky) get married to Shakespearean scholar Ted (Peter Hambleton, The Hobbit trilogy, One Lane Bridge).

“It’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the cast,” says director Prebble. A familiar face on Circa Theatre’s stage herself (Three Days in the Country, The Father, Gifted) The Coven on Grey Street marks Prebble’s second time directing at the renowned theatre after 2020’s sellout smash-hit Dungeoning and Dragoning. “Part of the appeal of directing is being able to watch a talented performer take a small suggestion and elevate it into something magical.”

Peter Hambleton, known internationally for playing Glóin in The Hobbit, is relishing the opportunity to play a fanboy of the immortal witches. “The idea of a lecturer who studies Macbeth who actually gets the opportunity to meet the legends themselves… it’s delicious!” says Hambleton, renowned for his numerous Shakespearean appearances onstage. “The story has all kinds of twists and turns that I can’t wait for audiences to experience.”

While its origins are grounded in Shakespeare, you don’t have to be a fan of the bard to appreciate the story. “Ultimately it was a jumping-off point,” says Cain. “It’s littered with many fun references, but if you have family members you care about, you’ll see yourself in the story.” Prebble agrees, saying “we’re not making something niche or esoteric. If you’ve been to a tense family gathering, you’ll know what we’re talking about.”

The Coven on Grey Street
Circa Theatre – Circa Two
29 April – 27 May 2023
Tues – Sat 7.30pm
& Sun 4.30pm
$30 – $55
Tickets at Circa Theatre.

Audience Care: ‘The Coven on Grey Street’ features mild swearing, fake blood, descriptions of suicidal thoughts, misogynistic language and supernatural violence. 

Sybil: Irene Wood
Daphne: Helen Moulder
Fay: Hilary Norris
Ted: Peter Hambleton
Sybil Understudy: Simone Kennedy
Daphne Understudy: Victoria Nelson
Fay Understudy: Anne Chamberlain
Ted Understudy: Martin Tidy
Set Design: Lucas Neal
Lighting Design: Isadora Lao
Costume Design: Aimée Sullivan
Sound Design: Patrick Barnes
Stage Manager: Deb McGuire
Producer: Cassandra Tse
Operator: Xanthe Curtain
Graphic Design: Aimée Sullivan
Publicity: James Cain
Marketing Photography: Aimée Sullivan
Production Photography: Roc Torio
Audio Description: Sameena Zehra
Pack In Crew: Jacob Banks, Anne-Lisa Noordover, Hamish Craven, Wren Glover and Rivers Fleming

Theatre ,

1hr 30 mins (including interval)

Seasoned cast of veteran actors superb

Review by Sarah Catherall 05th May 2023

A powerful, older woman is a wonderful thing to watch, and we are not typically used to seeing them represented in film and theatre. In The Coven on Grey Street, there’s not a single young face on the stage; instead, three of Wellington’s most iconic veteran actors – Irene Wood, Helen Moulder, and Hilary Norris – are all aged 75 and older and they grace the stage as witches, whose power is that they cannot be killed.

Playwright James Cain is a Shakespeare fan, and his modern characters are Sybil, Daphne and Fay, the three witches from Macbeth, who have settled in Hamilton, and are finally reuniting after an estrangement. They’ve gathered for the wedding of one sister, Daphne (Moulder), who is 6000 years older than her groom, Shakespearean scholar Ted (Peter Hambleton, The Hobbit trilogy, One Lane Bridge). [More]


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A rich theatrical treat on many levels

Review by John Smythe 30th Apr 2023

Three women with more than a century and half of professional acting experience between them are – yes – spellbinding in Circa Two’s latest offering. Add the return of a Circa stalwart plus the relatively fresh talents of playwright, director and designers to this simmering cauldron of creativity, and the portents are propitious for an extremely successful season. Book now.

Aware that we’re approaching a spinoff of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that re-imagines the witches in a contemporary Kiwi context, I can’t help but cogitate. In any production of Macbeth, it’s always interesting to see how the three witches – aka the Wayward and/or Weird Sisters – are portrayed. Are they cackling malevolent hags intent on manipulating the man who would be king to self-destruct? Are they objective fortune tellers predicting the inevitable outcome of Macbeth’s fatal flaws? Either way, do their encounters with Macbeth materially influence the outcome? Who is to blame for crowning the head that then gets severed with a broadsword?

