Circa Theatre Revisits Home-Grown Chronicles

Circa Theatre presents
“Joyful and Triumphant” by Robert Lord

Director: Susan Wilson
Designer: John Hodgkins
Lighting: Marcus McShane

Cast: Jane Waddell (Lyla)
Catherine Downes (Alice)
Michele Amas (Rose)
Peter Hambleton ((George)
Katherine McRae (Brenda)
Gavin Rutherford (Ted)
Lyndee-Jane Rutherford (Raewyn)

Circa Theatre, Taranaki St., Wellington

playing until May 7th 2016

Something very special is being currently re-enacted at Circa Theatre in Wellington – a revival of Robert Lord’s play, Joyful and Triumphant.

First performed at Circa Theatre in 1992, in the company’s original premises in Harris Street, the play, directed by Susan Wilson, was one of the great successes of the fourth Wellington Arts Festival, winning both festival and national awards. The production then undertook a New Zealand tour and subsequently was presented in Australia and in London.

Now, almost twenty-five years later, a new production features the same director, and no fewer than three members of that original 1992 cast, each one playing a different role to that created the first time round.

Joyful and Triumphant presents a series of Christmas Day vignettes in the life of a “typical” New Zealand family over a period of forty years, beginning in 1949.

Playwright Robert Lord managed to chronicle both family history and the wider social, cultural and political history of New Zealand over the duration. Something I didn’t pick up at the time of first hearing about the play was its apposite subtitle – “An Incidental Epic”. I also didn’t know, until coming to write this review that the playwright didn’t live to see his work premiered, but died just before the production was staged – he was 46.

There was absolutely nothing glamorous, flashy, epic or earth-shattering about this play, and that was its strength – it sought to present an ordinary New Zealand family’s Christmas as it would have been in 1949 and how things developed for those same people over the years. As a new-born forty-niner myself, my memories of the opening ambiences were understandably dim, but I readily connected with all of the subsequent depictions, the characters and their attitudes, and their surroundings, as if I were a kind of Ebenezer Scrooge taken back by a “ghost of Christmases past”.

One of the actors in the original production, Catherine Downes, commented on her feelings as a present-day cast member, this time round: “Approaching it this time, a huge difference is that the entire play is set well in the past. When we first did it in 1992, it brought us up to date. Now, it’s almost a time capsule at what was going on. Not just in New Zealand politics, but social history, and what views were at that time, towards racism, religion, women’s roles.  It’s utterly fascinating, and even more so now, looking at it from a great distance.”

The dialogue kept on for me evoking memories of the television series of the 1970s Close to Home – here was the vernacular, expressed in a recognizably authentic way, characterful and wry-humoured, but free from any self-conscious cleverness. Interestingly, Downes commented that the dialogue and situations appeared to “travel” without any difficulty – when the original cast took the play to Australia and to England people who attended the performances seemed to her to enjoy the work as readily as did home-grown audiences.

In almost every instance, the actors seemed to fit their characters as hands fit well-worn gloves.  Undoubtedly director Susan Wilson’s experience both in a specific work-based sense and in general enabled her to bring out this “playing oneself” aspect in each of the characters in a richly-rounded way. Only in one case did I have difficulty recognizing and thus warming to a character in a kind of “familiar” sense, a circumstance which could well reflect my own internal struggles with like people in day-to-day situations! – but more of this anon.

The song “Blue Smoke” set the scene most evocatively for the first and earliest of the vignettes, the strains permeating the ambiences and resounding among the configurations of the times – a wonderful beginning, underpinned by subtle dialogues between characters which allow them to tell us who they are as people putting their best foot forward for Christmas, and in more unguarded moments expressing their insecurities and disappointments. Katherine McRae’s Brenda, who was the family’s daughter-in-law, for most of the time unprepossessing and embarrassingly anxious to please, undertook a “moment” in which she deliciously described her daughter Raewyn as “thirteen and too far advanced! – I did have a chest like that until I was twenty…she just grew the thing to annoy me!”

