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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 8. 27 April 1972


page 15


The Miracle Worker by William Gibson

Photo from The Miracle Worker

When I found what was being performed at Repertory I wondered what I had let myself in for. Had not the film of this title made Shirley MacLean her first million teddy bears! The tiny theatre in Dixon Street, full of comfortable old ladies, and the cluttered stage at the end did not make me feel any better. Suddenly I realised I hadn't seen an ordinary domestic stage set for years. After leaving plenty of time for stragglers the lights went dim.

As often with amateur productions the play began terribly. The actors seemed so busy concentrating on their American accents that the dialogue stuck like green eggs on ham. The accents at the start of the play were a curious polyglot, a cross between Eton, Texas, and Taumaranui. Fortunately this soon straightened out.

I may as well dispense with the one other production flaw which marred what in many ways was an excellent achievement. The play needs plenty of space, as quick scenes chase each other through various rooms of the Keller house. The set was well designed on two levels to create distinct working areas on the narrow stage. However the lighting though extravagant, often failed to distinguish between, say, when the centre front was used as a garden and when as a dining room. In some scenes it was excellent; in others it needed much more direction.

I have often noticed in plays that desultory acting often picks up momentum in response to the efforts of some other actor. Some people provoke a reaction that is typical and natural for the play. In this production that person was Colleen McColI, who played Annie Sullivan, Helen's teacher. As soon as she appeared all awkwardness disappeared. Her strict air and brisk manner, her brusque authority and her ferocious patience took complete control, not only of the Keller household, but of the play as well. She provoked, cajoled, bullied, the Kellers, and they responded by displaying their temperaments and frustrations in a truely human way.

'Human', now, has connotations of sentiment and roses. But this is not what I mean when I apply the word to this production. I mean that the situation of the play became real. The actors rather than acting were living. Trish Thomas's tantrum was dealt with by an exasperated and frantic Colleen McColl in the way that any schoolteacher has to deal with any tantrum-thrower. Colleen McColl's brain was trying desperately to outwit the nimble mind of Trish Thomas as much as Annie tried to outmanouver Helen. The stalemate, the frustrations that ensued, are those of a social worker and a handicapped child, a probation officer with a kleptomaniac, or a matador with a bull. The tussle to teach a rebellious Helen to eat from her own plate, and with a spoon, required not acting, but brawn and a quick mind. I doubt whether Colleen McColl heard the spontaneous applause that greeted that incredible scene—she would have been too busy getting her breath back.

Of course the unusual thing about the play is that the major role is played by a person who is deaf and blind. Most plays about communication barriers contain a great deal of shouting without getting anywhere. The accompaniment for the battle scene between Helen and Annie is grunts, cuffs, and the sound of chairs falling over. If Colleen McColl's acting held the play together, Trish Thomas's was the tour de force. Her eyes twitching, her hands pawing, grasping, breaking, her mind channelling its frustrations into greed and mischief, taking advantage of all indulgence and bribes, she was more a pest than an object of pity. One can understand the Kellers wanting to send her to an asylum. Here is no sentiment. Annie will have nothing of the duty of affection shown by the Kellers to their daughter. The production is [unclear: haed] headed and terse.

The play itself has many weaknesses. Whatever is made of it in this production, it is steeped in sentimental tradition. However the sentiment is confined here to a few interpolated scenes. I feel that the short sequence in the Perkins Institute of the Blind, and the jumbled nightly visitations by the tape-recorded angels of Annie's family could profitably have been cut out. The rest of the play is excellent, and the performances of Colleen McColl and Trish Thomas among the best I have ever seen.

Blind Men form the Collection

Helen Keller, Annie Sullivan 1895

Helen Keller, Annie Sullivan 1895

Playing together in a triple bill at the Memorial Theatre from Wednesday 26th April to Friday 28th, The Blind Men, The Form, and The Collection make up the term's second offering from V.U.W. Drama society. All these are contemporary plays, therefore one need have no fear of any cultural content - Playwrights Ghelderode, Simpson, and Pinter seem so unaware of cultural values that their plays would please a Goebbels or a Jackie Kennedy. Strengthening the idea that plays and intellect are poor mixers, the plays have been directed by members of the student fraternity - Messrs Steve Lahood, Murray Gadd, and Terry Casserly.

Ghelderode's The Blind Men is a grotesque morality play in Gangster garb. The Form is Simpson's absurd, anarchic good time. The Collection is all hard- laying thy neighbour and how to throw a cheese knife. As well as that, all three plays squeeze the tears out of you as you laugh... whatever that means and sex isn't absent.

This is an experiment — allowing the university to put on its own productions without the interference of those outside it! Its true the scale is small, but it generally is at the beginning of big things. All returns go to the Theatrical Revolution which erupts next term. But, in the meantime, one may come without a revolver. Save it for Vietnam Letters and Production Script Only. Come to these April plays with the one you lay. Take a little, give a little, live a little.

Future Downstage Programme

Narrow Road to the Deep North which was originally presented in England as a part of a Peoples and Cities conference in 1968 [unclear: w] has opened [unclear: on] at Downstage.

A powerful play by the controversial author Edward Bond Narrow Road to the Deep North uses a Japanese form and setting to examine man's search for identity and a place in the world. Ian Mune is directing Narrow Road to the Deep North for Downstage. One of New Zealand's leading actors he will also play Shogo a military dictator.

The future programme for Downstage includes the Australian musical play The Legend of King O'Malley which will be presented for one week only from Monday 29th May to Saturday 3rd June. This play is being performed by the Old Tote Theatre Company of Sydney and its Wellington season follows an appearance at the Auckland Festival.

The Auckland based group Theatre Action will return to Downstage, following King O'Malley with Once upon a Planet a new programme about a group of clowns who leave this worn-out planet in order to find a new life.

Harold Pinter's latest play Old Times will be presented in June. This play which is Pinter's first full-length play since he wrote The Homecoming in 1965 has been critically acclaimed in London and recently opened on Broadway. George Webby who directed last year's production of The Birthday Party will direct Old Times.