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The Fest Test: Art and Sport

Owain Arthur (Francis Henshall) in One Man, Two Guvnors - Photo credit - Johan Persson
I, George Nepia - pic credit - Tawata Productions
I'm thinking about what art and sport have in common. They are both great cultural levellers.


The latest Auckland Arts Festival blog from Mark Amery.

9pm Thursday

As the long shadows start to stretch over the cricket and soccer games on the green expanses of the Auckland Domain in the evening, I'm thinking about what art and sport have in common. They are both great cultural levellers. When you join a sports team you're often entering a society far more mixed than that from which you've come. Likewise theatrefolk come from all parts. I count getting involved in theatre as a teen -  a hop skip and a jump over Grafton Gully from here - as a key reason why my friendships cross many different cultural and social boundaries..

I wrote that on the way to see I, George Nepia in Q Theatre's Loft. A return season for this award winning play in Auckland after its first appearance during the Rugby World Cup Festival. The play really isn't about rugby, despite being the story of one of our most famous All Blacks (the fullback who was one of the so-called 'Invincibles', winning 32 games on the trot). It's about whanau and friends. How people matter most. Nepia, as played so beautifully by Jarod Rawiri, is shy, open-eyed to the wonder of the world - travelling across the oceans from Nuhaka near Wairoa to Great Britain he soaks everything in.

If theatre were a team sport this Tawata production would be invincible. Despite being a one-man show and having many of the elements familiar to people of that (quick character and time changes, an old man looking back) it's really not a solo show. The lighting by Robert Larsen, projected illustrations by Thomas Larsen, music by Miriama Ketu-McKenzie and sound by Karnan Saba are so integral to the work they are equal players - a rare thing in theatre. Under Jason Te Kare's direction Rawiri abstracts common movements into a slow lyrical dance that works beautifully in concert with these other theatrical elements.

In I, George Nepia we're well over halfway before rugby really features. Unlike most solo works about sport the climax isn't one person enacting a high stakes team game. Instead the work like Nepia has a poetry to it. It's soft and gentle in a way few theatre pieces are. Rawiri has this beautiful honesty and quietness to him, shifting ages with a roll of the shoulders.

I don't know much about Nepia. I'm no rugby head. Though I'm pleased via Christian Cullen to see my hometown of Paekakariki get a shout-out ("Paekakariki represent!" called out the production team as I arrived at the theatre). We don't get to hear too much about Nepia's biography - about his defection to Rugby league, or how he was omitted from a tour of South Africa on racial grounds - rather the play focusses on Nepia's emotional journey. How he felt about things, rather than what he did.
The one key weakness of the play is a plot point. Or perhaps I wasn't listening hard enough. Nepia had four children but one really only features, his eldest son George, a rugby player himself. The play is framed by Nepia as an old man waiting to see if his son will turn up. And yet I missed why they were estranged, nor why this was significant.

That was yesterday. The night before, regular readers might recall, I took my mother out for a bit of gratuitous male nudity in the Festival Club, with Cantina. Tonight, it's Dad's turn.

With One Man, Two Guvnors it turns out I couldn't have produced a show better myself to suit my father's tastes.

Comedy or drama? The former, and make it of the early 1960s Man About the House variety. Year? 1963, when Dad was discovering his independence as a 15 year old. Music? skiffle that moves into early Beatles styles with a bit of The Shadows thrown in. And make it live. Location? Brighton, where my father and mother courted.
You know that moment in the theatre when the actors crack up laughing at their own joke and the fourth wall comes crashing down, cast and audience both reduced to tears of laughter? It's not giving away too much, I don't think to say that, at its best, this is One Man Two Guvnors modus operandi. Laugh? Did we what.

Coming from the National Theatre and time on the West End and Broadway, this is top class cobber Guv, if rather on the light side. A rewrite by Brtiish playwright Richard Bean of the 18th century Italian play The Servant of Two Masters (you can work out the comedy of errors plot line from the title) by Carlo Goldoni, stylistically its a big buffet of Britain's rich history comedic styles, all crammed onto the same plate. From Shakespeare through music hall to Benny Hill.  The actual storyline is commedia dell'Arte and our foolish Harlequin Owain Arthur. He kicks down that fourth wall as if he's constantly tripping over the supports. He's an utter delight.

After a slow start it's Arthur's play in the first half, abetted by the hilarious misfortunate elderly waiter Alfie, played dexterously by Mark Jackson and the charming young English Toffy git Stanbley played by Edward Bennett. They have us in the proverbial palm, the plot of the play quickly subsumed by clever comic ruses. But this is s a play of two halves, and the second is far too busy tying up the story ends to stop and involve us. Its just not that funny or interesting. The production goes from total crack up to being both silly and lame. 

Written by

Mark Amery

14 Mar 2013

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.