I enter the theatre at the new Te Auaha campus with excitement. I have been waiting to get a glimpse of the facilities and the modern black box, with stylish entrance way and comfortable seats, doesn’t disappoint. The set is simple, just a chair dimly lit in a purple glow (lighting by Russ King) and a haunting tinkle of piano music sets a wistful tone. The sound, designed by Emi Pogoni, is a highlight throughout the piece. A water motif splashes across a series of dream sequences and a subtle soundtrack of ambient noise sits underneath the more difficult moments. (Music by Hope Csutoros and Claire Cowan).
The show begins with some confusing action in which actor Beth Kayes enters and, after an apparent instruction, presumably from an imagined character/s in the audience, puts her bag down upstage before removing her shoes and sitting on the chair. It soon becomes clear that she is in some kind of doctor’s office due to her insomnia, which is a repeated theme in the piece, and I can’t help but wish she begun here, with the clarity of her side of that awkward conversation rather than the fuss of props.
The piece flits between the real and the remembered with ease and expertise. The narrative is non-linear, with memories of her mother (from beach trips to social justice action) interspersed with snapshots of Beth’s character dealing with her own motherhood stresses whilst coming to terms with what it is to care for someone with a terminal disease. Kayes has a real command over her physicality and she moves with a grace and lightness that is compelling to watch. The chair becomes a rock edge, a cave and a set of prison-like bars in a series of seamless transitions and the same dexterity and imagination is apparent in her manipulation of her very sparse props. A highlight are the toilet paper shoulder pads that help illustrate a montage through the decades. The set and props are at their best however in a tragic reimagining of Kayes’ mother needing help on the toilet and this moment of dependency is captured with heart and commitment from this experienced performer.
The physical storytelling is well constructed but the piece excels with the writing. There are sections of pure poetry such as the repeated imagery of ‘hands’, with moments of relatable specificity: ‘my mother’s hands/grinding aspirin into a teaspoon of honey/checking for nits’. The writing is smart and careful, finding connections wherever possible, giving the piece a layered depth. Kayes returns to literature, specifically the story of Macbeth, throughout the show, linking her mother’s job as an English teacher to the themes of death and guilt in Shakespeare’s tragedy. I can’t be the only person to have winced when she said the title in the theatre and, as Beth is a former drama teacher, this self aware referential quality is part of the charm of the piece. (I appreciated the ending which existed in the gobo lighting state that she had described near the start). However, I had hoped for a stronger metaphor to emerge around ‘hands’ and Lady Macbeth and was disappointed that this idea was never fully realised. This, coupled with an overarching flatness in some of the delivery and a lack of any resolution meant that this show never fully took flight. But I do wonder whether this was the intention as a more contemplative piece?
Kayes ought to be commended for finding so many moments of joy and lightness within the heaviness of the story. I was laughing out loud at her description of being a drama teacher and her embodiment of her former students with their usual set of complaints; ‘our old teacher was younger and prettier than you’. However, the revelation that she comes from the world of NCEA marking criteria did put this show into a different frame of reference for me and I found myself taken out of the action at moments that were particularly reminiscent of my own drama exams. With a lack of an emotional climax, some questionable accents and dialogue that always felt expositional, I was left feeling as though I had seen a very good final project, which would have impressed her students, but that did not seem to be a fully realised show in its own right.
The show began its life as a four hander, but due to funding restrictions Kayes reworked it into a solo piece. I personally cannot imagine it working anywhere near as well with other actors. It feels like a truly personal descent into nostalgia and I have no doubt that with some tweaks to the dialogue that allow it to exist in one voice, this is, and can only be, a one woman show.
Once There was a Woman is a soft flick through a filing cabinet of precious memories, presented with hope and humour. The play seems to be reaching for the moon but settles nicely in the softness of the skies, with bird song provided by the Te Kōkī Project. The piece left me a little unfulfilled but did make me think about my own experience of losing a father and I left the theatre with a distinct urge to immediately call my mum.
The show was only on for a short, three night Fringe run, but I am sure it will be touring elsewhere and it is well worth catching if it does.
For other shows and tickets for the Wellington Fringe (on until 23rd March) visit their website.