Cultural highlights – March 2016

March was an eventful month (pun intended), despite spending a quarter of it hiking in the bush. Took advantage of the Auckland Arts and New Zealand (in Wellington) Festivals to see eight shows, plus the usual regular trips to the Basement Theatre and cinema.

New Zealand Festival

The New Zealand Festival was a great excuse to explore the capital’s arts venues including the beautiful St James Theatre and Opera House, and the more functional Hannah Playhouse.

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DSC01490 Hannah PlayhouseThe highlight was Complexity of Belonging, an Australian contemporary dance / theatre show, which whilst striving a little too hard to capture the zeitgeist, hit the mark enough times to make it one of the best things I’ve seen so far this year. In particular Lauren Langlois’ 176 things sought in a perfect man, while performing complex dance moves, was extraordinary and fully deserving of the huge mid show applause.

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Cineastas was quite different. My first experience of theatre in another language, the Argentinian play featured subtitles, though I suspect a fair amount was lost in translation from the Spanish. I liked the multi level staging, though as I for some reason expected, it was a curiously unemotional piece, with most of the dialogue in the form of third person voice over.

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The Devil’s Half Acre was the only home grown show I saw at the festival, set in gold rush era Dunedin. It was brilliantly atmospheric, in particular the match lit bookend scenes, with innovative staging. The final third let it down though, and I lost interest in the characters as it dragged on toward a predictable finish.

Auckland Arts Festival

Now an annual event, oddly timed perhaps to overlap with the New Zealand Festival, would be interesting to compare stats. I was initially sceptical about the festival for some reason but ended up seeing six shows, theatre, dance and music.

The theatre was home grown. The intellectually dense, innovatively staged, thematically complex and ultimately slightly unsatisfying Te Pō. Feeling ill and exhausted probably didn’t help my appreciation, I could admire it but not love it.

Changes was my second, and most likely last, NZ contemporary dance show at the Skycity Theatre. After being blown away by the Sydney Dance Company’s 2 One Another at the Aotea Centre just over a year ago, which converted me to the merits of contemporary dance, I looked forward to The Kiss Inside at the Skycity Theatre last year, to be profoundly disappointed by the symbolically rich but dance lite work. Changes was marginally better but still offered relatively few nuggets even in a relatively short running time.

More satisfying, if more traditional in style if not approach, was milonga, my first taste of tango despite spending the Christmas holidays in Argentina. Great dancing, live music and varied staging made for a captivating show, with the backdrops bringing back memories of my recent trip to Buenos Aires.

Best venue of the festival was the Spiegeltent, a very funky and stylish tent in Aotea Square, which was a fitting place to see The Great Downhill Journey of Little Tommy. An entertaining rock musical, which though not a patch on The Who’s Tommy, did show impressive commitment from the young Belgium group as they variously played a small boy, a drunk, guards, workmen, and a former madam.

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The most virtuoso Belgium performer of the festival though was Valentijn Dhaenens, in his one man show BigMouth. Recounting and linking speeches from the past two and half thousand years into a single cohesive whole, this was a captivatingly powerful piece.

As was my festival opener, Sufjan Stevens at The Civic. One of the best marriages of sound and light I’ve seen, it created a magical atmosphere, though the songwriting for me failed to match the power of the sound.

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It was beaten as the best gig of the month by L’orchestre d’hommes performing Tom Waits at Q Theatre. Quirky Frenchmen performing the quirky American’s songs using every manner of instrument, or at least method of producing sound, including wine bottles, scissors, frying pans, mouse traps, balloons, boots and books. Quite brilliant.

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Basement Theatre

Usual eclectic mix of shows, which is why I like the place so much. The Green Effect was an entertaining improvised panel comedy show, perfect for a Friday night. The Offensive Nipple Show was a brave, hilarious and challenging show of more depth than the title would suggest. 36 Questions was more of a social experiment, only as good as it’s participants, who unfortunately were unevenly matched.

Cinema

The Oscar session is over so things are a little quieter at the cinema. Hail, Caesar! was average Coen Brothers, with moments of comic genius, but not enough, nor characters that stretched beyond stereotype, to make it truly satisfying.

A Bigger Splash was completely unbalanced by film stealing acting from Ralph Fiennes, who was magnificent in every way, but unfortunately put the rest of the film in the shade. Parts of it made me quite angry at the waste of such talent on a hugely patchy script, with much promise squandered.

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