The Best Theatre of 2014
Plays are still the thing.
Above: The Basement crew – Sophie Henderson, Charlotte Vickers, Peter Davison, Sam Snedden and Elise Sterback. Photograph by Simon Young.
Best Company: The Basement
It’s been five years since Silo exited stage left, inviting the next generation of actors and other theatre types to take over the premises behind the carpark at the bottom of Greys Ave. And what a takeover it’s been. The Basement celebrated its fifth birthday in typical fashion: regular performer Ryan Richards emerged from a giant vagina and then, in a blackout, accidentally knocked the giant birthday cake to the ground. Delicious? We’ll never know.
If you think of The Basement as a charming if dirty venue in need of some love, you’re out of touch. The foyer these days is flash as, with artwork from the Wallace collection sprucing up the walls; the bar is well stocked and they even sell cookies from Moustache Milk & Cookie Bar. And they do so many shows: the upstairs and downstairs stages are always busy, and it’s common to find old pros like Michael Hurst, Lisa Chappell and Elizabeth Hawthorne mixing it onstage with newcomers.
Original general manager Charlie McDermott has handed over the venue to a triumvirate of Sophie Henderson, Sam Snedden and Elise Sterback (aided by bar manager Charlotte Vickers and house technician Peter Davison). Far more than just running a venue for hire, they focus on new works and new artists, and they mentor the companies that work under their roof every step of the way. That raises the artistic standards and professionalism among all involved.
This year, The Basement has been the place to go for life-after-dark, and not just with plays. Late-night Snort improv shows are a hoot and attract a comic-cult following every Friday, and The Watercooler holds monthly storytelling events for the hipster set. Dynamotion’s “dacting” (dance acting) shows Terror Highway and Purple Rainbow are always a fun time.
New talent has been showcased with Young & Hungry and new ideas through Red Leap Incubator’s The Feast. The Basement was the perfect venue for a takeover by the vibrant youthful energy of Auckland Theatre Company’s The Selecta, the highlight being Giant Teeth, devised by co-directors Laurel Devenie and Katy Maudlin and the cast, which featured a lineup of teenage freaks in a calico circus tent.
With Creative New Zealand committed to funding its risk-share model for the next three years, The Basement is the beating heart of Auckland theatre.
Honourable Mention: Q Theatre
With three stages of its own, Q also has a remarkably busy and very often exciting programme. And we do love that bar.
Most Ambitious Farewell Party: Angels in America
Outgoing Silo director Shane Bosher had clearly been itching to do Tony Kushner’s double banger for some time — and his final show after 13 years in charge was the biggest thing he, or Silo itself, had ever done. Angels was typical Bosher, though, mixing restraint with exuberance in an emotionally exhausting marathon worth every minute, pulled off by athlete-actors at the top of their games. It was theatre to binge on.
At the start of the year, 360 was another work of ambition, a profoundly uneconomic show staged inside an enclosed circular set on the stage of the Civic Theatre, with the audience on swivel chairs in the middle. There was a seal, a swan and a circus cannon, and a moving circular narrative.
ATC also got ambitious with Jesus Christ Superstar, putting 40 people on a set ranging fully through all three levels of Q’s Rangatira auditorium. It was the ideal blowout to finish the year on, and notable for one of the best comebacks: none other than Shane Bosher himself, in top form as creepy Priest Annas.
Most Exciting Auckland Playwright: Sam Brooks
In Riding with Cars with (Mostly Straight) Boys, Sam Brooks set his play in a silver hatchback parked outside The Basement. In Wine Lips, he took his audience into the venue’s much- used greenroom for a love letter to the theatre industry. A back-to-back winner of Playmarket’s Under-25 playwriting competition, Brooks brings a sensitive and perceptive eye to personal crises and contemporary society, and presents what he sees in daring fashion.
In Cars, Kyle has an open habit of falling for his straight guy friends, and the play succeeded in entertainingly exposing the agonies of unrequited love and being an outsider. In Wine Lips, two exes reunite backstage, while a show about “a forbidden ?love? between ?a ?Mormon missionary? and ?a ?free-loving? dancer” rages in the theatre next door. (Can we please see this show next?)
With some plain truths aimed at the film and theatre industry, it was a strong insight into the artists who entertain us.
Fellow Playmarket winner Jess Sayer is another fascinating voice, and Fix, which she wrote when she was 21, is a firecracker of a play. Returning from New York, Arthur Meek took big risks with Trees Beneath the Lake and they paid off in an astute family drama that takes stock of the nation. Meek is a major force. And it was brilliant to see workhorse Thomas Sainsbury given a main-bill debut by Silo: his Sunday Roast was a wicked serving of Kiwi gothic dysfunction.
Most Thrilling Female Performance: Sophie Henderson
After impressing in her film Fantail, Henderson’s portrayal of Abby in Silo’s Belleville was the most fearless stage performance of the year. An American living in Paris and gripped by a fast-growing anxiety on account of a boyfriend who is not all he seems, Abby emotionally bares all to her audience (though when it came time to physically bare all, we did wonder how someone holed up in their apartment could be so tanned).
