THIS RUGGED BEAUTY
BATS Theatre (Out-Of-Site) Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington
25/03/2014 - 05/04/2014
A subversive take on “The New Zealand Story”
Wellington performance company’s response to Government’s marketing campaign
In November 2013, Prime Minister John Key launched a new New Zealand marketing campaign: “The New Zealand Story,” in response to demand from local firms for a more relevant representation of the country.
“The New Zealand Story” video and resources emphasise a story of “open spaces, open hearts, and open minds” which aims to apply across multiple New Zealand export enterprises from information technology to food and beverage and the creative sector.
Wellington-based performance group, Binge Culture, are unsure if “The New Zealand Story” represents them. The performance collective are in their mid-twenties and grew up around the country – in Auckland, Hawkes Bay, Wellington, Nelson and Golden Bay respectively. Their performance, a subversive slice of kiwiana, This Rugged Beauty will be staged this month at iconic Wellington venue, BATS Theatre.
“Watching a showcase of my own country and culture is a strangely alienating experience” says Nelson-born and bred director of This Rugged Beauty, Ralph Upton. “The New Zealand Story claims that ‘Our story is your story’ but I find myself questioning whether images of majestic mountains and sandy beaches is my memory or one that Tip Top sold to me. When ‘kiwi identity’ becomes a marketed commodity, is it possible to authentically express who we are? Does any ‘New Zealand Story’ align with reality, or are they all just selling something?”
Playful, iconoclastic and satirical, This Rugged Beauty uses an innovative style that blends the narrative of a classic New Zealand story with a fictional product launch space where kiwi identity is the product on sale. The conflicting relationships between the presenters reveal the diversity of attitudes towards this narrative and mission.
This Rugged Beauty was first performed in New Zealand Fringe 2011, where it was nominated for “Most Original Production” at the Chapman Tripp Wellington Theatre Awards. The re-development was funded by Creative New Zealand and the 2014 season is funded by Wellington City Council.
This Rugged Beauty
BATS Theatre out-of-site, 80 Cuba Street,
25 March-5 April, 7pm.
This Rugged Beauty was devised by the company and is performed by Rachel Baker, Joel Baxendale, Simon Haren, and Claire O'Loughlin
Directed by Ralph Upton
Produced by Joel Baxendale
Production Manager Debbie Fish
Production Assistant Keely McCann
Set Design by Debbie Fish and the company
Sound design and music composition by Gareth Hobbs
Lighting Design by Rowan McShane
Marketing and Publicity Fiona McNamara
Additional performance by: Tony Black, Louise Burston, Stephanie Cairns, Leda Farrow, Michael Hebenton, Mariya Kupriyenko, Lori Leigh, Fiona McNamara, Marcus McShane, Rowan McShane, Kagan Morcom, Dan Nicholson, Mike Potton, Emma Robinson, Karah Sutton, Theo Taylor, Abby Tearle, Mouce Young
The quest for authenticity and integrity
Review by John Smythe 26th Mar 2014
When I reviewed Binge Culture’s first exploratory staging of This Rugged Beauty in February 2011 (it opened three days after the Christchurch earthquake), I concluded: “Part of me would like to see the play-to-date wrought with a writer’s sensibility now, to add greater depth, breadth and thematic resonance … and another part likes the challenge of engaging with the themes in a whole new way.”
I didn’t see its workshop season at Downstage last year, which they had reworked “with the encouragement and critical feedback from a range of audience members and mentors.”
The media release for this season is headed “A subversive take on ‘The New Zealand Story’ … Wellington performance company’s response to Government’s marketing campaign” and director Ralph Upton finds himself “questioning whether images of majestic mountains and sandy beaches is my memory or one that Tip Top sold to me. When ‘kiwi identity’ becomes a marketed commodity, is it possible to authentically express who we are? Does any ‘New Zealand Story’ align with reality, or are they all just selling something?”
