Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Black on black on black

Urban Hymns, (Young and Hungry Festival of New Theatre, 2009)
Bats, July 10 -25

We are told early on that this play is “about power and control”, which is achieved through drugs, music, violence and words, borrowed from poetry and spray-painted onto walls. The play is deliberately confrontational from the very first word – a long, drawn-out expletive. The low-level lighting (Isaac Heron, Nick Chester) is probably also meant to provoke, but rather serves to annoy.

The characters talk the language of high flying businessmen (and they are all men apart from two abused females) with their downsizing, redundancy and bringing it to the marketplace but it transpires they are teenagers pumping petrol and with essays to hand in at school. It is reminiscent of Brick with its enigmatic film noir dialogue placed in the mouths of adolescents: “this town is a desert”, “the windy city had wide horizons”, and “I have the distinct impression that being 16 years old was not to my advantage”.

The extremely slow start saw people shuffling in their seats, and it is apparent that director (Fiona Truelove) is using every tool in the drama student shed. With self-conscious ‘actorly’ movements the characters remain on stage throughout and if they aren’t simultaneously shouting and mumbling through their monologues, they are doing handstands or climbing the edge of the set – at least it is a welcome distraction. My companion said, ‘I’ve never come away from a play where people have writhed against the walls thinking, that was a good play’.

The essay that they mention ad nauseum is about
Hone Tuwhare, which is a particularly clunky motif. Times have evidently changed a lot since I was at school; the ‘cool kids’ were never this interested in poetry, or homework for that matter. The images of ‘we who live in darkness’ and ‘black on black on black’ are emphasised through the crepuscular lighting and the nihilistic attitudes, like Outrageous Fortune but without the wit and humour.

The teen anguish is painfully raw. Blue (Mani Dunlop) says “I don’t understand why but it’s all falling down”. Her brother Isaiah (Benny Marama), who is “not allowed” to touch her (hinting at undercurrents of family violence), just wants to drive somewhere and “get fucked up”. In the best line of the play, Tobias (Cameron Jones) laments, “I’m too young for university, too ugly for a girlfriend, too stupid to drive, too impatient for school – what’s left for me?”

But the one-liners exist in isolation. Either the characters forgot their lines or they simply don’t follow on from each other, and there are a lot of black holes. Two actors who shine are Isaac Heron who plays Lucius the dealer with an even-paced, confident but detached delivery, and Cameron Jones whose edgy hand-clapping finger flicking Tobias was like something out of West Side Story. His mercurial trickery also brings Puck-like characteristics to mind.

The issues within this play which are worth exploring. The oil fields are drying up and petrol will become a precious commodity – it will have great value in the marketplace, is highly explosive and can reduce ideals to smoke. As petrol cans are filled and passed from hand to hand Truelove echoes the food chain motif. Are we all part of something like a community, or just another insignificant link? Blue claims, in Tuwhare’s words that “we are not alone”.

If someone is educated does that mean they have no right to join in the debate? Isaiah tells Blue, “You’re a jumped up rich kid, accept it! Who cares what you have to say?” She counters that she wants to write the words, but not in an essay, which is why she sprays them, “so that every letter stands bigger than you” and “To remind us all about what’s happening out there in this dark, dark world we live in”. If the writing is on the wall and she is leaving her mark, can she be ignored?

Das (Ian Walsh) pushes the mythical dark apart to create a light through music. “The moment I stepped into the music room my world became to ao marama, the world of light. My world became. I became.” It seems rather incongruous that the person who finds a creative outlet from the legendary black is a white Englishman. He delivers a monologue to tell us how he has learned to fly and changed his old destructive ways. As this is a drama, it would be better to demonstrate this through action rather than relying on narrative.

This is an interesting play, but is done a disservice by the production values. Writer Miria George certainly leaves us with a lot to think about – it would be good to be able to become immersed rather than straining to see and hear it.

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