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At The Wake - review

At The Wake - review

At The Wake, by Victor Rodger.
Directed by Roy Ward.

Herald Theatre
November 27, 2014.

 

Playwright Victor Rodger has had a cracker year. His Fringe hit Black Faggot (a polemic title but with a gentle heart) had two return seasons in Auckland before heading to Edinburgh Fringe where it became one of the best received productions in the “NZ at Edinburgh” season. His 1998 debut play Sons was revived by ATC in Mangere.

Now to top it off, Multinesia’s Black Faggot team, with director Roy Ward again at the helm, present the Auckland premiere of At the Wake. Audiences are very well served having Rodger’s plays on our stages.

With the Christmas tree now firmly planted at the top of the Aotea Centre’s steps, it does feel like an odd time for Auckland Live to be programming a work like this, with audiences looking for frothy fare. Marketing bills this as a “deliciously inappropriate dark comedy”, but it’s really not. Ward treats its themes of death and dysfunction far more seriously than that.

But don’t let the subject matter put you off. If you hold on to the Pure and Deep feeling for another two weeks and get to the Herald Theatre, you’ll be rewarded with some affecting counter-programming to the silliness of the Basement Xmas show or the spectacle of Jesus Christ Superstar.

At the Wake has expanded from a thought-experiment by Rodger where he imagined what would happen if estranged family members from both sides of his dual Kiwi-Samoan heritage were to meet. In the play, 25-year-old afakasi Robert (Taofia Pelesasa) has to not only deal with burying his mother, taken too soon by cancer, but the war of words between his actress grandmother Joan (Lisa Harrow), and his absent Samoan father Tofiala (Robbie Magasiva), who has turned up unexpectedly for the funeral.

The first half introduces the relationship between Robert and Joan, summed up by Robert’s statement: “I don’t talk to anyone like this Nan.” She’s very critical of his decision to wear a “skirt” to the funeral, though her intolerance for matters cultural is countered by her liberal acceptance of Robert’s homosexuality.

The character of Joan, operating on a potent mix of valium and Jack Daniels, is a gift to an actress, and Lisa Harrow dominates with her refusal to be polite and not say exactly what’s on her mind. There’s quite a funny moment when Joan encourages Robert to exchange funeral sex stories. Robert often implores Joan to “stop acting”, and at times I wished the character would too, as we barely get to see the woman behind the bluster.

In contrast, Magasiva with his scruffy beard and downcast gaze gives a highly effective unshowy performance as we come to understand his character and decisions in the second half.

There is some very clever humour scattered through the show, although much of the comedy relies on outrageous statements from Grandmother. This is problematic when she makes easy culturally offensive slurs. She doesn’t come out well, and neither do the audience who respond with laughter. The play does moving very well, especially when Pelesasa’s mature resilience breaks and the loss of his mother is deeply felt.

At the Wake at first seems to move to predictable beats, taking us from funeral speeches and an emotional father-son reunion to a tense wake with a resistant grandmother. Rodger revisits Black Faggot material when they inevitably get to the “I’m gay” conversation between Robert and born-again Christian Tofiala, but just when you think you know how this all goes, Tofiala comes out with a brilliant clanger. Rodger knows how to surprise.

Ward and Rodger could afford to snip the set-up (and the unnecessarily long set changes in act one), remove the interval, and get us to the wake conversation faster. In this scene it becomes apparent Rodger is less interested in farcical escalation, more interested in dishing out dramatic home truths. He produces with some shock revelations, and allegiances change from moment to moment.

As Joan says, funerals “reunify people in the most hideous circumstances”, and it makes for edge-of-your-seat viewing as long-unexpressed feelings find powerful articulation. While At the Wake doesn’t work as a black comedy, it’s extremely good as a pretty-messed-up drama.

 

Until December 6. aucklandlive.co.nz.

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