Roger Hall’s “terrific couple” at last back on stage in Wellington – “Winding Up” at Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre presents:
Winding Up , written by Sir Roger Hall
and directed by Susan Wilson

Featuring Ginette McDonald (Gen) and  Peter Hayden (Barry)

Set and AV Design – Lisa Maule
Lighting – Marcus McShane
Costumes – Sheila Horton
Music and Soundscape – Michael Nicholas Williams
Technical Operator – Niamh Campbell-Ward
Stage/Production Manager – Deb McGuire

Circa Theatre, Wellington

Sunday, 1st June, 2021 (until 28th August)

Sir Roger Hall’s “Winding Up”, an exploration of love weathering age and untoward circumstance, has finally made the stage at Circa Theatre, over a year after being first scheduled and then waylaid by Covid-19 and Lockdown. This afternoon its performance by Ginette McDonald and Peter Hayden as the play’s two characters, Gen and Barry, flickered all about to begin with, gradually warmed, then connected with, and finished up conflagrating an appreciative audience.

Its unfolding all somehow reminded me of pianist Artur Rubinstein’s account of first going to hear Russian classical superstar Sviatoslav Richter play  – “I thought at first the playing was nothing special – then I realised that tears were actually rolling down my cheeks….”Similarly, Hall’s window-view of “us” gradually penetrated our reserve, awoke our recognitions, tickled our fancies, engaged our sympathies and touched our hearts, giving us more and more “moments per minute” as we delved deeper and deeper into what were, either by direct experience or dint of association, our own lives.

For this reason, it’s very much a play one would ideally share with someone rather than view alone – I was grateful to go with a long-standing friend with whom, by dint of shared sideways glances, wry gesturings and occasional in-tandem chortles and spontaneous comments, I could relish the shared recognitions and empathies generated by the action’s plethora of impulses and nuances via word and gesture. And if not quite “tears rolling down my cheeks” I certainly registered, towards the end, some lump-in-throat moments, making the recognitions and empathies apparent. The playwright’s own attitude to his characters was summed up during a 2019 radio interview as “a terrific couple”, Hall adding that “Anybody in a long-term relationship recognises them and what they talk and argue about”.

Gen and Barry are two retirees, septuagenerians very much in “what’s next?” mode, and equally as much dealing with the “life is what happens when you’re planning something else” phenomenon that happens in the best families – and which certainly brings the same dynamic to bear on the action throughout the evening. The genesis of these two characters sprang from an earlier Hall play, Conjugal Rites, which featured the same Gen and Barry thirty years before, on the point of celebrating their 21st wedding anniversary, and about to examine their marriage, their children and their respective occupations, dealing with both a balance of power change in the relationship (Gen becoming a practising solicitor) and infidelities on both sides (Barry with one of his dental patients, and Jen with a fellow-solicitor), issues that the present play revisit, albeit with passage-of-time mitigating philosophical perspectives.

Are the preoccupations, idiosyncrasies, quips, jokes and life-issues showing signs of wearing thin after thirty years? It’s almost as though Hall has written a kind of “laundered” quality into the first exchanges, something of an implicit “how many times have we heard that one” feeling, which is as much about style as content – like having to gradually get on someone’s “wavelength” so as to fully appreciate what is said (and “how”, as well, incidentally). Ginette McDonald as Gen conveys this nonchalance in her exchanges with Peter Hayden’s well-practised (and nicely “in-character theatrical”) delivery as Barry with a casual brilliance that leaves one open-mouthed with admiration. Opposite her, Peter Hayden’s Barry is something of a “performer”, with a certain command (perhaps historically occupational?) of repartee – “You’ll have to speak up – I’ve got my hearing aids in!” he quips to his daughter during a ‘phone call. Their differences reinforce an “opposites attract” quality that manifests itself elsewhere in their exchanges, more of which below.

As the business of ageing crowds in over the course of the play one realises just how “in tune” the couple are despite their differences – McDonald’s characteristic no-nonsense style as Gen complements Hayden’s ostensible heart-on-sleeve manner for Barry, revealing a “vive la difference” quality of being and doing in an arrangement that has worked long-term, despite the speed-bumps and the debilitating temporary detours along the way. Neither has been diminished by the other in the long haul – perhaps for some people a cloud-cuckoo-land scenario that falls apart in the face of harsher realities, but (on the basis of art suggesting an example for, rather than merely imitating, life) it’s a depiction that’s life-enhancing, and therefore a worthwhile, “act of theatre” to take in and ponder.

The issues are classic and resonantly recognisable, some even from a distance! – they range from individual attitudes to possessions (Barry is a “hoarder” whose responses to enjoiners from Gen to “downsize” regarding clothes and books are priceless! – “My ideal life-style is a mess!” he expostulates at one point!), to sex (a spontaneous “making-out on the shag pile” episode elicits “last of the Mohicans/end of the drought?/in the bed or out here?” comments from both of them as the embers are raked over to risibly indeterminate but still touching effect!) and to dancing to “their” music (“The first time I ever saw your face” to which Gen and Barry dance so touchingly and tenderly – and I think here of my own parents dancing foxtrots and twosteps to Mills Brothers’ tunes) – the music might be dated, but the shared enjoyment is timeless…)

The play’s “elephant in the room” isn’t one really, but it’s all-pervading enough to both “figure” and be “disregarded”, taking cues from the couple’s laudably ornery attitude to the news at the action’s beginning that Barry has been tentatively diagnosed with leukemia. The couple’s plans for a longed-for visit to see distant grandchildren are put under stress and jeopardy – though the outcomes at least didn’t at that time have to deal with Covid-19 as a factor. Funeral plans come into reckoning, then, the situation further pushed near the bone when news of Gen’s brother-in-law’s unexpected death arrives, necessitating the couple’s attendance at a funeral, and inevitable post-funeral talk – not here, but much later, Barry confesses to Gen that, were there “menus” for methods of dying, his preferred choice would be “to wake up dead!”

So, there’s much, and more, to take in from this script which, as I’ve already indicated, felt to me as if it moved from superficial exchange at the beginning to almost Faustian transcendence at the end, where one is confronted with a strangely dream-like set of scenarios in which time, matter and energy are redeployed. Hall here brings his play’s characters to their apotheosis in unforgettably iconic “Goodnight Kiwi” fashion, ensuring their immortality, while keeping us suspended in conjecture as to “what was happening”, as great art is wont to do…….

Credit needs to be articulated in many directions for all of this, firstly to director Susan Wilson for settings and dynamics that had here an inevitability of perspective, seeming to know what to bind and what to loosen, where to space out and where to hone in, and what to specify and what to leave to us to “figure”. Hand-in-glove with all of this was Lisa Maule’s set whose centrepiece was the painting with the “iconic” Wellington Harbour view, complete with Matiu/Soames Island and the resplendent Rimutaka Ranges in the background. Marcus McShane’s on-the-button lighting caught every atmospheric and dynamic nuance, while Sheila Horton’s costumes were everything one might expect from people of this couple’s socio-economic status. And I loved the music, particularly the dance  sequence of “The First Time I ever saw your Face”, which, as Noel Coward might have observed, “took” us, along with the others with surprising potency backwards to times and places, demonstrating the sure touch of Music and Soundscape designer Michael Nicholas Williams.

There’s been a suggestion that this work might be Sir Roger Hall’s swansong as a dramatist – if so we in New Zealand will be the poorer in no longer having “updated” portraits and scenarios from his perceptive sensibilities of people and things we know but perhaps can’t find the words to express for ourselves, or in such a recognisable way. We owe him a great debt of thanks.


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