Hannah Playhouse, Cnr Courtenay Place & Cambridge Terrace, Wellington

27/11/2014 - 30/11/2014

Production Details

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.
Online: https://www.patronbase.com/_HannahPlayhouse/Productions  
Phone: 04-894-741904-894-7419 
Email: info@hannahplayhouse.org.nz 


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]


Thomas LaHood (Barbarian Productions) December 3rd, 2014

I know it's poor form to complain when your own work has received a bad review, but both Jo and I were also disappointed by Mr. Atkinson's efforts in the DomPost.

I would echo many of the sentiments expressed by IL DOTTORE above - we were certainly conscious of drawing on a tradition of populist, political art-forms that were prominent in the 60s but also in the burlesques of the previous century, in the music halls and bawdy houses of Europe during the Renaissance era and all through medieval times: indeed right back to the Greek amphitheatres and travelling circuses of the Pre-Christian era and quite likely in many pagan societies before that, with their Bean-Kings and harvest festivals.

As pointed out by IL DOTTORE, the purpose of reviving these antiquated forms in the 60s was partly to popularise theatre again from where it was percieved to have become elitist - an intention shared completely by Barbarian Productions with this production, as evidenced by our effort to make ticket prices reflect our desire for ANYONE and EVERYONE to have access to the work, whatever their income. And many new audiences DID come to see this production - especially younger audiences, who were not around when Mr. Atkinson was attending theatre in the 60s and are very hungry for this type of work. Over four shows we had 550-odd punters attend and we have been humbled and gratified by their responses - many of them expressed very potently that this "much-ploughed-over material" is extremely relevant to the world they see around them.

As for the "gabbled speech taken at top speed" - this is also a known form called Grammelot, a device originating from the Commedia and used extensively in satirical theatre, clown and mime productions. You can check it out on Wikipedia. Our decision to present the most obvious stereotypes of wealth and power were entirely conscious, partly to reflect the global nature of our current predicament of inequality, but also to draw attention to the very problem Atkinson bemoans, our moth-like infatuation with these sagas of domination and servitude.

I can't expect Atkinson to enjoy our production, I'm well aware that he often dislikes the shows that we adore from the International Festival when they come to town. I am disappointed that he didn't share with an overwhelming majority of our audiences a sense that this content is extremely topical and that we are all, somehow implicated and involved in the grotesquery it portrays. But if he didn't feel that call to action - I can't criticise him, I can only wonder at his detachment.

What I do wish to criticise is his laziness in dismissing the work as retro. To talk about White Elephant as a 60s flashback ignores the rich tradition of political theatre in Wellington from that era. We would be happy to be associated with the work of such pioneering companies as Red Mole and Roadworks ensemble. For us they are a major inspiration aesthetically, culturally and in terms of social values. We are happy if their voice from the past is made stronger by own.

The bagpipe finale Mr. Atkinson recalls is wrongly attributed, it came in fact from Inside Out's controversial production The Holy Sinner. Such vague comparisons do little to illuminate the intention of the work, serving only to reveal Atkinson's own jadedness after many years in his position.

Finally, Atkinson's dismissive, derisive aside at the end of his review needs to be addressed. While it's true that it took two years for this show to be performed in front of an audience, it certainly has not spent two full years in development. Our two development workshops yielded a lot of the material for the final show, but we also were able with the gift of a longer timeframe, to revisit the work each time with fresh eyes that enabled us to make the kind of subtle yet fundamental changes that led to a result we could really stand behind. We're so very grateful to Creative New Zealand for their investment inWhite Elephantand for allowing our company to take time with a work and be able to make mistakes and follow wrong paths. There are difficulties with working over a long timeframe, too, and every process for this particular show involved major personnell changes.  50% of the cast of this final production were completely new to the work, and with only a two week rehearsal lead in to production we are incredibly proud of what we achieved and incredibly grateful to the cast for their tireless work.

Barbarian Productions stand behind White Elephant 100%. Creating it has not been easy, and we are aware of the large amount of support we have received from CNZ and also from our community. The last two years have produced not only White Elephantbut a huge series of form-busting, community-engaging works and projects, that have in turn focused our company's vision and purpose. It's a shame that Laurie Atkinson's need for a comfortable seat denies him a part in what we're trying to achieve.

IL DOTTORE December 3rd, 2014

Issue must be taken with Mr Atkinson’s review of WHITE ELEPHANT. Writing it off as “1960s experimental theatre” is fatuous, given it draws on popular theatre conventions that reach right back past commedia dell’arte to the satyr plays of Ancient Greece. While theses conventions may have been revived and reinvented in the 60s as part of the cultural revolution – to challenge the political status quo and to bring elitist theatre back to the people – they have something to offer every generation. The ‘Occupy’ movements attest to that (and are referenced in Spiegelworld EMPIRE, currently playing at Odlins Plaza).

The “gabbled speech taken at top speed and with only the occasional recognisable word” was clearly intended as a comment on how much bullshit and bluster accompanies the platitudinous rationalisations of the ‘haves’ for maintaining the status quo. I loved all that.

I did find myself wondering how it might be if the ‘haves’ were characterised in more Kiwi terms – rather than as Soviet Generalissimo, European Businessman, Dickensian Plutocrat (Maori and Pacifica practitioners have explored such archetypes within their own cultures) – but I guess it is fair to say that White Elephant represents the ancestry of NZ’s white ruling class.

Other critics have identified the ‘have nots’ as Zanni, who are bottom of the pecking order. As such, I found their white paper full-face masks blocked rather than expressed their feelings and would suggest they could be revisited according to commedia principles. The physicality of that trio was fabulous nevertheless.

For me, what Mr Atkinson seems to dismiss as “knockabout manic circus clowning” captured an essential and enduring truth about how human societies operate. A pretty good result, I would have thought.

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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.) 


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