St Peter’s on Willis, 211 Willis St, Wellington

02/03/2016 - 05/03/2016

Fortune Theatre Studio, Dunedin

06/03/2016 - 08/03/2016

NZ Fringe Festival 2016 [reviewing supported by WCC]

Dunedin Fringe 2016

Production Details

The Iris Project is a multimedia performance paying tribute to the life and works of New Zealand poet Robin Hyde. The project showcases her writings and poems set to music by Pete Stewart, narrated by Kiri Bell and sung by Vebka.

The primary aim of the project is to create an experimental and innovative audiovisual experience to celebrate Robin Hyde as a major figure in New Zealand twentieth-century culture. Elements include her poetry expressed through song and narrative supported by archived film/photography and dance elements reflecting Robin Hyde’s continuing relevance to contemporary New Zealand life. 

St Peter’s on Willis, 211 Willis St, Te Aro, Wellington 
2-5 Mar,
8:30pm, (90 min) 
TICKETS: $20/$15/$15 

Fortune Theatre Studio, 231 Stuart Street, Dunedin
Sunday 6 March 2016 – Tuesday 8 March 2016

Theatre , Spoken word , Performance Poetry , Musical ,

Fascinating, dreamy, shocking, sad, courageous

Review by Terry MacTavish 07th Mar 2016

I am often surprised that there is not more New Zealand theatre inspired by courageous lris Wilkinson, brilliant journalist and poet, who took the pen name Robin Hyde, took the lovers she chose, and finally took her own life. Our very own Virginia Woolf; our Sylvia Plath. 

I don’t mean to sound flippant. Iris Wilkinson compels admiration, both as a writer and as an audacious woman in a challenging period of social change. Her adventures, whether as a child trying to make sense of the adult world, or as an intrepid journalist in war-torn China, are astounding. Her poetry at its best is richly lyrical. I am not surprised she has obsessed musician Pete Stewart until he brought her back to life in this wistful and haunting work, the perfect wind-down after a frenetic day of Fringe-viewing. 

In many ways Iris epitomises the racy years between the wars, the 1920s and 30s, when the arts were gloriously experimental and women were fighting for a new place in the world.  Her short life was packed with powerful emotional experience.  Outstanding as a writer even at school in Wellington, she scored a job on the Dominion newspaper aged only seventeen.  In those days a bastion of male supremacy, the Dominion expected her to focus on frothy nonsense for the women’s pages, and turned a blind eye to her inevitable seduction by a senior editor.  

When she was eighteen, botched treatment after an injury to her knee left her in constant pain and dependant on opiates. Her first great love consequently deserted her to sail by himself ‘Home’ to England, where (like Katherine Mansfield) Iris had yearned to travel.  Instead she suffered an illegitimate pregnancy resulting in a stillborn son, whom she named Robin Hyde. She adopted the name herself, ‘to give it significance’, and threw herself into her work.  

A prolific and sometimes slapdash writer, she was nevertheless hailed as one of our emerging poets along with ARD Fairburn, RAK Mason and Eileen Duggan. Her journalistic work was often subversive, as she became increasingly socialist and feminist, and embraced the Māori cause. She published books as well, and The Godwits Fly, her extraordinarily honest autobiographical novel, broke new ground in New Zealand literature.

Hyde’s career, her life and tragic death at thirty-three, offer a positive embarrassment of dramatic material, but Pete Stewart has made a judicious selection of some of her most evocative poems and further enhanced them by setting them to music. These are given a soft, dream-like delivery by singer Vebka, sometimes spiked with little quirky moments of humour – “the bored faces of the fish waiting to be fried” – but more often with grief and longing: “Drive me away, you are my people yet.” A magical artist, Vebka possesses an unusual, mesmerising voice that makes me think of wind sighing through macrocarpa trees.

Interspersed also are fascinating excerpts Stewart has chosen from Hyde’s letters, novels, and newspaper articles.  They are read with great sensitivity by Kiri Bell, who forces nothing on us but, with intelligent simplicity, allows Iris to reveal herself.  

Some passages are shocking, like her account of war atrocities in China; some funny, like her tongue-in-cheek description of the art of eyebrow plucking for the Ladies’ Page; and some quite heart-breaking, like her letter for his eighth birthday to the second-born son she loves but has virtually abandoned.

My guest, who like singer Vebka hails from Germany, knows little or nothing of Hyde, yet is utterly caught up in her story. “So super-sad,” she tells me happily.  I shall take her to see Hyde’s Memorial Plaque in the Octagon. Entranced by the dreamy music, we are both inspired to read more of her work. 

