Dr Drama (despite a PhD in English but that’s just semantics) has made a show. I think. At least, everything points towards a show. There is a set (the aforementioned desk, projection screen and a microphone on a stand upstage, which summons the spirit of the self referential). There is a leading character - a real life theatre lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, smartly dressed and smiling and, most crucially, there is the assigned reading handed out to the audience as we gather outside the uni’s blackbox. I mean, it wouldn’t be theatre without an extract from a research paper on decolonisation, would it?
This show (directed by Rachel Longshaw-Park) is entrenched in academia. While Wenley demonstrates enviable prowess in storytelling, satire and physicality, he is never far from a well-placed reference, reminding us that we are always learning. Against a well lit backdrop of exposed theatre conventions we are led through a personal journey of realisation, as a self - described tall, bald, white, cis man with glasses, who has a PhD works out how to make a show about race, gender and making a show about race and gender. To say this show is meta is an understatement.
Wenley begins with, and occasionally returns to, some genuine facilitation, asking the front two rows to participate in discussions around concepts like white privilege and gender role strain. (Shout out to the stage manager, Sean, who informs us that if we wish to participate in the discourse we should sit at the front. I love some consensual participation and had an excellent view from the naughty seats at the back of the classroom). In these moments of expert facilitation, where he teases offers from the assembled crowd, guiding them towards the answers gently yet firmly, I feel most connected to the performer. Far more than when he engages his theatre voice to tell us an anecdote, only to immediately deconstruct his own performance at every turn. I really like the performer. He is funny, charming and clearly a true expert in his field. But he does such a good job of calling out his own clichés that I start to disengage, pre-empting the disassembly of the moment before it is played out. A show that undermines itself so consistently is very hard to take seriously.
Narratively the show concentrates on Wenley’s ancestor, also named James Wenley, a Scottish banker who’s history, name and desk found their way across the globe and into his possession. Whether he wanted them or not. Or perhaps the true narrative is the battle that the performer has with the character of the tech (designed by Michael Goodwin and operated by Tim Fraser). It consistently messes with him, making it almost impossible for him to deliver sections of ‘performative wokeness’ without being accountable for the traps that he inevitably, as a Pākehā man making a show like this, falls into. Or maybe the real story is the one in our own heads that plays out long after we leave the theatre. The one that questions whose place it is to tell stories, and whether he should have made the show in the first place?
While this show is certainly intellectually adept, it is also over-apologetic. Wenley struggles to rectify his guilt at taking up space, which is an important thing to dissect, but the problem is that he takes up so much space doing so, which is a little exhausting. This show feels like the precursor to the actual show that Wenley wants to make. Maybe it is about race and gender. Maybe asexuality (a subject he mentions a few times that needs more of a platform) or maybe something completely different. I hope, genuinely, that he makes that show. One that doesn’t feel the need to apologise for its own existence. One empowered by his own conclusion that every voice is valid.
The word 'power' is barely spoken but is so loud throughout this piece. While Wenley seems more than aware of his power in society, I can’t help but wonder about the power that he holds in this specific space. Wellington is a small town and the uni, even smaller. At moments where the audience is invited to speak, I wonder who is in the crowd and their relationship to James (at one point a character referenced in the story chimes in from the front row). It gets me thinking about the (dis)comfort involved in presenting a show like this at the university you teach at and how different this show might be in a strange new space.
I cannot help but feel under-qualified to review this show, despite my background in theatre and the gender space. My desk is flimsy and buckling from the weight of the subject matter this review is grappling with. But despite my own cultural shortcomings, I am thrilled to discover my partner’s name in the reading material for this show. Ben Fagan has just finished a year-long poetry project called Pākehā 2020, which interrogates similar questions around the Pākehā identity. What Ben and James and so many other practitioners are doing is hard. Really hard. I truly commend these artists for going there and for holding these conversations delicately but without shying away from their own identities as people and as makers. My hope for James is a show that feels ok to tread less carefully around the minefield. One that doesn’t shy away from the explosion. I am not advocating for violence, but rather for a little more risk without feeling the need to soften the landing.
Dr Drama Makes a Show is on at VUW Theatre Department as part of the NZ Fringe Festival at 5.30pm until Saturday 7th March. Tickets available here.