30 November 2013

When the river runs dry

Broken River (image via Bats)
Broken River
by Ralph McCubbin Howell
Bats Theatre, Wellington
23 November - 7 December 2013

Last night I caught a performance of the play Broken River at Bats, performed in what looks like a vacant shop premises on Victoria Street. Playwright Ralph McCubbin Howell has created an appealing and interesting glimpse of rural New Zealand for city-dwellers to ponder on, focused on the politics and emotion of water in a small rural settlement gearing up for a big irrigation scheme. The proposed dam might make some dairy millionaires, but it also sets the locals against one another as they debate what's to be gained and what might be lost. Into this environment comes researcher Nick (Paul Waggott), a 30-odd former local boy who has spent the past dozen years in London and is now returning to run a consultation process on the scheme. Pretty soon he discovers that things are not as he left them, with his old flame Brook (Erin Banks) having found a new partner and started a family. Intertwined with the modern-day tale is the tragedy suffered years before, in which Brook's brother lost his life in the town's river, and the appearance of a mysterious mute stranger in a white suit, whose motives are unclear and who generates plenty of suspicion in the insular community.

The cast gives a commendable performance, particularly Banks, who played a supporting role in Two Little Boys as Bret McKenzie's girlfriend, and Waggott, a Newcastle-born Englishman whose performance is reminiscent of a younger Simon Pegg (who also did a season with Bats back in the '90s). Equally big plaudits should go to the design aspects of the play. The performance area is dominated by a marvellous plywood art installation (or 'kinetic sculpture', if you prefer) mimicking a revolving crop irrigator, which arcs over the actors and provides a backdrop for all their scenes. It's plumbed with a water supply too, so several scenes in the play are liberally sprinkled with H2O - country rain, a sabotaged irrigation pivot, and a shower scene (not too Psycho, thankfully). Here's hoping the play is never performed in winter-time, or the actors will get pneumonia. The river is represented by scores of empty plastic milk containers, packed together and illuminated from beneath, which works surprisingly well.

Aside from the dramatic impact of the play, Broken River is also an environmental allegory about the perils of intensive dairying and non-sustainable water use. But it's not a preachy, townies-lambasting-cockies moral tale. The playwright (who must clearly be taken seriously because he has three names) grew up in Waikari in North Canterbury and knows rural life. Far more than I do, at any rate.

You should definitely investigate Broken River if you're seeking an interesting and well-crafted night of theatre for a mere few dollars.

See also:
TheatreMacbeth, 21 November 2013
Theatre: Eigengrau, 1 October 2012
Theatre: White Cloud, 16 September 2012
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