01 October 2012

A messy lust quadrilateral

Michelle Blundell (c) Bats
by Penelope Skinner
Bats Theatre, Wellington
Ends 6 October 2012

English playwright Penelope Skinner has prepared a deftly constructed glimpse into twenty-something life in Eigengrau, a play that takes its name from the technical term for the colour the eye perceives when you're in perfect darkness - not black exactly, more a darker shade of grey. (It's a German word; in English it's 'intrinsic grey'). This is possibly both a nod towards the moral ambiguity of the play's characters and their various dilemmas, and perhaps also a wink in the direction of the mega-selling slash fiction doyenne E.L. James.

Instead of a typical love triangle, perhaps it's more accurate if not particularly illuminating to refer to Eigengrau as a 'messy lust quadrilateral'. It's predominantly a black comedy based around the relationships of two pairs of London flatmates - feminist activist Cassie lives with airy dreamer Rose, while thrusting young exec Mark shares his bachelor pad with his loser Uni friend Tim. Briefly, Rose has a fling with Mark and now decides she loves him; Mark isn't returning her texts and is instead eyeing up Cassie and busily reading up on Germaine Greer; Tim, on the other hand, is besotted with Rose and moping over the death of his chain-smoking Nan.

As a comedy Eigengrau succeeds - while there are flashes of close-to-the-bone humour designed to make the audience uncomfortable, there are also plenty of examples of deft comedy writing. Mark's attempts to seduce the principled, strident Cassie are particularly entertaining, as he professes to be swept up in enthusiasm for her feminist beliefs, and neither the audience nor Cassie can quite believe him. He even makes an appearance in a 'This is what a feminist looks like' t-shirt, as sported by Bill Bailey a few years ago.

The local cast of four does a good job with Skinner's material. The various English accents were genuine enough for my ear, including Cassie's Sloaney drawl and posh bastard Mark's impeccable diction.  The young cast worked together well and their performances benefit from plenty of stage and screen experience. Chelsea McEwan Millar, who apart from having 50 percent more names than most people also played the principled, uptight Cassie, has previously appeared in Go Girls and Under the Mountain; Michelle Blundell (Rose) essayed a memorably tragic karaoke performance in this play but is perhaps better known for her 2012 appearances on Shortland Street, plus roles in Go Girls and The Almighty Johnsons (as Frigg); and RADA-educated boy wonder Calum Gittins (Mark), son of the play's director Mark Gittins and LOTR screenwriter Philippa Boyens, has credits for none other than The King's Speech and LOTR: The Two Towers. The fourth cast member, Simon Ward (Tim) perhaps has a less starry background but gives a likeable performance as a mopey loser, and he can boast that one of his self-written plays has been recorded and broadcast by BBC Radio Merseyside.

It must have been interesting for Gittins to play in Eigengrau given that his father was directing the play. Without going into too many details, one scene simulates a rather personal consensual act of a sexual nature. How do you take direction from your dad in that situation? 'No, that was too quick. Next time make it last longer. Quite a bit longer, please - and don't forget, lots of energy!'
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