The Perfumed Garden

The Forge at The Court Theatre, Christchurch

16/07/2010 - 14/08/2010

Production Details

A World of Desire and Danger in The Forge

The author of 2008’s highly successful BAGHDAD, BABY! visits a world of desire and danger in THE PERFUMED GARDEN, exploring romance, humour and memory amid the history of a land that has endured innumerable invasions.

“Forty years ago I did what the Prime Minister did this year,” says playwright Dean Parker, “I went to Afghanistan. But whereas John Key went there in an air force transporter from Auckland and wore a flak jacket, I took a hippie Magic Bus from London and wore an Afghan jacket that I bought in Herat.”

Parker “fell in love” with the country and, in THE PERFUMED GARDEN, creates an epic story that moves from the time of the Garden of Eden through several occupations of Afghani soil, culminating in the modern occupation by peacekeeping forces including New Zealand troops. The play draws its title from The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight, an erotic Arabic text written in the fifteenth century.

Director Lara Macgregor believes that THE PERFUMED GARDEN has a unique theatricality that imbues history with humanity. “The cast portray multiple characters as the play moves through time,” adds Macgregor, “so each story contains echoes of the last – with Dean’s unique sense of humour peppered throughout.” 

The ensemble cast (Kathleen Burns, Mel Dodge, Matt Hudson, James Kupa and Jackson Karaitiana Smallman-Noble) regard the play as a powerful work. “The more I learn about the back-story and history of Afghanistan, the more important I feel this play is,” says Burns.

The set (designed by Julian Southgate) peels back the layers – literally and figuratively – on the ancient landscape of Afghanistan as it moves through the ages. Similarly, the costumes (by Emily Thomas) allow for quick changes as actors transform from Alexander the Great, to Victorian gentry, to 1970s political activists.

Powerful, political and provocative, the world premiere season of THE PERFUMED GARDEN transports audiences to a world of beauty and wonder; asking the question “why are we fighting there, rather than gazing about it in astonishment?”

Venue: The Forge at The Court Theatre, 20 Worcester Blvd, The Arts Centre, Christchurch
Performance Dates: Friday 16 July – Saturday 14 August 2010
Performance Times: 6:30pm Monday & Thursday; 8pm Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday (no show Sundays).
Tickets: Adults $32, Seniors $27, Tertiary Students $22, Group discount (10+) $22, 30Under-Club $15 (Mon-Wed)
Bookings: The Court Theatre, 20
Worcester Boulevard; 963 0870

Ensemble Cast:
Kathleen Burns
Mel Dodge
Matt Hudson
James Kupa
Jackson Karaitiana Smallman-Noble

Imagination and skill brings principled perspective to New Zealand’s place in world affairs

Review by Lindsay Clark 17th Jul 2010

It is a long stretch from butterflies to helicopters, from a symbol of innocent beauty to one of incoming warfare, from an Old Testament Garden of Eden to the bloodied corpse of a Kiwi soldier in contemporary Afghanistan.

The challenge is boldly met by the imaginative drive of Dean Parker’s satire, fleshed out by clear direction from Lara Macgregor, focused by a strong design team and played out by a committed ensemble. For this, its world premiere, the audience is swept purposefully along the epic trail of successive occupations. We have no answer however for Parker’s question (noted in the programme): “Why are we fighting there, rather than gazing about in astonishment?”

The play has a huge heart as well a pointed intelligence at work, so that each episode is also imbued with humour and warmth. Innocence in the Garden has, it is suggested, under outside pressure, become an obdurate culture as unyielding as the ancient rock it is built on. Whatever the intention of the ‘invader’, a relentless pattern of painful defeat is established, so that the prefigured end, even for a peace-keeping force, is grim.

In its structure the play is simple but hugely challenging as encounter after encounter evolves, fuelled by Parker’s passion to show the deep roots of mistrust if not contempt nourished by wave after wave of outsiders.

We begin in the dark, with a voice-over leading us to anticipate the moment of creation. The visual awakening of the play is startlingly beautiful as a jagged light tears across the darkness and a land mass emerges behind a dark gauze. We are in Eden, but not for long.

It is Alexander the Great next, with his declared intent to bring law, education, in a word ‘civilisation’, neatly contrasted with his treatment of a young woman who, like Antigone, wants only to be allowed to bury her fallen brother. She is to be entombed alive in a cave. 

Skip to nineteenth century Victorian ‘idealism’ and the rout of Kabul, then to a globe trotting Kiwi adventurer sharing conversation and a joint with a modern Afghani woman and before we know it, it’s time for house lights up, a seven minute break, biscuits all round and the stage reconfigured for a contemporary Socialist Action meeting.

From the floor and heated cast plants in the audience, political analysis wipes out any lingering illusions, so that as the final sequence delivered by a Kiwi patrol begins, there are none left.

Julian Southgate’s set contributes an extraordinary presence to the play, balanced between stark beauty and ravaged ancient waste. In its final moments, the sandy slope becomes a beach in the mind of a dying Maori soldier, attended by a young Afghani boy (Jackson Karaitiana Smallman-Noble) who has been chasing butterflies. Their common respect for the natural world confirms another thematic thread.

Lighting from Josh Major, sound from Andrew Todd and costume by Emily Thomas support the business on stage with significant flair.

A complex piece of theatre then, for all its single minded perspective and one demanding multiple roles from the four main actors. They are refreshingly enterprising with robust characters, appropriately overdrawn for the purpose of the play.

Filling the female roles Kathleen Burns and Mel Dodge find a whole range of vocal and physical colour, while Matt Hudson and James Kupa create some of the strongest moments of a very strong production, especially in the final scene. Hudson is the foul-mouthed hard-bitten officer, offset by Kupa’s gentle private whose dying waiata brings a tingle to the spine. 

To say true, the drugged conversation and the preachy meeting seemed needlessly long-winded, but how satisfying to have a new play relevant to New Zealand’s place in world affairs and to have that set in a principled perspective with such imagination and skill.
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