The same may be asked of any New Zealand play and its attendant publicity material. My question about this production is whether they really are wanting to subvert our marketed self-image or actually point to, and celebrate, our indomitable spirit in the face of adversity. Or are they creating the circumstances that allow each of us to decide for ourselves?
The same relationship and family tragedy story – of Judy, Dave and little Timmy – is at the heart of the play. The ‘tacky tableaux’ of Kiwiana have been dispensed with, as such, with some elements integrated in other ways. The performance opens with a verbal litany of iconic Kiwi items or experiences, each tagged with: “this rugged beauty”. The poker-faced renditions of the four hosts-cum-performers – Rachel Baker, Joel Baxendale, Simon Haren, and Claire O’Loughlin – challenge our inner urges to embrace or cringe.
Centre stage is the wooden frame of a bach or home: both defining characteristics of the Kiwi dream; both revealed as such in the unfolding drama. Sheets of corrugated plastic are used inventively to enclose, reveal, screen shadow play and create sound effects. We are asked to close our eyes and imagine relevant personal experiences as the cast enhance our senses with tactile and sonic elements.
While Rachel Baker and Simon Haren play out the Judy and Dave story, Joel Baxendale and Claire O’Loughlin deconstruct and comment on the action, as academics might expose and interrogate a classic, or children might pull apart a toy, not only to see how it works but to display the components and the mechanics for the edification of others – in this case, us, their audience.
They also tell us, more than once, that Rachel represents all women and Simon represents all men. And they point out how various events in the Judy-and-Dave story are microcosms of bigger moments in the history of Aotearoa New Zealand, evoked through the afore-mentioned shadow play.
Thus, as the four parts – labelled ‘We may be young’, ‘A coming of age’, ‘Disaster’ and ‘Triumph’ – play out, we are constantly reminded of the artifice of story-telling and play-making, and invited to play along.
Just as it all seems destined to resolve in a quartet of ‘Generation-whatevers’ cocooned in a hut for a ‘me-myself-and I’ talk-fest, a bigger picture from the wider world – a dramatised whale stranding – jolts them out of their self-indulgence, or offers a handy distraction, or gives them a random way to end the show. Take your pick. And here we are invited to participate in the make-believe … in order to prove what? That we care about nature; we can still play ‘let’s pretend’; we are supportive of the needs of live theatre performers …?
This too was part of the original 2011 season, where we left the auditorium and engaged with the mournfully wailing ‘whales’ in the Studio 77 amphitheatre. When The Whales component played out as a free public event on the Wellington waterfront in last year’ Fringe, it was a 40 minute ‘happening’ that subverted our preconceptions of dramatic structure. “People have to get over themselves and attend to the task at hand,” I wrote, “and this is what happens. Remarkable.” Brought back as a coda to This Rugged Beauty, it takes about four minutes.
So how does this relate to our over-arching quest for authenticity in storytelling? I guess, as always, it’s up to us to contemplate and conclude as we will. Which brings me to the question I now have about the Binge Culture approach.
“We make risky, accessible and playful performance, testing and subverting New Zealand culture,” they say on the back of the programme. “We’re always looking for ways to make the most of the live theatre experience, and we want to create a vital role and place for our audience in what we do.”
There is something about their attempts to ‘democratise’ the crafting of the live theatre experience that renders the results relatively superficial for me. While the many manifestations of their working through their youthful resistance to ‘conventional theatre’ forms have, indeed, been ‘playful’, I can’t help feeling they are copping out of full commitment to actual creation. Their shows don’t only talk about the process of creation; they talk about talking about it. Playfully.
Something tells me they are now on the verge of realising how much more profound, engaging and enriching theatre can be when its component parts are integrated to produce something more than their sum, and that this is the very definition of integrity, and autheticity. I would argue it is also more respectful of the audience’s capacity to process the experience with an innate understanding of the artifice involved, while owning the inevitable subjectivity of their personal response.
Maybe it’s time to put that toy back together and see what it can do.
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