New Zealand International Arts FestivalLeft - 11 and 12 directed by Peter Brook. Image - Pascal Victor/ArtComArt

The weather did it’s best to impress as artists and audiences arrived in Wellington for the 2010 New Zealand International Arts Festival. With an impressive roster of international talent fleshing out a schedule jam-packed with theatre, dance, authors, and music from New Zealand artists, the 24th biennial Festival ran from 26 February through to 21 March. While the sunshine did not last, curiosity prevailed and audiences flocked to the theatre in search of new and innovative theatrical experiences from around the globe.

The much-lauded international program curated by artistic director Lissa Twomey enticed ticket buyers with prestigious talent and grand-scale vision. Among the most anticipated arrivals was 11 and 12 from Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in France, directed by the illustrious Peter Brook.

His first production to be performed in New Zealand, 11 and 12 is an adaptation of African writer Amadou Hampaté Bâ’s book Tierno Bokar. The production brings together a uniquely transnational cast, recruiting actors from Africa, Palestine, America and Europe to tell the story of an Africa rocked by colonialism. Audiences gathered at the 11 and 12 Art Talk to hear about the play’s creation process and to ask the inevitable question of actor Abdou Ouologuem – “what was it like working with Mr. Brook?” Through a translator Ouologuem reminded us that the theatrical magic of 11 and 12 relies on the connection between the actors and the audience, something that ‘Mr. Brook’ (who was not present) fosters by encouraging open communication and input from his performers throughout rehearsals. Told with Brook’s trademark simplicity, 11 and 12 is rife with pertinent social meaning and tells a poignant story of our human capacity for tolerance and respect.

Grzegorz Jarzyna’s stunning T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T. (TR Warszawa, Poland) seduced audiences with its cinematic eroticism at the TSB Arena, and The Walworth Farce (Druid, Ireland), that quirky play-within-a-play, ended its extensive worldwide tour by playing at the Opera House. As a late night snack, the wickedly funny multimedia cabaret Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (1927, United Kingdom) entertained at the Pacific Blue Festival Club.

Even with their theatrical reputations preceding them, the international works featured in this year’s Festival could not overshadow the excellent offerings created by homegrown artists, many of them returning from overseas tours of their own. I found the blend of innovative design with national politics riveting in these Kiwi productions. 

360 at Te Whaea uses an intriguing reversed theatre in the round stage that centers the audience in swivel seats. Comparable to sitting in a bumper car, we can maneuver ourselves to face in any direction as the stage is cleverly enclosed in a ring. Characters vanish and reappear throughout the performance, playing tricks in peripheral vision to our dizzy delight. More than just a metaphor, this collaboration between Nightsong Productions and Theatre Stampede employs this concept to tell the story of multiple generations in a circus family, exploring the cyclical nature of memory along the way.

Award-winning kaupapa Maori production house Tawata Productions staged a beautiful bilingual reunion between two lovers in He Reo Aroha at Soundings Theatre. Created to showcase a side of Maori culture rarely seen in the media today, the nostalgic strains of traditional music are mixed with romantic new compositions. Those around me who knew the words sang along, celebrating the familiar everyday moments in the production. He Reo Aroha created a community in the theatre that reminded me of why we love to return home.

There was something for everyone on the national stage, from the colonialist tale Mark Twain and Me in Maoriland (Taki Rua Productions) that was based upon the true events of an 1895 visit by the legendary author, to the pure theatrical magic of The Arrival (Red Leap Theatre), a favorite from the recent Sydney Festival. Apollo 13: Mission Control (HACKMAN) installed itself in Downstairs Theatre to recreate all the excitement of this ill-fated spacecraft launch in glorious scenic detail, complete with consoles for those audience members lucky enough to be seated on the main floor.

As with any major Festival of its kind, running alongside and in deference to the more accessible and amateur programming of the Fringe, ticket cost seemed the main point of contention among the public as many productions commanded a steep $60 - $80 price before transaction fees. The usual rush ticket policies were in place, and if one could get in line early enough down at Lambton Quay there were $20 deals to be had. Inevitably these high price points encourage a certain demographic at the theatre, and I wonder if those who could afford to partake actually enjoyed themselves at some of the more risqué events. Standing in line for the 11 and 12 Talk I actually heard one octogenarian boast to her friends about the plays she had walked out on, or left during intermission, as they were not her cup of tea. I recognize the expenses incurred by programming illustrious international acts, but I bemoan the fact that many emerging artists are unable to gain inspiration from these fine productions due to financial restrictions.

The 2010 New Zealand International Arts Festival serves as a wonderful introduction to the contemporary aesthetics of domestic artists by placing national theatre companies centre stage to perform alongside some of the best theatre the world has to offer. There were many creative and passionate works to celebrate – far too many to sum up here. In between sips of Wellington’s superb coffee roasts I was treated to a remarkable bevy of performances. It was a theatrical adventure far worth the trip to Aotearoa.


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