Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 6. 1967.
Downstage feature NZ authors Bland, Baxter
Downstage feature NZ authors Bland, Baxter
Downstage presents two plays by New Zealand authors: James K. Baxter's "The Spots On The Leopard," and Peter Bland's George The Mad Ad Man."
Baxter's title probably refers to the incorrigibility and animality of human nature. This is a rather too easy inference, but it is justified by the trite and easy lessons of the play's strung-together scenes.
Baxter makes his hero. Peter Yeoman, who is played by Barry Hill, a university lecturer, thus allowing himself a few swipes at what he thinks of as intellectual pretensions.
For instance, when Peter's professor dismisses him from his post, he is made to wear a skull-mask and prononunce an exorcism on Peter. It's as easy as that to equate the academic life with mumbo-jumbo and decay.
In another scene, university lecturing is assumed to be In the same category as sexual deviation: another easy and superficial equation.
And so the play goes on: a series of rapidly-reached conclusions each satirising some aspect of modern life, loosely collected around the main figure and infrequently bearing any relevance to him. Some of these scenes are brilliant cameos, some of them aren't. One is reminded of a university revue.
Initially Peter seduces one of his students. Katinka, with an "imaginary knife" This "imaginary knife" recurs several times, as does the forked carrot, which represents the adulterer- an indication of Baxter's moral preoccupation, Jennifer Dakers plays Katinka and what should be a warm, simple straightforward and amoral character, in contrast to the frigid and disciplinarian wife, comes over as alternately coy and hard. This may be the producer's fault: anyway, it is a pity, for a more sympathetic interpretation would have added dimension to Peter's problem on a personal level.
The seduction also marks the entrance of the Furies, who appear throughout the play. It's a little difficult to understand their relation to the play's reality. If they are meant to be extrapolations of the guilt which, in fact, Peter and Katinka do not feel, why do they appear to other characters? Certainly, they provide background noise and diverting movement when action is lagging, but on a philosophical level I fear the Furies collapse.
Peter visits a psychiatrist. Dr. Vaughan. who is ably acted within the stereotype which Baxter provides, by Harry Lavington. Dr. Vaughan wishes to remove Peter's brain and replace it with a rubber one, so Peter hastily escapes. How easy it is to poke fun at psychiatry.
Concrete Grady makes his first entry in this scene. An old metho, relaxed and liberated by alcohol and Irish cheer, this Is one of the best characters in the play. specially as acted by Silvio Famularo, who avoids the sentimentality which could easily attach to an alcoholic tramp in a Baxter play. Significantly, he is the only character to achieve salvation in the end.
The next scene is, like the last, a quick take-off, this time of suburban home life in New Zealand, Peter's wife, Bertha, is a tartar complete with spyglass, rubber truncheon and vacuum cleaner to suck up all the sins Peter brings home. She was early wedded to the Angel of Death and, like the university, is shown as one of the constricting, anti-life forces of the play, Another stereotype, she is well acted by Christine Balstone, and Shirley Duke is good as the awkward, impulsive, teenage daughter, whose Maori boyfriend also has an "imaginary knife."
Peter objects to his daughter going out with a Maori, a piece of race prejudice suddenly introduced and as suddenly dropped for by the next scene Peter has a Maori drinking-mate, Barney the RSA man
Barney, who is magnificently acted by Kuki Kaa, has his own guilt problem, derived from his war experiences in Crete, which he tries to dissolve in alcohol. This is a brilliant and very moving scene in Itself, but is very difficult to see as relevant to the play as a whole.
The same applies to the episode of Mr. Finkel and his devastating and beautiful ballad. Here Silvio Famularo handles a part completely different from that of Concrete Grady, just as expertly and convincingly.
But what has an indictment of Nazism to do with Peter's emotional problem?—unless the play is not personal and moral in Its exploration of life (as Richard Campion states it is. in a programme note self-consciously labelled "Burblings from the Producer") and is social and political (as Campion says it is not). As a satirical roving survey of New Zealand life and times the play would succeed, and its revue-like nature would be justified, but several things militate against this.
Baxter's presentation of Peter Yeoman as a modern day Piers Plowman seeking salvation is. I think, basically serious And he seems to say some very portentous things about life at the end when the characters gather to denounce their author-who is wearing a mask like Baxter's own face. In justifying his presentation of them he says "The Author is the God of the play ... I gave you free will. After that it was up to you . . . I could show you a crucifix. . . ."
And the characters, his own creations, turn on him and hang him—a contemporary crucifixion which does not. however, redeem the play but plunges Baxter's intent into further confusion The final equation of the playwright with God is almost the only part of the play which is not funny and surely implies that Baxter intends there to be some depth In his exploration of human life.
The play attempts too much: it's a light-hearted satire, but it also tries to make a statement on the human condition, and here, I think, it fails.
Campion's production provides plenty of special effects, and the music, by Farquhar, is good.
Peter Bland's play also deals with a man overwhelmed by his own creations. He plays the title role himself: a manic advertising man who is content with neither the reality of his home nor that of the world he creates in his glamorous ads.
George brings work home from the office; in this case a model in a fur coal and a bikini, who is sweetly and nuttily acted by Shirley Duke. Christine Batstone is again the housewife, and though there are a certain number of predictable Jokes about the New Zealand suburban homemaker. Bland soon takes off into much wilder and wittier reaches of satire.
The tone is hilarious throughout, except for the ending, where the photographic illusion becomes menacingly alive and takes control of George. Here one wonders whether Bland does want to say something substantial about distortion of values and the effects of this on the psyche- certainly the play ends on a note of exasperation and despair, even if comic despair.
Bland does not attempt as much as Baxter and succeeds better. But Baxter deserves some support for his attempt to say more. In all, it's a good evening's theatre.