Perhaps The Iris Project will introduce Iris Wilkinson to a new generation. Surely if modern women knew her, they would revere her. The Slutty Ladies, for instance, whose garden party I attended on Sunday, would have heartily approved of her courageous lifestyle: her taking of lovers where she would, her refusal to let her gender define or limit her, and her determination to live the life she chose.  

I leave the theatre in a pleasantly melancholy state of mind, Hyde’s last words lingering, from her own poem Ebb Tide, but surely also her epitaph:
“Why shall we say, ‘She is dead?’
She merely slipped from the power of trivial things, 
To the power of deepening waters, of lucent wings.”


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Why this? Why here?

Review by Maraea Rakuraku 03rd Mar 2016

The Iris Project is a multimedia project featuring video, music and spoken passages presenting the life and works of writer Iris Wilkinson/ Robin Hyde (1906-1939). It’s a coolish night when I enter the church – St Peters on Willis, Wellington – to find around 10 or so people seated.

Musicians Vibka, Peter Stewart and church organist Dianne Halliday are accompanied by narrator Kiri Bell, to tell the story of Hyde.

For most of The Iris Project, I find myself asking if making a life of art is enough to make art of a life? Perhaps that’s harsh because everyone’s life has worth and is worthy. I guess for me, is it interesting enough to warrant this much attention? I don’t wish to be disrespectful because I am not familiar with Robin Hyde’s work. It’s just that after seeing this, my interest isn’t piqued.

I want to like it and yes, there are moments. But they are just too few for me to care about. I find myself wondering if a different venue or time would make it more interesting, and I think they would. [It will play at Fortune Studio in Dunedin – ed]  

What is the connection of all these parts: venue, video, words, music? How do they serve the work or my emotional connection to it? How will it make me care? St Peters on Willis, though fantastic, makes me wonder how it relates to the work. While the organ is played, it never really busts out or roars through the night, as I expect. In which case, if it’s not the organ, why present this piece is here? Why not in one of Wellington’s many cafes, or theatre spaces?

This work calls for an intimacy a near empty church on a cool, dark Wellington night just doesn’t seem to serve. Yet it feels very claustrophobic and towards the end a little depressive.

My companion suggests the work needs more light and shade. And I agree there is a sameness to its tone and rhythm. That isn’t to take anything away from the care and obvious passion that sits here for these performers. Only you don’t feel it from them. No chemistry. No passion. The energy is very inwards and it’s hard for us as the audience to even engage.

Yes, there is some musical variation in some parts and the video playing to organ accompaniment provides some relief through the showing of photographs relevant to Hyde’s life. Only instead of drawing me closer it sends me away further and it all just leaves me wondering why? Why this poet? Why this story? What is it about this writer’s life that requires this kind of examination?

As I am leaving I ask the videographer, why this poet, why her life? And he says because she’s amazing. When I ask something else, I am interrupted by the pianist with what to me seems like the first burst of enthusiasm I have felt all night. So, it is there. 

It was opening night. It may have been nerves. I suggest you go to it yourselves. Perhaps your experience will be better. I hope so. 


T M March 5th, 2016

I wholeheartedly agree with the previous comment. Like the reviewer, I knew very little about Robin Hyde before I saw The Iris Project, but the performance made me want to read her novels and more of her poetry. The songs are strong, the singing is lovely, and the letters are funny and sad. Interesting to learn a little about her time in China too. If you like Robin Hyde, I'm pretty sure you will enjoy this performance. But if you don't know much about her life and work, read her wikipedia page for a little bit of background then go to The Iris Project. It's a wonderful introduction to a remarkable New Zealand writer.

Maggie Rainey-Smith March 4th, 2016

As an ardent fan of Robin Hyde, I loved 'The Iris Project'. I didn't read this review until after I had seen the show last night. I do urge the reviewer to not overlook Robin Hyde as a fascinating woman of NZ History - a journalist, novelist, poet with a social conscience and way ahead of her time in the way that Katherine Mansfield was (except Robin Hyde did not have a stipend from her father to live on, she was a working journalist).  We loved the show.  Sadly, we were four of but a handful of people in St Peter's Church, but we were mesmerised by the music and the words. I felt the church was the perfect venue, the back doors open to the night, the acoustics almost perfect and oddly and eerily, the emptiness of the church added to the atmosphere. I felt a sense of privelege watching something very special.  But, as I began my comment, I am an ardent fan of Robin Hyde. I suspect that reading more about her and knowing more about her would have lent more layers to the viewing of this lovely tribute to Iris Wilkinson.  It's not to say this review isn't valuable, but it did seem a shame last evening that this show had practically no audience and I just want to say, if anyone is a fan of Robin Hyde, then go and see for yourself, tonight (Friday 4 March) or Saturday night.

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