27/11/2014 - 30/11/2014
Barbarian clowns stage theatrical takeover during White Elephant Festival
Big men. Big suits. Big appetites. But who’s serving who? And who serves the servers?
This is the world of White Elephant, Barbarian Productions’ latest show, created and directed by award-winning Wellington theatre-maker Jo Randerson. From November 27-30 the doors of the Hannah Playhouse will be thrown open to the clowns, the crowns and the crowds for a potently comic four-day festival of feasts, fetes and farce exploring the dark divide between the 99 and the 1 percent.
“It made me laugh, rage and weep.” – Eyewitness response from innocent bystander, preview audience.
White Elephant is a grandiose, grotesque performance that refuses to be confined to the stage. This season at Hannah Playhouse realises a vision that has been fastidiously explored and refined by Barbarian in two years of workshops and previews. Now more than a stand-alone theatre piece, this highly-anticipated show sits at the heart of an expanded vision: the White EleFestival. The EleFestival’s programme of accessible, affordable post-show events gives audiences the option to expand their experience of the stage presentation.
“The EleFestival extends our wish to democratize theatre – not only opening up the stage to a wider range of performers but also to give the microphone to audiences to allow an even broader range of opinions to be heard,” says Randerson. “These events connect the performance to the conversations taking place in our society around inequality and power structures, and the role of art in communities.”
A White EleFestival ticket is an RSVP to the Barbarians’ invitation to stay a little longer and sit alongside them in a more intimate theatrical setting. A chorus of volunteer performers, hosts and merry makers has joined Barbarian for the festivities, including the fortifying harmonies of Wellington’s Male Vocale Choir and the spitfire intelligent wit of two-time Billy T Comedy Award Nominee, James Nokise.
“This work brings together a whole raft of new forms and could be a landmark piece of theatre for this company and for the New Zealand theatrescape.” – Reflections from an Anonymous critic, preview audience
Since the company’s inception in 2001, Barbarian’s works have had a fiercely political focus, seeking to provide a voice to the disempowered and sidelined pockets of New Zealand society; those Randerson has termed ‘the otherised’. Her career is punctuated with invitations to communities to converse about the status quo, and to question it through art.
This focus is by no means limited to performative works. Randerson is passionate about community arts outreach and has in the past facilitated outsider art exhibitions, such as 2008’s ‘My House Surrounded by a Thousand Suns’ at The New Dowse (a collaboration with Pablo’s Art Studio, Alpha Art Studio and Petone’s Take Five Art). Opening doors to new voices, different platforms and various formats has allowed Barbarian to interact with fresh and different perspectives; through larger scale works (such as the recent critically acclaimed season of Yo Future at Auckland’s TAPAC Theatre) and more intimate offerings (like Political Cuts, a pop-up salon that operated in Wellington’s CBD in the weeks leading up to the 2014 General Election).
As Barbarian’s dramaturge Thomas LaHood points out, “All art is in some way political, and politics itself is very theatrical.”
The genesis and development of White Elephant was, LaHood says, “a response to the gross inequality of income and privilege that is such a defining factor of our age. We wanted to try to find a theatrical embodiment of these power structures and to play out some of the tensions and vulnerabilities that are implicit within them.”
In this sense, White Elephant’s premiere is a particularly thrilling event. Barbarian’s decision to present the show as a centerpiece of a festival of events allows a chaotic, honest, community spirit to spill over the slicker, sharper parameters of typical theatre presentation, and vice versa. For audiences, the variety of events on the menu allows flexibility and choice, the opportunity to dip into the show and its themes, or to dive deeper into its absurdist world.
“Barbarian has always been more interested in the voices that are less heard in our society,” remarks Randerson. “Working long hours internationally as a stand-up comic I noted the dominance of a certain, usually white, kind of voice. Often in stand-up there is an attempt to hide vulnerability, but in clown, we try to expose it, and to make it funny. We like working with anyone who is brave, honest, and wants to be on stage.”
Could you sing for your supper? When’s the right time to share what’s on your mind (or, for that matter, what’s on your plate)? Who decides value, anyway?
Find out for yourself. Join us at the table. Raise your glass and your voice at White Elephant.
HANNAH PLAYHOUSE, 12 Cambridge Terrace, Te Aro, Wellington
Dates: 27-30 November 2014
Show Season White Elefestival Post Show event
Thursday 27 Nov, 7.30pm
Friday 28 Nov, 7.30pm – followed by: The Feasts of Ups & Downs
Saturday 29 Nov, 7.30pm – followed by: Sing for your supper
Sunday 30 Nov, 2pm – followed by: Dear Maggie…’
Bookings via Hannah Playhouse.
