BATS Theatre, The Heyday Dome, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington

15/09/2016 - 24/09/2016

Production Details


The grass is dry, the well is empty and Suzi sits on the fence.  

This new New Zealand play takes you to a place you know, introduces you to people you’ve met before, and reminds you of songs you used to sing.

Written by Fran Olds, The Fence is a contemporary Kiwi story of family and future. Set on the outskirts of an imaginary rural town, The Fencetells the story of Suzi and her brother Tomo as they confront their past and face their future. Bridging the gap between reality and myth, the Brothers & Sisters Collective bring their trademark blend of fierce physicality and delicate story-telling to BATS Theatre this September. 

BATS Theatre Heyday Dome
15 – 24 September at 7pm

*Access to The Heyday Dome is via stairs, so please contact the BATS Box Office at least 24 hours in advance if you have accessibility requirements so that appropriate arrangements can be made. Read more about accessibility at BATS.

Neenah Dekkers-Reihana, Joe Dekkers-Reihana, Elle Wootton, Michael Trigg, Sabrina Martin, Maria Dabrowska

Producer – Kiri Olds
Sound Designer – Jason Wright
Lighting Designer – Glenn Ashworth
Design Consultant – Rose Kirkup
Cultural Advisor – Mike Ross
Set Construction – Gary French
Image credit: Jason Wright  

Theatre ,

Undoubted expertise under-challenged

Review by Chris Jannides 18th Sep 2016

The Brothers and Sisters Collective are a family-based group who have created the play, The Fence, written by one of them, Fran Olds, who is also credited with directing the production along with her brother, Luke Hanna.

The story features 6 characters, one of whom is a spirit-presence from a Maori myth about a woman who is abducted by the moon when collecting water from a well. This woman’s troubles are caused by her tripping in the dark when the moon goes behind some clouds causing her to abuse the celestial orb. The moon takes offence at this and attempts to carry her into the sky, she meanwhile clinging desperately to the tops of trees to stop it.

This myth is the background to the play’s message about how we trip over what we don’t know or can’t see, or hold onto things that we should leave behind. In the play’s narrative this amounts to the direful affect on a brother and sister of a deserting father and missing mother, left as they are to be raised by a resentful, uncaring Aunt. Set in a small, NZ rural town, the central through-line of the play is given to the sister character who dreams of breaking free from the ‘fences’ that keep her, and by implication, all of us, trapped. 

The Collective states that their primary interest is story-telling. Why? Because, as they say in their programme notes, stories are a “powerful medium”; they “help us make sense of the world we live in and can offer guidance for our journeys.” The programme goes on to reveal the group’s credo: “We are passionate about using story and movement to grow empowered and connected individuals and communities.” These sentiments are great.

So now it comes to the crunch: are they achieving their ambitions with this production? Does The Fence use story, movement and theatre to do what they claim? Does this performance empower us as an audience and make us feel connected to our wider communities or to our own stories and dreams?

There is no question that the central members of this company appear highly committed to their shared agenda as artists. There is a play, there are players, there is a production. There is lighting, composed music and sound, a set with actual grass and a built structure. The actors act: we see them mimicking teenagers doing teenage things, arguing, drinking, wagging school, making up (or not), talking about sex and cheating. The Aunt is suitably nasty.

The mythological spirit figure benignly watches them all from her perch on a step ladder or wanders around as an ethereal figure that none of them see, her face half smothered in clay, occasionally doing butoh-esque movement to emotively surging music. But this group needs to be challenged. For me, they have avoided the central question that is fundamental to all theatre: why should we care? 

The programme has a long list of people who have assisted these artists. On that list are names I recognise of practitioners who know how to make theatre. Why have they not been more forceful in their feedback and help in the development phases of this work? Nuance, subtlety, ambiguity are necessary to good acting and good stories. These performers have not been pushed to find these qualities in their roles. The acting is surface-driven and one-dimensional. 

Again, the fundamental question: what will make us care? What makes an audience feel the emotions that a performer wants us to feel? Adopting literal shapes and movements of anguish, sorrow and pain are not enough. Watching actors emote can often have a distancing affect. Stories in performance are designed to draw us in. We want our imaginations and feelings to be sparked by what’s happening on stage. This requires higher levels of crafting than this particular production is able to achieve. Not only in the acting and movement languages, but also in the writing and directing. 

While it has been known to happen, it is rare for a writer to direct their own work. An outside director coming in cold can unlock new aspects and angles on a script and from performers that the writer, focussing mainly on the storyline, might not consider. This can be difficult and unsettling for a playwright. However, I believe this kind of approach might have enlivened The Fence in necessarily surprising and less pedantic ways. To my mind, the creative team in this production are too close to their material. They’ve made everything very literal and flat. By prioritising story, they have perhaps forgotten to mine the deeper resources of performance. 

Luke Hanna, one of the directors, is a highly regarded dancer with extraordinary knowledge and ability in his craft. How lucky they are to also have Maria Dabrowska in the cast, who is also renowned as an imaginatively unique dance-maker and performer. So where is the complexity and grunt in their choreographic contribution, if ‘movement’ is one of the main components of this company’s work? These two are big guns in this group’s arsenal that have been seriously under-utilised.

There is a naive earnestness about this production and in the acting that may have inhibited these extraordinary practitioners from taking more risk and working their imaginations and craft more adventurously. Instead of making a powerful equal contribution to the performance, the dance and movement sequences are mostly transition devices that fill in the cracks between scenes. Luke and Maria, you are using your skills too safely. 

I applaud all emerging artists who put themselves on the line to create new original work. So come on Brothers and Sisters, fly us to the moon, you’re all aiming high. Push your craft buttons more assertively. Don’t make us think you’re making theatre for school children because that’s not what it says in the programme. It’s not as if you don’t have the expertise amongst you.

Dramaturgical surgery, complexity in the directing and better performance crafting all around are required to turn this play into what this tight company of motivated individuals might wish it to be. Create some bite. It’s too mopey. If the moon abducts someone, we want to feel the blood from the branches on their fingertips. And it should feel both painful and exciting.

Powerful drama, and in particular, the tensions underpinning tragedy, lie in the paradoxical interplay of opposites, not in overplaying one note. 


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