Firstly, a disclosure. Wellington theatre is an incestuous mess. Because Sean Dugdale-Martin writes for Art Murmurs, there is no one on our team who can approach this show without some level of bias. I am friends with Dugdale-Martin, Daniel Nodder and Rebekah De Roo. Along with this, Ben Kelly and Anna Barker are my closest artistic collaborators, and two of my best friends. I have a lot of inbuilt love and respect for the RATKING team, and that undoubtedly, despite my best efforts, will seep into this review.
Now on with the rats.
Starting from the outside in, RATKING has my favourite marketing campaign I’ve seen in Wellington theatre. Maeve O’Connell, who is credited as the “Marketing Rat”, absolutely nailed it. The disturbing photos of Dugdale-Martin, Barker and Jeremy Hunt hanging out with Henry the Skeleton on a black backdrop have a grungy, alternative energy. The hand-scrawled text is messy, and almost childlike. It feels fucked up and subversive, without even really showing anything nasty. It’s like they’re daring you to come and see the show.
Entering the theatre, this aesthetic has carried over into De Roo’s production design. Scuffed, well-worn, tooth-like pillars erupt from the ground. The title of the show is projected onto them, lightly animated in that same messy font. These pillars are complemented by woozy green-and-purple lighting and chalk scribbles on the ground. It appears that having BATS technical manager Hāmi Hawkins as their lighting designer has allowed them to take full advantage of the space. The show’s tech has the energy of someone who’s had to suffer through years of helping tech illiterate morons like myself get their shows lit, finally getting to take his gloves off and show everyone how it’s done.
In true Ruff as Gutz fashion, Dugdale-Martin comes out and gives an introduction to the show. They’re as charming as ever, asking the audience to view this space as a relaxed one, where conversation, photos and phone use are acceptable and even encouraged. This energy, carried over from Dugdale-Martin’s now iconic MILK series, remains forward thinking, and exciting. One of my favourite things about Dugdale-Martin as an artist, is their clear set of driving principles and values. Their art is always boundary pushing, kind and has this wonderful feeling like they’re getting away with something. Then they cap the intro off with an ending that wholeheartedly pisses me off. They say the show isn’t high art. Fuck that. Don’t undersell yourself or your show. It hasn’t even started yet and I’ve managed to get three paragraphs on the level of art and craftsmanship on display. It feels like an unnecessary bait to get audience members to defend the show in their head – a conversation we don’t need to be having at all.
The show opens with a stunning, wordless number, illustrating the relationships our three protagonists, Anrat (Barker), Srat (Dugdale-Martin) and Jeratamy (Hunt) each individually have with Henry. Henry is a skeleton, brought to life by being strapped to Nodder in an all-black morph suit. The opening is delightful to watch. All the rats are dressed like Dr Seuss characters, in distinctly coloured shirts with the first letter of their name written on the front. They have beautifully crafted rat helmets and long pink rat tails. Credit to Salomé Grace for these phenomenal costumes.
The music they dance to, written by Kelly, is as moving and gorgeous as anything he’s ever created. It’s complex and layered, and his score gives the entire show a grand and epic feel, while simultaneously lending it a melancholy, mourning tone.
The sheer inventiveness of doing a spooky-scary-skeleton dance through strapping them to a dancer in a morph suit doesn’t wear off, and audience members are barely able to contain their laughter. Simultaneously, we learn key information about the show. Anrat was Henry’s best friend, and they loved to dance together, Srat was Henry’s somewhat possessive lover, and Jeratemy was Henry’s protective older brother. I say was because Henry is dead. None of our rats, however, are able to accept this fact, so they embark on an Orpheus-esque journey down into the sewers of the underworld to try and get him back.
It’s a thrilling set-up. One of the shows most mature and interesting ideas is how it depicts (a term my plus one coined) “Gatekeep Mourning”. While Anrat is excited to meet Srat and Jeratemy, the other two are deeply possessive of his memory. They have their own distinct ideas of how he should be properly mourned, of the right things to do to bring him back, and what he would’ve wanted. This is an achingly human dynamic, and lends the play a strong emotional core. This is a story about grief. Henry is not coming back. The dramatic question of the play is never will these rats succeed. It’s whether or not their determination to cling to their individual versions of Henry will doom all three of them to the depths of the underworld with him.
The play joins together segments of the journey with an utterly charming, and completely overused, finger/shadow puppetry device. With an energy that mirrors some of the travelling scenes in The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, we see puppet versions of the rats traverse long distances, past hordes of monsters. Using physical theatre, the performers stand in for terrain, with Nodder puppeteering their rat-selves as they walk along arms, shoulders and even get eaten up and shat out. The first time we see the device, it’s astonishingly creative. I lose myself laughing. But by the third time it comes back, I’m over it. Which leads me to my big issue with RATKING.
RATKING doesn’t feel finished. It needs a lot of polish. As a playwright, my instinct is to suggest another draft but knowing the process was a mixture of script work and devising, it may just need someone in the room to say, “This was a great offer, but it’s not actually contributing to the greater show – cut it.” There are a lot of jokes in the show that feel completely throwaway. Most scenes feel overlong and derivative of previous ones; I feel like I’m sitting through at least a minute of repetition in most of the later scenes before I get to new thematic or narrative content. Dialogue is often delivered without clear enunciation and is easily missed (most noticeably by Anrat), and the positive resolution to the core trio’s relationship feels unearned and unsatisfying. Finally, most of the show;s genius theatrical conceits last too long or are done one too many times, be it cannibalism or puppets or horny dancing with people in bat (?) masks.
I get it, this is Fringe, giving things a go with some rough edges is part of the charm. But seeing just how fantastic the core of this show is, and the amount of craft and love poured into every department by its ridiculously talented team, I don’t think it’s unfair of me to wish that the show could live up to the high standard it sets for itself. I catch myself and other audience members zoning out multiple times, which really frustrates me. I think there’s a version of this show not too far out of reach that never lets us go.
Speedrunning through some other thoughts, Anrat’s tap dancing is thrilling and perfectly deployed, Srat’s monologue near the end of the show is my favourite part of the whole experience and floors me even though their accent sounds vaguely like John Mulaney, the watermelon destruction is wonderfully visceral and exciting – there are a lot of highlights. Everything Nodder does is a highlight. The name JeRATemy is a highlight. I also want to shout out the other project leader Michaella Simpson. It’s a lot easier to credit/critique Dugdale-Martin for things as they are in the show, but from what I can tell this is as much Simpson’s show as it is Dugdale-Martin’s.
I love RATKING as an idea, as a story, as an aesthetic and as a project, but I only like it as a show. I really want to see the post-red-pen version of it, because I know it would fuck me up. I want this show to make me cry, because at its heart it has all the pieces it needs to do that. So if we ever do get a RATKING 1.1, you’ll catch me in the front row, Watermelon Sour Patch Kids smuggled in my jacket pocket, ready for more high art.
RATKING is on until the 5th of March. You can buy tickets here bats.co.nz