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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 39, Issue 3. 15th March [1976]

Happenings at Downstage

page 15

Happenings at Downstage

Comparisons may well be odious, but they are certainly useful to a reviewer faced with two productions so vastly different as The Court Theatre Christchurch's production 'Sweet Mr Shakespeare', directed by Ngaio Marsh, and Paul Maunder's Amamus Theatre's two pieces, 'Gallipoli' and The Half Dance of Mary M', part of the Come Together festival currently at Downstage Poles apart in every respect, they represent two completely different theatrical ideologies and illustrate perfectly, Jerzy Grotowskis definitions of rich and poor theatre.

'Sweet Mr Shakespeare' is completely traditional in conception, with the actor isolated from the audience on a stage, using every trick in the mummer's ragbag, splended costume, sophisticated lighting techniques, elegant props and a flawless makeup job (how much we owe to television), that would have done Madame Tussaud proud. 'Sweet Mr Shakespeare' is a one man show, devised by, and a vehicle for, expatriate Christchurch actor Jonathon Elsom who, for the past iffteen years, has been working on stage and TV in England.

The production is in two parts, the first being an impression of Shakespeare from contemporary sources, with Elsom impersonating such writers as Ben Jonson, Nicholas Rowe, Robert Greene and John Aubrey. The second half is taken up with a fine histrionic performance of the sonnets and a tape-recorded Lament from Cymbeline, voice over a brooding [unclear: bard].

Photo of actors, one being crucified

Mr Elsom is an accomplished actor. Dame Ngaio Marsh is an excellent director, (a word which seems to have replaced 'producer' in the theatre these days). The acting was polished and the production impeccably staged and directed. Why then was it disappointing? What was lacking? Why was I bored?

For a start, it lacked structure and a coherent development of a central idea or theme. The whole work lacked cohesion. The second half seemed tacked on as padding, almost an afterthought. An a performance of the sonnets, even such a good one is pretty old hat - hardly the stuff of scintillating theatre. There were some droll impersonations, but the highlight of the evening was a cameo of Launce addressing his dog from Two Gentlemen of Verona'.

This was hilarious relief and an attempt to reveal the bard's character through an excerpt from a play. More of this, rather than a concentration on the sonnets certainly would have made for more entertaining theatre and demonstrated Jonathon Elsom's considerable talent to better advantage.

'Sweet Mr Shakespeare' is just this, a demonstration of the classical actor's craft. It lacked content and the scholarship necessary to cast anything but a dim light on the enigma of Shakespeare's character. It even lacked the froth and buble that its tital implies. Without the resources of the rich theatre, this production wouldn't have been much more than a poorly researched stage one English lecture. It amounted to nice Mr Elsom holding our noses and giving us a good dose of culture.

This kind of theatre does have its audience though. They are wheeled into the auditorium in their fur stoles and lorgnettes, exclaiming appreciatively and ha ha ha-ing ostentatiously. One of these days I will review a typical Downstage audience.

The Amamus Theatre is a horse of a completely different colour. Its roots are firmly embedded in Grotowski's poor theatre and they are, I think, the only group in this country so committed to his austere and demanding ideology. Certainly I have not seen theatre pushed to these limits before, nor any local product more powerful than 'Gallipoli'.

This is theatre divested of all its trappings, reduced to a basic ritualistic confrontation between actor and audience. There is no set. The audience is seated in a small oblong surrounding the actors. Downstage's sophisticated and expensive lighting facilities are ignored. The house lights are left on, exposing the audience and tacitly involving them in the action. This is not to say that light is unimportant. The actors use the light and dark areas of the floor subtly and to effect. The floor, upon which they evoke the beach at Gallipoli solely with movement and a minimal script.

I understand they found working on a tym mat on this carpeted floor a little disconcerting. They are accustomed to working on resonant bare boards. Rhythm is important in their work, body rhythm and chanting. 'Gallipoli' begins with Paul Maunder huddled, rhythmically slapping the floor.

Props consist of a 303 rifle in 'Gallipoli' and a large cross in 'The Half Dance of Mary M'. With these props, combined with their technique and sincerity, they succeed in breathing new life into theatre in this country.

I am not suggesting that these pieces are without fault. Greater breadth of conception and a further devlopment of its rich potential would have made 'Gallipoli' a more substantial piece. However, to err on the side of economy is not a bad fault. I found 'The Half Dance of Mary M' a little unintelligible and the use of the cross in this piece unfortunately a little half-baked. Probably the most powerful single symbol in our culture, in this piece the prop upstaged the actor. If, as I understand, 'Mary M.' is an excerpt from a larger work, this may explain its weakness.

These faults are minor however, considering Amamus Theatre's greater achievement. They are exploring a no man's land, the very periphery of theatre. Their work has a raw honesty and toughness and is exciting indeed.

I was more than slightly surprised to see the critical columns of The Dominion suddenly grow teeth last week in George Webby's review of this production. Accustomed to Russell Bond creaming his flannels trying not to offend anybody, I fair dropped my ginger nut at the vehemence of Mr Webby's attack. What's more, he condemns them for what I consider are their very strengths! Mr Webby is the director of the National Theatre school, and does not burst into print very often. What have Amamus done the incurs your wrath George?

Are your interests so vested in the camp establishment theatre that serious and committed work of this ilk is anathema to you? Or was the review just dashed off, late at night for a quick buck? Whichever reason, George, your motives are suspect.