Visually, Wednesday to Come is a treat. Natala Gwiazdzinski and Cara Louise Waretini (set and lighting, and costume, respectively). The lighting shifts from eerie cool tones at the show’s opening, suggesting uncertainty or tumult, to warmer ones when we meet the family, giving us a sense of comfort, even in what are dark times. It’s used cleverly throughout to aid in the action, dimming in sections and spotting in others, particularly notable during monologues or moments of anguish near Ben’s coffin. Wooden planks on the theatre floor help separate locations within the house on-stage, a clever way of shifting between the main living areas and where the coffin is housed. The oven-fire is a particularly cool touch, with smoke billowing from it and a soft ember-like light whenever it is stoked. Every inch of the realist set has its place, giving the audience an intimate view of this struggling family in a trying time… for more reasons than one. Sound is used well through the production, courtesy of Maaka Phat; the initially melodic and suddenly discordant harmonica that plays to open the play perfectly prepares us for the tone and the historical background. Though, it’s a tad deafening on opening night, hard to listen to while the pre-show lighting slowly fades to begin the performance, too slowly for any real impact.
The cast is superbly talented. To watch them turn from moments of tenderness, to heartache, to empowerment, is a theatrical feast. As Iris’ children, our young performers Reon Bell and Mia van Oyen (playing Cliff and Jeannie respectively) perfect encapsulate the nuances of grief; one longs for Ben to hear him play the mouth organ again while the other rests on her Granna’s lap before wanting to stand up to the conditions that broke her father. One cannot ignore the weight of this balance placed on Mary (played by Grace Hoete). Hoete’s Mary is kind but firm, a nurturing presence; she encourages her grandchildren to march for what they believe in and is a constant comfort and support system for her whānau. It makes her the glue in many of the scenes; a perfect way for the maternal and strong willed Mary to carry herself. I must also make particular mention of Neenah Dekkers-Reihana’s monologue near the end of the play, where Iris has her opportunity to see Ben and farewell him. She shifts with a pained expression through bewilderment, agony, remembrance; it’s so satisfying to watch because not a single beat is missed. This builds to a beautiful embrace shared by mother and daughter. An astonishing performer, Dekkers-Reihana had me on the verge of tears.
While the show’s tone is largely sombre, I can’t ignore the moments of comedy and fire that help to punctuate the production, especially with how well they’re handled by Daniels and her cast. Jane Waddell’s Granna offers plenty of these moments, though I’m most fond of her sneaking beer while her daughter, Mary, isn’t in the room – some beautifully timed belches give the audience a relief from the play’s bubbling tension. As Mary, Hoete shines not only when tenderly comforting her daughter and grandchildren, but also when chastising the neighbour, Molly (Hannah Kelly), with eye rolls and sass that would put anyone to shame. Kelly, too, needs mention here with how pathetic Molly seems when first introduced to us; her misunderstandings and foot-in-mouth offer more than comedy, but serve to remind us how the way we grieve is never the same. There are many more I won’t mention as to spoil the experience, but Daniels’ command over the show’s tone is a masterclass in getting the audience to eat every crumb out of your hand.
The production does feel like a slow burn at first. Action is limited and most instances of conversation are everyday or clipped short early on, which fits the domesticity but isn’t particularly captivating. In certain moments, the silence is used effectively, and moments where the harmonica—unaccompanied by dialogue—reverberates across the stage in remembrance of Ben, are beautifully reflective. It’s a thoughtful tether between Cliff and his late father. Other times, it slows the pace down too much for my liking. The silence and other empty moments are not without purpose, for we do sit with the grief the characters are going through, and that atmosphere is palpable. Again, that’s fine… in the moments we don’t notice the pacing halt down. Albeit, the different pacing does help exacerbate the tonal shift into the explosive and seat-gripping second half and doesn’t diminish a production so dripping with raw emotion in the slightest.
In a tender moment, Granna turns to the youngest woman, Jeannie, and says “Nothing changes.” This is a special moment for Waddell, who in previous productions of the show has played Mary, Iris, and Jeannie; what a wonderful full circle moment! I can’t stop thinking about this little quip since watching the show, though. Yes, it reflects the situation of the family with pinpoint accuracy, but all too well echoes into our modern world. We live in times of uncertainty, where rights are stripped away at a moment's notice, where social and economic inequity plagues the nation, where people are still pressed about who people love or how they’d like to be referred to. But even within that bleakness, both in the play and our world, is a beacon of hope, one found in those that stand up and march, just like the family is encouraged to do by the fabulous, encouraging, and laser-focused Dot (Amanda Noblett). Wednesday to Come is a worthwhile and reflective experience for this alone, not even considering its theatrical successes, as a reminder that even when it looks like the world is stagnating and change faces constant rebuttal, there are still change makers out there, willing to march and rally for what they believe in.
In attendance on opening night was Renée herself. And despite my best efforts, nothing I can say will compare to her praise: “you have honoured my work.” Wednesday to Come is a breathtaking and necessary production. My gratitude goes to this stunning cast and crew, whose vision for this glorious piece of New Zealand theatre is an absolute must-see.
You can catch Wednesday to Come at Circa Theatre until Saturday 20 August. Visit the Circa Theatre website for details or to book tickets. You won’t be disappointed.