Written and directed by Patrick Graham
Produced by Theatrewhack
Staged at 21 Mercury, 21 Mercury Lane, Auckland
From Thursday 02 May to Saturday 04 May, 2013 at 8pm
Reviewed on Friday 03 May, 2013
Playing time 1 hour 15 minutes
Mercury Lane was once called France Street.
The name was changed to memorialize the Mercury Theatre Company, Auckland’s first fully professional theatre company which created work in the Mercury Theatre building from 1968 when it opened with J.M Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton until it’s sad demise with Robert Lord’s Glorious Ruins (previously staged as Bert & Maisy) in 1992. There are many reasons given for the closure of the theatre including tensions between the artistic and general management, an even-increasing debt and the resident opera company and main income source moving to the Aotea Centre. Seldom mentioned are draconian changes to Arts Council structure and policy which coincided with the troubles the company was having and saw the council abdicate any responsibility it had previously taken for funding ‘bricks and mortar’.
Exit The Mercury which was subsequently purchased by the Apostolic Equippers Church, perhaps best known for the row sparked by their Church but not as you know it billboard that claimed ‘Jesus heals cancer’, who have had the building on the market with an asking price of $2M since 2009.
So France Street became Mercury Lane and, apart from the odd, well intentioned but ill-advised, attempt to raise interest in buying the building back to restore it as a performing arts space, theatre now happens, in the main, elsewhere.
Enter Theatrewhack and Patrick Graham.
If you know of Graham and his work you’ll know that it’s anything but traditional, the sort of work that makes art councils and other funding bodies reach for their manifestoes only to find that, surprise of all surprises, they don’t have the resources to fund the truly innovative, the ground-breaking or new works that challenge anything that looks vaguely as though it might dare to confront those things called ‘societal norms’.
Arts councils tend to leave the projects that fall outside their conformist bailiwick to die or, alternatively, to be staged, at maximum risk, by any person brave enough to have a go at them.
Graham often finds that his projects fall into the funding too hard basket and I can seriously empathise with that having lived with the same scenario for almost 20 years. My way of dealing with this was to add to the programme for unfunded projects the phrase ‘this project has received no support from …. ’ and then name the organizations I’d applied to who had turned the opportunity down. It gave my audiences the opportunity to judge the quality of my work alongside its unfunded status and make a judgement about this for themselves. I recall, out for a Sunday morning stroll in the hills above Port Chalmers following performances of a touring show I’d written, running into a fellow who worked for a regional arts council who had rejected an application for funding for the show he’d attended the night before and thought was ‘absolutely brilliant’. At the end of an entirely amicable conversation which was full of praise for my work he referred to the programme note and asked, somewhat naively I thought, ‘why do you hate us so much?’ I had no answer beyond ‘I don’t hate you, I just find your funding criteria incomprehensible’ and I must say nothing has changed – and artists like Graham are the worse off for it.
Graham’s work is often staged, for a variety of absolutely valid reasons, in non-traditional venues. 21 Mercury, while conforming to the non-traditional model, sits comfortably, for me anyway, just a few doors down from the ‘Old Merc’ and right in the heart of what I still consider to be Auckland theatre country. My family and I arrived to see Lost Girls unfashionably early only to find, when we took our seats, that the performance had actually begun. We were given seating options by a charming usher (Katherine Hair) who, it transpired, was also performing in the work, a fact I didn’t catch onto until I read the excellent programme notes. He character was called simply The Usher and it made perfect sense as things played out.
The performing space was an average sized, rectangular, white-painted, concrete block room with seating all around the walls. The performing space was delineated within the rows of seats by further rows of somewhat arcane objects – a baby’s bath, beer crates and dozens – if not hundreds – of toys, the detritus of the lives of the people we were about to meet.
The programme alerted me to the fact that Lost Girls hadn’t been created to comply with a three act, linear narrative nor should I expect it to be naturalistic. It was, however, intentionally fashioned using a style that Graham and his cast derived from Brechtian Epic theatre. I hoped that this didn’t mean I would have to know what Brechtian Epic was because, while I thought I did, what would happen if I didn’t. I needn’t have worried.
Natalie Hugill (L) , Patrick Graham, Katherine Hair, Julia Hyde, Catherine McHattie (R)
Graham also affirms that his motivation in re-staging the work has been an amalgam of his reaction to the rising number of rape apologists in the media and on social networking sites, current cases such as Steubenville and others and the ongoing defense of those who commit violence against their partners especially if they happen to be famous. He mentions the All Blacks and I would add the case involving broadcaster Tony Veitch though the list is seemingly endless. I must say I found it heartening to know that there are still theatre practitioners in this country who are prepared to reflect on what is happening in our society, to be opinionated about it and to make it the core content of their work.