Adrianne Roberts: Producer
Jo Randerson: Director
Eden Mulholland: Composer
Thomas LaHood: Dramaturgy/Marketing designer
Madeline McNamara: Clown
Anya Tate Manning: Clown
Thomas Eason: Clown
Melanie Hamilton: Dancer
Natano Keni: Dancer
Luke Hanna: Dancer
Natasha James: Production Manager
Sam Trubridge: Set Designer
Natasha James: Lighting Designer
Gina Moss: Marketing
Nicole Arrow: Production Assistant
Claire Mabey: WE Festival events co-ordinator
Roseann McKie: Set Assistant
Owen McCarthy: Set Assistant
Jack Stephenson: Set Design Intern
Chris Jannides: Movement Mentor
Jarren Jackson: Pack In Pack Out Expert
Nell Williams: Publicity
A white elephant in more than name
Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 02nd Dec 2014
It’s back to 1960s experimental theatre with White Elephant with its clowns and circus-like setting.
There are flat, white cardboard, featureless masks and grotesquely padded costumes for three performers who are described in the programme as the ‘have-nots’ (the 99 percent).
The corresponding three ‘haves’ (the 1%) are political cartoon caricatures. They are a generalissimo, a plutocrat and a politician who has a Pinocchio nose. The nose is probably a recent and highly topical allusion as the publicity photo of the character shows he has an ordinary nose.
To add to the 60s flavour of the performance the play is performed in-the-round and the audience is seated on backless, uncomfortable rostra in the bleak concrete Hannah auditorium. What dialogue there is, is an irritating imitation of gabbled speech taken at top speed and with only an occasionally recognisable word.
The haves are all bluster and the athletic have-nots are for most of the time submissive, fawning and eager to oblige their superiors. They soon learn how to serve drinks, perform a ballet, and involve themselves in clay target shooting as well as an orgy. They also spend a lot of energy pushing about the stage a movable dais, which belongs of course to the haves.
The action is knockabout manic circus clowning, which provided one or two funny moments, but it became tedious as the inevitable revolt of the have-nots took a long time in arriving. When it did, the three have-nots suddenly had a small army in support as missiles rained down in a noisy child-like battle.
Just when it seemed the farce and the frenetic much ado about much-ploughed-over- material were finally coming to an end, there was a complete change of mood and style.
I remember a Theatre at Large production directed by Christian Penny at an International Arts Festival doing much the same thing with bagpipes and in an instant an emotional current charged through the theatre. It is a highly effective theatrical device and it is very well staged at the Hannah. It is, however, surprising that White Elephant took two years to come to fruition.
[Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media]
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer
Mocking society and gloriously revolting
Review by Deborah Eve Rea 28th Nov 2014
A white elephant is – in modern usage, and as such in this dramatic form – an object, business, scheme or facility considered without any true purpose or value. In some Asian cultures, possession of a white elephant was also a sign of supreme prosperity and power.
White Elephant begins upon entry of the Hannah Playhouse. An ensemble of Zanni eagerly helps audience members as they approach the stairs to the Hannah space. Coulrophobics and maskaphobics best stay at home.
Zanni are a character type originating from commedia dell arte, usually taking the role of servants. They are a representative of the lower class and are famously either cunning or dim and terribly treated by their upper class masters.
Once in the performance space our three hero zanni (Luke Hanna, Melanie Hamilton and Natano Keni) silently tease and charm the audience in preparation for what is to come.
Our Bouffon-esque General (Anya Tate-Manning), Mayor (Madeline McNamara and Banker (Thomas Eason) arrive with noise, fanfare and ceremony, luring Zanni with promises of food and money in order to enslave them to carry out menial tasks. The Zanni perform plays, dance, fornicate and fight each other for the amusement and approval of the Bouffons.
Barbarian Productions’ White Elephant, directed by Jo Randerson, holds up a mirror to our country’s bureaucracy, particularly around poverty, war and the arts.
A lazzi (a ‘gag’ that’s special to a performer) of particular resonance is the performance of a ballet by Zanni dancers Hanna and Hamilton, for the approval of our wealthy Bouffons. The scene emulated a real-life process for the White Elephant dancers and its dramatisation was, through hilarity, incredibly touching.
The inhumanity of the Bouffons leads to a glorious revolt by our Zanni, which I will not describe for fear of spoiling the moment. However, I must note that the musical performance by members of the Male Vocale Choir is suburb and well worth the entry alone.*
All elements (performance, design and production) work splendidly together, each feeding into the success of the other. The sound design (Eden Mulholland) in particular is delicious; at times sharp and spiky, at others fluid and fun which keeps us in a state of unease and anticipation.
The White Elephant props design team has had some real fun here and are able to share that joy with the audience through one of the biggest food fights Wellington has ever seen.
It is also a real joy to see the Hannah space liberated and transformed to fit its performance, as was the intended purpose of its design.
There are occasional moments when the role of the audience and the rules of engagement are a little unclear. As the season continues, however, the Zanni’s relationship with the audience will grow and their ear for ‘checking in’ with us will develop.
The essence of Bouffon is to mock elements of his or her society in an amplified way. White Elephant shows true talent in allowing us to laugh at the absurdity while breaking our hearts at the closeness to our reality simultaneously – and, hopefully, White Elephant will continue to need more cushions.
*They sing ‘Another Day’ (‘Hafan Gobaith’) by Eleri Richards and Delyth Rees – a Welsh song written for terminally ill children in hospice care. (Arrangement by Tom Humphries, Julian and Nino Raphael.)
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer