Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 10. 23rd May 1973
Opening at the Memorial Theatre this Friday for a nine-night season, will be a series of James K. Baxter plays.
This festival, mounted jointly by the V.U.W. Drama Society and the English Department has a purpose which extends beyond the period of the festival's season, apart from bringing to Wellington for the first time some of Baxter's lesser known plays.
Because of the widely known sympathy that Baxter had for Maori culture and ways of life, an ad hoc committee consisting of Victoria staff members, students and those involved in Wellington theatre, conceived of an idea which would form a tribute to the late poet-playwright, as well as extending into a tangible expression of Baxter's desire to help the Polynesian peoples.
This idea involved mounting a season of Baxter plays, the proceeds from which would go to the recently formed Manaaki Society; a society which is dedicated to the support and promotion of Polynesian arts, culture and education.
The Q.E. II Arts Council considered the venture so worthwhile that it has made a grant of $1,000 to help cover the costs of the production.
The production team and cast includes many well known people involved in the arts throughout the country. Sets and posters have been designed by contemporary artist Colin McCahon; the directors include Patric Carey (founder of Dunedin's Globe Theatre), Phillip Mann and Judith Dale (lecturers in Drama and English at Vic.) and Anthony Groser (radio and stage producer).
The cast of over 40, reads almost like a whose-who of New Zealand theatre, and includes Bruce Mason, Ray Henwood, Lewis Rowe, Ross Jolly, Peter Vere Jones, Michael Haigh and Bill Saunders among many others.
The Baxter festival will include four plays, The Sore-Footed Man', The Band Rotunda', The Devil and Mr Mulcahey' and The Temptations of Oedipus'. They will run in groups of two, alternating for two nights at a time.
Dramatised domestic themes often produce either trite witticisms and cosy schmaltz (eg TV 'situation comedies'), intended to enhance its audience's complacency, or else histrionics and yawning silences of Great Depth. Luckily, A.E. Whitehead's Alpha Beta, now at Downstage avoids either playing to either of these extremes in the portrayal of a disintegrating, degrading marriage over a period of nine years. In fact, so natural is the dialogue that sometimes you feel like an intruder, and certainly not a superior observer of decay.
Whitehead has caught the rhythm and progression of conversation: the sudden darts back to parried or avoided issues, and the superficial phrases which bite deeper than a more seemingly direct hit. You get a feeling of spiralling into and cross cutting several dimensions of thought, feeling and action simultaneously —reality magnified to become many more times immediate and trenchant. Thus a twist of the ankle, the setting down of a coffee cup assimilate themselves to personal experiences as symbols. It's not an exploration in depth, but rather an icon, whose real meaning lies in the connections and attachments made by the individual playgoer to his own life. The play succeeds because it is so close to reality and makes little attempt at abstraction itself.
Glenis Levestam and Grant Tilly have the embittered couple down to a T. With many subtle movements and intonations they build a relationship which is both familiar and fresh. I particularly admired Glenis Levestam's sulky, staring silences, her jarring outbursts which form a picture of a woman shielded by her obsession with the way she feels 'things ought to be' from any real contact with herself. Grant Tilly is, as usual, superb. Indeed any jaded performance from Mr Tilly might well indicate that the heavens had fallen on theatre in Wellington. Murray Recce's direction has caught the essence of the play, the importance of the small gesture, and the dialogue's swings and curves. Without this care for detail, the play would probably suffer badly in the translation from script to flesh. It's a play that relies heavily on superb characterisation for its success, and this it has received in full measure in the Downstage production.