As I read the programme and took in the environment I became aware of the three women chatting on the couch at the end of the room, their conversation semi-audible. It became increasingly clear that, while it didn’t matter if we didn’t catch the snippets of conversation they were having it might be helpful if we did. I also became aware that, from a technical perspective, Graham had chosen not to use conventional theatre sound or lighting but rather what was available, the on-and-off switch on the wall, a torch, music boxes and self-created sound.
Having said all that, this work is all about the actors, the style and the impact.
The central characters are played as real people but those with whom they interact are not. These characters are larger than life, sometimes stereotypical, often grotesque, and always recognizable. There’s the drunken mother, the creepy hairstylist, the deeply disturbed brother, Barry the bastard boyfriend and his scary pixting sister, the redneck aunty and all snipped together by fragmented memories and snapshots of lives soon to be lost. It’s all pretty cathartic and builds theatrically to a number of highly charged mini-climaxes before all the threads are pulled together to form the horrifying, but eminently predictable, ending. These are characters we know, people we’ve grown up with whose stories have, and continue to, shock us: Jennifer Mary Beard, Kirsa Jensen, Mona Blades, Kirsty Bentley. They’re all innately present as are the warnings, the admonitions against hitching, the reminder not to talk to strangers but this isn’t just a cautionary tale, it’s a horror story about the unbelievably terrifying things that humans do to each other, how they’re often not only accepted by society but applauded, and how we all walk just one small step from the trap.
The theatrical tools Graham uses to get his message across are complex and uncompromising and require actors with the ability to articulate them with a subtlety that draws us in and smacks us in a way that we almost plead for more. Well, I did say they were complex but so are we, the audience, and, in the sure hands of these actors, they work a treat. Scenes where film noir realism meets Wedekindian grotesquery are hard to pull off but these actors do it – again and again – and without dropping the mask at any time.
I mentioned the sublime Katherine Hair earlier. She plays a range of characters that mostly run parallel to, and support, the main themes. Never the victim, Hair plays a collective predator weaving a web around his victims and snaring his prey in the most terrifying silence I’ve experienced for a long time. She’s truly frightening and her clear understanding of what her function is really makes the piece work.
Natalie Hugill (her character is known only as M) has a burlesque and cabaret background which really fits when the characters she plays are bizarre and larger than life but she shines most when she establishes the absolute reality of her unwitting victim. Hers is the character least likely, by personal circumstance, to fall foul of a killer on the make, but the growing inevitability that faces her – and us – and makes us want to scream, is inexorable but we remain silent in a way that clearly reiterates Graham’s ‘I told you so’ objective. Dying on stage – and I don’t mean comedically – is extremely difficult but Hugill’s death is as good as I’ve seen anywhere.
Catherine McHattie’s character (K) has ‘victim’ written all over her from the moment she appears. She has moments of stoicism but hers is one of those characters who we know is going to suffer. As written, she makes bad choices and her demise, though deeply regrettable, is totally predictable. It’s fine, empathic work and her monstrous grotesques are extremely effective as well.
I’ve had the pleasure of watching, and in a small way, being part of Julia Hyde’s career so it came as no small surprise to find her excellent in this work as well. She plays T and does so brilliantly. Children are notoriously difficult for adult actors to play with any degree of credibility but she brings it off with a seamless ease. The familial scenes with Hair playing Hyde’s sociopathic younger brother and McHattie as the long-suffering Mum are among the best in the play. While it’s clear from the programme – and from the passage of the play – that all is going to end badly the nature of the end is unpredictable, underplayed and awful.
Graham is a fine playwright and, while this is clearly – to me anyway – his best work yet, he still needs actors who can absorb his vision and reproduce his intention in a way that is both palatable and accessible to his audience and, in this case, he has them in spades. Don’t be confused, in using the word ‘palatable’ I don’t mean the audience should necessarily like the content of the work as alienation and distress are perfectly valid – if rare – emotions to experience in the theatre but when the intelligence and education of the writer gets in the way of understanding for the audience there is often an insurmountable disconnect and it’s a disconnect Graham often tantalizingly plays with. Personally, I like it – and in this case it works exceptionally well.
Lost Girls has a point to make and it makes it in an uncompromising and brutal fashion. Not brutal like a bash on the head, but brutal as in a growing realisation that this is something we really need to collectively do something about. If our conscience had a guts this would be a necessary good swift kick in it.
I value Patrick Graham because we need people like him working in our theatre. I applaud his courage in that he has the balls to trust his own work, to stage it and to put it, unprotected, on the line. Producer, writer, director: that’s a big call – and a big target. Only if he acted in his work as well could he possibly be more exposed. The fact that actors of the quality of Hyde, Hair, Hugill and McHattie agreed to take on this harrowing work speaks volumes for him – and for them.
See Lost Girls if you get the chance.
It’s well worth it.