Helen Watson White
Here/Now: 8 Plays by Award-winning NZ Playwrights: The Intricate Art of Actually Caring by Eli Kent; Manawa by Jamie McCaskill; Sheep by Arthur Meek; Rewena by Whiti Hereaka; The Road that Wasn’t There by Ralph McCubbin Howell; Fix by Jess Sayer; Riding in Cars with (Mostly Straight) Boys by Sam Brooks; Eloise in the Middle by Emily Duncan. Playmarket Play Series editor David O’Donnell, (Playmarket, 2015), 430 pp., $34.99
Here/Now is an excellent title for an excellent book. Forget the idea that when reading play scripts on the page you can’t expect to get any sense of their (created) reality. Just as with any literary form, the fictional world is built on a very slight scaffold, in this case simply dialogue and stage directions, which together condense more than one lived reality – a succession of lived realities – into the here and now.
The condensation is extreme, yet at the same time the horizon is limitless. In the first few pages of Eli Kent’s two-hander, The Intricate Art of Actually Caring, we hear of Jack’s captivation and then disenchantment with objects, his job-loss and consequent depression, plus Eli’s audition, failed probably because of the death of a friend. That’s quite a lot – played out for its first performance in author/character Eli’s own bedroom in Wellington. The action shifts later to a road-trip (featuring roadkill, of which the two keep count) to Jerusalem, on the Whanganui River, where James Baxter lies buried. The limitless horizon, for Jack, is the interior world of poetry, to which we are constantly encouraged to return, just as keen as he is to be free of the confines of the car.
In Arthur Meek’s eight-part montage Sheep, time and space are both contracted and expanded in a succession of scenarios – ‘a flock of tales of sex and technology’ – ranging from Christchurch in 1862, to Kaiapoi Hospital in 1917, Dresden in 1945, the 1966 Masterton Golden Shears, and ending in 2011 in post-shakes Christchurch where the story began.
That was, however, a beginning with a difference. While Sheep’s first scene was – in the usual terms – ‘set’ in Alice’s city, we were actually half in Shanghai with her boyfriend Manfred, whom she’d met in Berlin, present in a Skype call: not exactly phone sex, but technology-assisted relationship nevertheless, between teenage partners half the world apart. The ending is different, too, for in this non-naturalistic treatment of a sheep theme, the large number of characters we’ve met in previous scenes appear at the last as a flock of human sheep – and a penguin – when the teenage pair are reunited after the big February shake. As they are put together, so is the whole play, the fractured elements of the montage reintegrated by a slight stretching of the imagination.
Two of the eight plays achieve concentration and focus by having just one character in a room. Following the globally interested Sheep is Whiti Hereaka’s Rewena, in which 50-year-old Maggie presents, largely in real time, the preparation and cooking of rewena, traditional Māori bread raised with a potato-based yeast. There are at least two other virtual characters: one is the revered cast-iron Dutch or camp oven in which the bread is cooked; the other, more crucially, is her neighbour’s boy Neill who, having learnt to cook in Maggie’s kitchen, has reached the final of a reality television show, The Baker’s Dozen. This is also playing, off-stage, in real time.
Maggie’s reflections are more idiosyncratic than the tag ‘homely wisdom’ would imply, but the Dutch oven she holds in common with all bakers of rewena, and its durability and generous proportions help to characterise her. On the other hand, unlike most other home cooks, she is specifically not a mother, and she has strong feelings about Neill’s mother’s dereliction of duty in the boy’s upbringing.
Motherhood is not being assumed here, let alone fêted, but critiqued. I am reminded of Renée’s use of a roast dinner cooking away onstage in real time, in her play Belle’s Place, written around the time of the bitter (but ultimately successful) fight for homosexual law reform in the 1980s. That icon of traditional Kiwi culture, the roast, which now even has a special day to celebrate it, was always assumed to belong to the nuclear family with a mother in charge. Renée used it, however, as Belle’s way of feeding her family of queer singles and (at that time) outcasts: a potent re-thinking of what motherhood – and food – is about.
The intimacy and sympathetic humour of Rewena is a feature also of Emily Duncan’s Eloise in the Middle, a monologue from a seven-year-old girl that is the only piece in the book that hadn’t been performed prior to publication, but is envisaged as being played by an adult. While the usually warm tone of Rewena is reflected in the smell of baking bread that ‘slowly fills the theatre’, the intimacy and irony of Eloise’s disclosures tend more to an atmosphere of emotional unease. The writing of the child’s experience of her parents’ divorce is acutely heard; even the humour signifies pain. I appreciated the carefully chosen details, the natural idiom, the story: simple, direct and chillingly plausible.