Elsewhere, Chelsie Preston-Crayford brought clarity to her character Harper’s stew of valium and fantasia in Angels in America. Toni Potter in Sunday Roast carved up multiple memorable characters. Robyn Malcolm was the main reason to see The Good Soul of Szechuan, playing goody-two-shoes prostitute Shen Te and ruthless male alter-ego drug pin Shui Ta. It was the Agent Anna-versus-Cheryl West smack-down we’d all been waiting for.
Best Boy’s Own Hero: Stephen Lovatt
Is there anything that Stephen Lovatt can’t do? This year, he’s charged up Chunuk Bair, scaled Everest in Everest Untold, battled mortality in Angels in America and even suffered the comic indignities of Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels. So many of the great moments in theatre this year have been of his making. As Roy Cohn dealing with the advancing ravages of Aids in Angels in America, Lovatt out-Pacino’d Pacino. He was menacing, ghastly, brutal, oh-so charismatic, and managed to make one of the most hated men in American history sympathetic as he neared his end. Then in the same play, Lovatt skipped across stage as a foppish Prior Walter ancestor.
And when Lovatt’s Colonel Connolly limped up the corpse-strewn hill in Once on Chunuk Bair (he does look dashing in a uniform), he seized that play. Lovatt barked all the right nationalistic noises, taking pride in his Wellington Infantry Battalion, knowing he was using their new sense of nationhood to send the men to their deaths. Just as Lovatt’s Cohn approached death with new eyes, one of the defining moments in theatre this year was the confused recognition in Lovatt’s face as he registered the artillery shell about to hit.
Best Debut: Daffodils
I knew I was going to love Daffodils ( at the Loft at Q) when actor Todd Emerson, beer at the ready, launched into a boisterous version of the Th’ Dudes’ “Bliss”. For this play, Rochelle Bright stole the Kiwi songbook, blunted by hours of radio-play of Dobbyn, McGlashan, Runga et al, and used remixes by New York-based Lips to refresh the shared New Zealand experience.
Bright’s parents, Eric and Rose, met by a bed of daffodils in the early hours of a Hamilton morning in 1964, and the show is a tribute to their story — to their love and their anguish and sorrows. It’s a particularly moving portrait of her father, an all-too-believable member of the stoic generation of Kiwi men. Colleen Davis ached as she sang a love-torn “Anchor Me”; Emerson choked on Dobbyn’s “Language”. A supremely confident and meaningful cabaret-story debut presented by Bullet Heart Club, the most exciting new company to arrive in Auckland this year. More please.
The Q Loft presented many other memorable music-infused experiences, most notably Fractious Trash’s Earnest, which moved the queer subtext to the centre of Oscar Wilde’s play and strongly suggested Cher is Wilde’s spiritual successor.
Best Clown: Trygve Wakenshaw
Also winning best-handlebar moustache and sweatiest knees, Trygve Wakenshaw presented his one-man double whammy of Squidboy and Kraken in the Comedy Festival, and it was the most joyously silly experience of the year, by far. In Squidboy, a polar fleece transforms the gangly performer into a squid, who is chased by bagpipe players and offers imaginary crisps to audience members. And so on.
In Kraken, a more polished and even more hilarious work, he plays off audience offers and invites us all to be idiots together. Off-stage, Wakenshaw says he invented Kraken on the trot: he had a booking at Adelaide for a new show, but after four weeks’ residency in beautiful rehearsal rooms in Norway, he hadn’t come up with any useable material. So he went on stage and riffed with the audience. All it took was prodigious physicality, quick wits, exquisite timing and sly charm. And mad genius.
Worst Narrative Sins: Outfit Theatre Company
Since 2008, Outfit Theatre Company has been making its name with ensemble productions on sexy topics that appealed to its twenty- to thirtysomething peers. But Sin at Q committed its own narrative sins with perplexing story and character choices. The anonymous surveys and devised rehearsal models failed them.
This was a year that saw too much highly anticipated work from established companies debut with entrenched narrative problems. Red Leap’s Sea was beautiful and expensive, but the story was lost in the wash. The My Bed My Universe collaboration between Sam Scott’s Massive Company, the NZ Trio and playwright Gary Henderson might have worked on paper, but the disparate parts didn’t speak to each other. Instead of lifting our gaze, they used tired clichés — “sure thing, Shore girl” — and this premiere turned into an underwhelming slog. Despite the best efforts of ATC and Okareka Dance company, Briar Grace-Smith’s Paniora! had its own dramatic kinks.
Development of new plays is fraught at the best of times, and this year it has not always been done the way it should: with a commitment to starting in studio spaces (hurrah again for The Basement and Q Theatre’s Loft) or out of town, strong decision-making about when a show is ready, and flexible programming to allow the tough calls to be made.