Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol. 36, No 11 May 30th, 1973
Drama — The Baxter Season — Almost A Surfeit
The Baxter Season — Almost A Surfeit
Four Baxter plays in the short space of two nights is a rich diet. By the middle of the last play. I was beginning to feel the exhaustion of sitting through and responding to so many well-shaped phrases. Vet it's not often that you get the chance to simultaneously see a play and fit it into a wider context. Themes emerge: a concern to work out man's place in the scheme of things, an assertion of individual freedom, a vacillation between action and detachment. Baxter is here a compassionate playwright with a strong sense of the ridiculous side of man. He seems to offset the darker view with light comedy and bawdy, excited characters are counter-pointed with dry, quiet observers. It's essentially a romantic understanding of men, which does not extend in the women. They become warm, softhearted, softheaded creatures, symbolising the home, security—for Baxter, a claustrophobic oppression which he can't do without. I think there's a fair correlation here with the place women occupied in his own life.
Baxter's a wordy dramatist, with much of the action in his characters individually rather than expressed in movement between them. I was impressed by how well, or in the case of 'The Temptations of Oedipus', how badly, the scripts transfer to the stage. The Devil and Mr Mulcahy', directed by Philip Mann became surprisingly lain, its melodrama hammered into tragedy. The play is based on an incident in an Open Brethren family some years ago and allows him to dramatise his intense dislike, even fear for the Puritan element in the Kiwi character. Mucahy (played by Ross Jolly), yer typical Kiwi farmhand endowed with more than a little Baxter wit and sensitivity points up the underlying hysteria; unfortunately Saturday night's audience latched onto his remarks as comic relief.
The Odysseus of The Sore-Footed Man' must straddle the play if its to succeed as drama rather than conversation. Bruce Mason portrayed the wily, charming bastard admirably with a deceptively flan id lone and a certain swing of the hips. In his conversations with gawky follower, the would-be philosopher and the seduction of his wife, you can feel a laugh rising in the gorge. It's as if Baxter is playing his own internal dialogues in the flesh, and enjoying the manoeuvre. Judith Dale's production was most impressive.
'The Band Rotunda' was less successful than the Unity production of last year. I see it as basically a bitter, destructive and disillusioned play, with the alkies as microcosm for Pig Island society. This production's more cheerful: the Salvation Army are young and couldn't kill a fly, let alone get at old Snowy and his individual faith; the pro Rosie is too vivacious in appearance, even though this is betrayed by a dragging performance. Moreover, unlike most pros, she doesn't carry a handbag; and it's in the details that characterisation convinces. The climax was flat, the play disappointing because it can be so much more powerful, although only a rehearsal for the better 'Wide Open Cage' (although its chronological successor). I wonder just how much of the appeal in the alkie play lies in its iconoclasm, its four-letter words, 'how sophisticated we are' say the audience midst titters. I hope Baxter wasn't spicing it for show.
The Temptation of Oedipus' is a curious and unwieldy combination of low comedy at bureaucrats and a dash of Greek mysticism a la Mars Renault or Anouilh's 'Antigone'. Patric Carey chose to play it solemnly, which deadened it. I don't think it's an entirely anguished play; but it is one that reads more effectively and coherently on paper. Ray Henwood as Oedipus and Judy Fyfe as Antigone were fine tragic figurines, but a little out of context.
Baxter's plays don't always work, no matter how sympathetic or foul the production, but they excite if only because of the richness and incompleteness of his material and expression. The present season may be rich, but worth straining the mind and emotions for: it's a feast in a lean period of 'indigenous' theatre.