The characters developed both by osmosis and stimulation, bringing their personalities and resulting styles to the interactions – until the arrival of the youngest family member Raewyn in the second Act, the two most startling and lively figures were, on the face of things diametric opposites – George, the head of the Bishop family, and the well-to-do neighbour, Alice, a widow, who goes to church with Lyla, George’s wife. Politics spiced this particular interaction, George’s socialist beliefs occasionally locking horns in a (mostly) good-natured way with Alice’s true-blue inclinations.

Peter Hambleton’s George was a vividly-projected larger-than-life character, very much down-to-earth, apart from his romantic inclinations in kissing his wife Lyla under the mistletoe (after an accidental-cum-engineered piece of flesh-pressing with the wrong woman!), as well as his indulgence in flights of fancy, such as pretending, most convincingly, to be Bing Crosby during the course of the latter’s singing of “White Christmas”. More than a match for him throughout was Catherine Downes’ feisty, true-hearted Alice, the widowed neighbour whose circumstances over-rode any divisive political ideologies which might have kept her at a distance – her and George’s interactions when practicing their dancing steps provided a source of ever-so-slightly risque merriment for all those in attendance, especially the idea of their capturing the “Blue Ribbon for General Rhythmic Excellence” as a dance-floor team.

Opening the play was Michele Amas’s Rose, a sensitive, low-keyed but deeply-wrought portrayal of a young woman trying to generate an independent life in the wake of losing her wartime fiancee, and struggling to do so, with utterances along the way such as “I don’t know where I left my life, but it’s not here!”, and the occasional family skirmish, such as with her brother Ted (Gavin Rutherford) over the state of each other’s respective lives. Originally, Amas played Raewyn, the rebel teenaged daughter – “It was a big part of our lives for eight years, off and on. So it was like returning to a family you hadn’t seen for a long time, the family picture was there, but slightly different. Being back with the others is pure joy. We never thought we’d have the opportunity to do this again.”

Rose was originally played by Jane Waddell, who took the role of “Mum” (Lyla) this time round, her coiffure resplendent at an early point in the play via a possibly neighbour-inspired blue rinse, which would have made husband George see redder than usual! Lyla’s subsequent debilitating stroke caused as much bathos as pathos through her attempts to communicate with the family with barely intelligible squawks (the true nature of laughter disturbingly exposed, perhaps). But previously, Waddell and Catherine Downes together made something rich and strange out of their characters’ “chalk-and-cheese” neighbourly interaction – like many things in “Joyful and Triumphant”, best relished, I’ve found, in retrospect, things having continued to work and grow long after one has left the theatre.

Playwright Lord tapped into the “blood is thicker than water – but at a price” principle with his characterizations of both Ted and Brenda, son and daughter-in-law. Gavin Rutherford’s portrayal of Ted, in places so yummily gauche and self-inflated, if ready to burst like a bubble when put to the sword, excited our derision and sympathy at one and the same time. This was especially so in the context of Ted’s interaction with his father, George, the pair’s disagreement regarding the events of  the 1981 Springbok tour fuel for deeper-seated conflicts and existential angsts, especially to do with Raewyn, Ted’s and Brenda’s daughter.

Which brings me to confess my one difficulty regarding “recognizing” each of the play’s characters – this was with Lyndee-Jane Rutherford’s assumption of Raewyn, and perhaps was as it should have been, in any case, with a rebellious teenager! At first I found the portrayal alien and seeming over-wrought, as if deriving from an American television soap, and thus seeming to me not to “connect” (even in a dysfunctional way) with the parents, the wider family and the times – however, as the saga amassed the years and brought about a kind of “epiphany” for the family over the birth of a grandchild, Rutherford’s character seemed to put down roots and grow more recognizable (comfortable?) foliage. Perhaps I also grew in some ways along with her character, with each of the interactions – as one has to, willingly or otherwise, in real life!

Rich, redolent and recognizable – this was a production greater than the sum of its parts, one which Susan Wilson’s direction, John Hodgkins’ evocative sets and Marcus McShane’s oh so nostalgic lighting helped bestride the ages, giving us all a glimpse of whom, what and where we had come from, and why it all was so very worthwhile to remember.

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