It’s no surprise that in a volume of this size family dysfunction is a recurring theme, most stage plays being concerned with the outworking of relationships. All eight plays could indeed be titled, after Eli Kent’s starter, The Intricate Art of Actually Caring. With five characters spanning three generations, Jess Sayer’s Fix is one take on ‘the breakdown of the family unit’, and in particular on a father’s (or stepfather’s) taking up with another woman. As in Eloise, she’s the newer model who may have replaced his wife as lover but can’t possibly replace her as mother – even if the real mother has herself deserted, dissolving in booze, pot and little ‘pam’ pills. As well as motherhood, stereotypical grandmotherhood is also critiqued, in Zac’s drinking, swearing divorcee Nana Dorothy. But in Fix, the overturning of accustomed roles doesn’t stop there.
There’s another kind of mother, a figure from fairy-story rather than melodrama, in The Road that Wasn’t There by Ralph McCubbin Howell. This tall tale, says Maggie’s son Gabriel, ‘began in the way that all mysteries do, tumbling out of the ordinary. It had been years since I had moved away from home, away from Mum and her ludicrous stories. I thought I’d left all that madness behind me. It turned out I was wrong.’ In picaresque fashion, the tale wanders through Central Otago, following the trail of Maggie’s thefts of maps: ‘She’d smuggled them under her cardy in Cromwell, and out of the window in Wanaka. In Roxburgh, she claimed that she was a library inspector, filled up a wheelbarrow with books and simply walked them out the door!’
So far, so (relatively) ordinary, such maternal eccentricity. Soon, however, taking off from the map idea, the play turns into an extravaganza like Alice in Wonderland, pursuing the theme that ‘there are worlds beyond the one you know’. Using shadow puppets, a novel soundscape and music-hall-type songs, it takes Maggie down a paper road to a paper town with top-hatted paper citizens, like black-and-white sketches of the goldrush days. When Maggie copies (badly) her original map, the key to this other world, she’s ushered into another world again, a mirror version of the first, where the characters’ names and qualities are inverted. The magic of theatre is potent enough to reverse this reversal, and she floats off – permanently – to another realm: an escape from ordinariness, every mother’s, as every daughter’s, dream.
While there’s not a mother in sight in Riding in Cars with (Mostly Straight) Boys by Sam Brooks, it’s still about relationships. Kyle is riding in other men’s cars because he can’t drive. The two front seats of both moving and stationary vehicles provide the setting for a succession of excruciating encounters, where we watch Kyle as a gay man prospecting for love with males who are not necessarily open to relating. His overtures are met with silence, diversion or frank protest; it seems he can never enact the declarations of his dreams.
The writing of Sam Brooks is wry, delicate, nuanced – like Emily Duncan’s in Eloise – but even more understated, with acres of painful significance between the lines. This is only partly a monologue, which puts greater emphasis on the relationship (or void) between the parties in the here and now. While there’s humour, as in the other seven plays, it’s usually mixed with embarrassment: Riding in Cars is a finely observed study of how one man who is gay falls hardest for others who are not. In the one case when Kyle is desired instead of desiring, he stalls, unable to function, courting only irony.
Finally, there’s Manawa by Jamie McCaskill: a play about justice and injustice, loyalty and treachery, based on the relationship between two men who enter the penal system in totally different ways. It seems at first a simple plot contrasting the backgrounds, convictions and treatment of two prison inmates, one Māori (the country’s youngest murderer, who’s had his umpteenth lapse) and one Samoan (an innocent who’s killed and eaten a kākāpō). What begins as a simple opposition becomes, through some theatrical investigative reporting, an essay in complexity. Manawa, a word encompassing ‘heart’, ‘mind’, ‘spirit’, ‘belly’ and ‘breath’, can also mean patience and persistence. It relates to the core of a person, and of life. As we’re shown the doggedly persistent egoism of one, Jimmy King, and the patient self-surrender of the other, Mau Vainga, we come to see both characters are manipulated by the two-faced lawyer supposed to defend them equally.
Manawa would be a good title for the whole volume, too. The eight plays somehow manage to convey a surprising depth and breadth of human experience, things that matter to individuals in a fundamental way. Each is introduced by a list of its author’s other work and of the achievement of what seems a large number of well-deserved awards.
HELEN WATSON WHITE has been a theatre critic and reviewer since 1974. A Dunedin-based writer, she has published articles, short stories and poetry as well as art, opera and book reviews.