By interval at The Coven on Grey Street I’ve decided those ruminations were irrelevant. A few minutes into the second act, however, I discover they are totally apt. A twisting string of surprises (which cannot be revealed here) brings the play to an astonishing yet deserved denouement. In its wake we have to ask, how come more than four centuries of witnessing revenge tragedies has not taught us all that vengeance always dooms the avenger? Why do people in every generation have to learn it the hard way?  

The design elements in this Red Scare Productions premiere of James Cain’s play, directed by Harriet Prebble, are excellent. Lucas Neal’s set features a large Pōhutukawa tree in full bloom overhanging a back garden bordered by a slatted wooden fence and the back door of a semi-rural house somewhere in the Waikato. Isadora Lao’s lighting and Patrick Barnes’ sound design, operated by Xanthe Curtain, animate and punctuate the environment dramatically to manifest the supernatural. And Aimée Sullivan’s costume designs distinguish each character eloquently.

A demure but anxious Daphne (Helen Moulder) sits alone at a lunch table set for three until her ebullient fiancé, Ted (Peter Hambleton), reassures her he will shelter her from any familial antagonism. There is something Daphne wants to be sure he won’t mention. It’s clear they love each other very much and are united in their desire for their wedding to proceed without a hitch (if that’s not an oxymoron).

The offstage but nearly onstage arrival of a noisy car heralds the imminent entrance of the other two sisters and suggests centuries of flying a broomstick is not transferable to driving a car. An unrepentant Fay (Hilary Norris) presents as the bossy sister who couldn’t care less. Or is it a defence against a fear that she’s lost her powers, not to mention the lack of intimacy in her life? Her familiar, after all, is an ancient toad named Paddock.

When Sybil (Irene Wood) deigns to join them at last she seems to be either away with the proverbial fairies or afloat in a different dimension. She claims she’d rather be at home with her ailing cat, Smithers (who presumably has replaced her familiar Grimalkin). She is also grieving for her late mortal partner, Sandy.

Sybil at least retains the power to summon the wind (a power they all had when they crossed paths with Macbeth, in 1040). But is it possible that all these centuries later she could also be losing her powers, or is it her capacity for concentration that’s letting her down? Perhaps it’s their estrangement from each other that has diminished them – i.e. they’ve brought it on themselves.

In conjuring his spin-off sequel, Cain has maintained the distinctions Shakespeare formulated in 1606: First Witch (Sybil) speaks mainly of things that are in the past and asks questions; Second Witch (Fay) speaks of present things; Third Witch (Daphne) looks to the future.

It’s clear the sisters have been estranged from each other for a long time, and for Sybil and Fay this ‘reunion’ at the behest of their junior is happening under sufferance. Did Sybil’s relationship with Sandy break the bond – and if so, what will Daphne’s marriage to Ted do?

Despite his desire to please his beloved by ensuring this pre-wedding luncheon goes well, Sybil and Fay are suspicious of Ted, which only makes him try harder to win them over. They are shocked to discover he knows who they really are – “There can be no secrets in marriage,” Daphne insists – but somewhat intrigued to learn he is an English Literature Lecturer specialising in Shakespeare. “Why?” asks Sybil. A spirited discussion ensues about the real Macbeth versus Shakespeare’s version.   

While knowing a bit about the Bard’s work will enhance your enjoyment, the readily relatable fractious family dynamics and insights into individual vulnerabilities ensure the first Act is very entertaining. It ends with a snippet of one of Ted’s dramatic lectures about Macbeth – or is it?

We return for Act Two to discover big changes have occurred. Characters we thought we knew reveal very different dimensions. Betrayal is rife, treachery is afoot and jeopardy is driving the action now. Well-seeded elements are sprouting and classical themes are being refreshed in a life-and-death power play as natural forces are summoned through ancient rites.

That’s as much as I dare reveal except to offer the reassurance that resolution and equilibrium are not so much restored as achieved, at last (unlike in Shakespeare’s tragedy). The abiding wisdom is that there is more power in togetherness than can be found in trying to go it alone.

As I indicated at the outset, The Coven on Grey Street is a rich theatrical treat on many levels.


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