by Laura Ferguson
Breaking News centres around a young woman, Jolene, who is at the height of her journalistic career and feels the pressure of maintaining perfection. Esther portrays the return of a girl who went missing for three years; but is she really the same Esther? And finally, August Moon, a tale about the titular character who loses a mother. This is no dire portrait of loss, though; instead, we get a comedy for the conclusion of this showcase. It’s a curious experiment and as I sit, I avidly anticipate the beginning.
Mottled greens and oranges strike the curtain at the rear of the stage and I notice that Pierce Barber’s lighting design changes colour palette for each play to give distinction between them. The green and orange for Breaking News morphs to a blue and pink for Esther before settling on blue and green for August Moon. The lighting has an amorphous quality to it, like it’s not quite sure what form it wants to take. This is a running theme throughout the plays; the consequence of identity and the consequences of our character, all culminating into the theory that who we are matters, even if we don’t realise it.
The stage design is a delightful juxtaposition to the undefined lighting. The set pieces are stark geometric shapes: squares, triangles and hexagons. The way the actors stand or sit on these become metaphors for how the characters are trying adhere to the strict guidelines of who a woman ought to be in the 21st century, trying on the shape of something only to find it doesn’t quite fit their nebulous nature.
This metaphor particularly works for the first play, Breaking News. Protagonist Jolene realises fame isn’t everything and even with it she is unhappy. This stems from an alarming vision, as the news she reads comes alive, playing out in her mind as if she is really experiencing the war, the gunfire, the need to survive. This thrusts her into awareness and she becomes ‘woke’ to the plight of those she speaks for. Jolene is played by the five youngest members of the cast, sometimes simultaneously or played by a singular figure while the other four take on various characters.
The actors often speak as one, and when they do so with complete unison, the effect is striking, their words barreling into me. We see this in Breaking News and Esther, however, they are used for different purposes. In Breaking News, they are a chorus, helping to show when Jolene’s splintered and stressed self is in harmony, and breaking off into pieces as her wants war with each other. On the other hand, Esther creates a sense of ‘us’-ness with the unison: the ‘normal’ against the different. The execution of this was met with varying degrees of success for Esther due to the difficulty of raising unanimous voices together in perfect sync. Regardless, I really enjoyed how powerful it was when the performers hit their stride.
The stress of holding voices all together did cause some of the actors to lose the emotionality that we need to really connect with Jolene’s story during Breaking News. It was only when the group broke apart to act out the vision of a war-torn nation that I feel the insatiable pull of compassion and empathy for the character. That guiding, inherent allure which has kept theatre an active medium came alive with composer Daniel Ashcroft’s rumbles and rending tears of noise mixed with Barber’s flashes of light. My heart beats hard as Jolene struggles to help a Middle-Eastern woman she cannot understand. They run and cry out and scream in terror. Harriet Barker takes the helm as Jolene in this moment and her ashen face, eyes and nostrils flaring in panic cuts me, making my breath catch as her contagious terror enters my soul.
There is a five-minute break and then I am treated to Esther, a play explored through an anti-bureaucracy lens and based off a true event. Kristin Reilly’s silent Esther uses a range of facial expressions to allow us a glimpse into her character and effectively shows us she isn’t who everyone wants her to be. Reilly does this superbly and her sardonic looks at her ‘sister’, Jen (played by Barker), are brilliant; they turn Esther into a villainous deceiver.
As ‘Esther’s’ deception is revealed, she runs away and the play ends, and I’m left feeling strangely conflicted. The ‘us vs. them’ argument seems lacking in depth. The fake-Esther is not given an opportunity to explain herself and I am struck with pity for this poor girl. What must she have gone through to use such a desperate tactic to steal into other’s lives like a changeling? While the one-sidedness is perhaps deliberate to allow the audience to draw their own conclusions, I would have loved to try to understand the antagonist’s side.
After another short break and we head into August Moon. August Moon, played beautifully by Ashleigh Matheson, explains to us that she has misplaced her mother, doing so with all the exuberant ignorance of a young teen. I adore the way we get to see the world through August’s eyes, her overly-dramatic older sister, the self-serving dishevelled houseguest, the mother who always puts work first. Although, I do need to keep reminding myself of the perspective or else I sink into critiquing the stereotyped portrayals of the characters. I found the characterisation of the houseguest particularly insensitive, sometimes making me cringe; the self-serving, curmudgeon of the ex-homeless woman playing into the injustices and assumptions made about people in such circumstances. This portrayal seemed at odds with the play’s morals regarding how homelessness should be treated in society.
August Moon goes on a journey to find her famous Green MP mother, champion of the homeless and downtrodden. Matheson moves around the stage with energy, her dialogue epitomising teenage exasperation. She skips and judo chops, sighing at her silly mother for getting lost while frustrating a police officer with her meandering tangential conversation. I do enjoy watching her immensely, but a few illogicalities break my immersion.
There is an instance where August remembers a speech from her mother, and it is significant because August later delivers this speech on behalf of said mother who is still missing. Erica Moon (Viv Aitken) goes on an impassioned rally for the homeless cause. She rouses us with true, worthwhile statements like, “No one asks to be homeless”. However, lines like, “They don’t ask to sleep in the subways”, feel misplaced because the setting is undoubtedly Wellington, with both Aro Valley and Memorial Park mentioned. We have no subways, and so this globalizes the idea, minimising its effect at a national level. Erica Moon is not a world philanthropist, but a local MP trying to save New Zealanders from an unforgiving system. The lack of solution provided by the play is also vexing and it comes off as ‘those in power need to fix it, not us’. It’s a pass-off to someone else and not the words of someone who has taken people into her own home when they need help. Unfortunately, this speech loses the power it needed to convince me making me question what public efforts this woman made to have garnered an Order of Merit.
Among Strangers showcases a range of women in various ways, but I wonder if it speaks to this particular generation? There is a lack of diversity represented here, too. The nine female actors appear to represent stories of white privileged women. The only women of colour, such as the Middle-Eastern woman in Breaking News, are shown through the eyes of Caucasian women and not given names. Even though there is a feminist theme and female perspective that runs through the show, the lack of intersectionality is a bit depressing. If we truly are among strangers, how come they are all so similar?
The premise that these are the struggles of women in these ‘changing times’ is a difficult one: when have times ever not been changing? Looking back through what my oldest living relatives have been through, I would say growing up in the Depression era before being thrust into war and then settling into the affluent afterglow of the following decades is far more tumultuous than what we experience now. Even with rising pressures to stay afloat in an economy, the backbone of which keeps getting older while we are left stranded having to choose between affording a house or affording a child.
But these issues were not tackled tonight; to my almost-30 eyes, the problems raised are ones that used to be. Angie Farrow spoke to women aged 15-20 and it shows. The pressure to be hip, be cool, to do-it-all, to be different, but only in an acceptable way, all tend to fade with age. The glimpse I saw of my early adult-self tonight only had one thing to say to me, ‘Phew, I’m glad those years are over’. Among Strangers keeps its status of being a curious experiment with some formulas blowing up and others creating an alchemical magnificence akin to turning lead into gold. I can only hope to observe more such experiments in the future.
Among Strangers is currently showing at BATS Theatre until Saturday 30 September. For ticketing information, visit the BATS Theatre website.
NB: The set designer was not mentioned in the programme, and so they are uncredited here.