Helen Watson White
Best Playwriting Book Ever by Roger Hall (Playmarket, 2016), 108 pp., $22; Shift: Three plays by Alison Quigan, Vivienne Plumb and Lynda Chanwai-Earle (Playmarket, 2016), 280 pp., $35
When Roger Hall set out on what he didn’t know would be a long and fruitful theatre career, he knew only one rule (‘one of the few useful rules there are’): ‘Write about what you know.’ Like all aspiring writers, he was also reading – at the beginning – Neil Simon, to see what made him ‘the most successful playwright in the world’. You read, you write, and the characters arrive … but slowly. From its genesis in his Public Service experience, through five or six drafts and read-throughs to first production, it took his first hit, Glide Time, 15 years. You almost certainly don’t have to wait that long now, if you follow his rules-that-aren’t-rules.
Hall’s Best Playwriting Book Ever is in fact the ‘new and improved’ third edition of his Theatre Writer’s Guide: Hot tips for good scripts, published by Playmarket in 1998. Updated a bit, nicely illustrated, slightly enlarged but pretty much the same book, it is no less entertaining and informative than the first. But Playmarket has, since 1998, published a number of very good plays, which are available to buy or borrow, and to read. While taking in Hall’s analysis of Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll with the 2016 volume Shift to hand, it struck me that you could do worse than read the Hall with the three plays I’m reviewing here, to see how playwriting can be done, and done well.
From Alison Quigan’s Mum’s Choir, about a family funeral with do-your-own singing, to Vivienne Plumb’s The Wife Who Spoke Japanese in her Sleep’s novel idea of a foreign language taking over one’s dreams, the first two plays in Shift don’t stray far from popular/comic territory. The third, however, is based on a well-known news story of the kidnapping and murder of an Asian youth in Auckland. While it has some blackly ironic elements, Lynda Chanwai-Earle’s Man in a Suitcase begins with one of the most shocking openings I’ve known. Once the titular suitcase is opened to reveal its bloodied contents, the projected direction of the play is set towards a tragedy from which there’s no return.
Death is also the starting-point of Alison Quigan’s play in which a mother’s death, before the play starts, brings her family suddenly together. We meet, all in a bunch, Molly’s children: Jean, Noel, Cathy, Australian Kevin and pregnant Terri. Later her grandson Matt arrives, but not before her unmarried sister Nola, the last surviving member of their generation, has made an entrance worthy of the occasion.
Despite their differences – enough to make a series of running arguments – this is a fairly ‘together’ family, with the essential qualities of love and looking-forward that propel and energise the script. There is, of course, some looking back, too: nostalgia for a shared past that reminds them why they’ve gathered.
The notion of a family funeral is custom-made for the stage. As Quigan points out, the same planning is needed as for a wedding: ‘the lists, the phone calls, the invitations, choosing a venue and accommodation, casting the important players, costuming, catering and scripting the service. It takes a lot of money and, very likely, several years.’ The difference is that a funeral – including all the participants, the flowers, and the subject in a coffin – is brought together in three days.
Although it is the planning of her own family funeral that she describes in her foreword, it is Quigan as theatre practitioner – Centrepoint Theatre’s longest-serving artistic director (1986–2004) – who describes the pressure as intense: ‘I was intrigued by the sheer weight of work that had to be done in a short time, underscored by waves of grief.’ As in any production, the compression of circumstances serves the drama; it’s hard to imagine a play being made of wedding plans!
On the other hand, allowing for emotions like nostalgia can make for heavy-handed expansiveness. Quigan, however, keeps a tight hold on the dialogue, which maintains a cracking pace and good humour throughout, even when the late matriarch Molly is invoked as an extra member of the cast:
Kev: We should get a caterer.
Terri: No way.
Cathy: Mum would turn over in her grave before she let caterers in the kitchen.
Kev: We’ve got to bury her first.
It was Molly’s dying wish that the family should sing together, and in the end their togetherness is more memorable than their squabbling, funny though that is. (Quigan notes that there’s ‘more laughter at funerals than at weddings’.) Perhaps their familiarity with each other, their togetherness, is expressed through the squabbling. You don’t squabble with people you don’t know well.
So, despite differences in the singing area (trust me, there are always differences in the singing area), the family rehearses bits of Fauré’s Requiem for the funeral itself, and performs, with voice and/or grand piano, no fewer than 21 other classic and popular pieces in the course of their preparations.
The characters become themselves more fully as their musical tastes are revealed, and they characterise each other (‘this is typical of you’) all the time. This is ensemble playing, requiring a large and well-prepared team. Mum’s Choir is the only one of the three Shift plays I have seen on stage, and I know it works.
The Wife Who Spoke Japanese in her Sleep was familiar to me as the title story of Vivienne Plumb’s short-fiction collection published in 1993. In this case, dilation is welcome as the initial piece was quite short.
Not every short story could have its dimensions increased in this way, but Plumb notes it was Auckland Theatre Company’s artistic director Colin McColl who suggested the adaption, and followed through in collaboration with the author on ‘making the Japanese component an integral part’ – especially a visual part – of the performance. There’s both a ritual and a fairy-tale element to it. I found the story’s ‘everyday magic’, as Plumb describes it, very attractive, and it keeps its appeal when its characters and themes are writ large.
Four main characters remain the same: suburban couple Honey and Howard Tarbox, Miss Florica (a language-school teacher who speaks Japanese) and Kenta Yamashita, a student who makes Honey a Japanese garden.
The result of developing the characters of the central couple is that their arguments, faults and whims become greatly exaggerated, and suburban (materialist) marriage itself is roundly satirised. Honey is at first as much subject to this process as Howard: we see her wanting to go to the mall because there might be a car to be won (‘your wildest dream’: a Volkswagen Golf), and wanting to sit on cafe chairs that look ‘like the Sorrento set in the Early Settler catalogue’. But the reason she wants to go to the mall is because that’s different from what Howard wants to do at that point – and what he assumes she will do with him. She’s breaking out. In the story and even more in the play, their relationship is the focus. Howard can’t stop patronising and infantilising his wife: ‘Pops knows best’ is the only way he knows.
Howard, recently retired, is breaking out too – into growing yuccas as well as the proteas of the original story. So the ongoing domestic war flows into the garden, which Honey wants to transform once she discovers – and owns – her Japanese streak, apparent in her nocturnally speaking Japanese.
The whole plot is an escalation, from Honey’s ignorance of things Japanese (she wasn’t brave enough to try sushi in the mall), to the general exploitation of her miraculous gifts. These extend from randomly speaking the language to making oracular pronouncements (translated by Miss Florica) to the many suppliants who flock to her door. The mousey housewife dominated by her husband becomes a force to be reckoned with, increasing in authority with every nocturnal word. There’s money to be made, of course, out of this clairvoyant thing – and a satirical dig at marriage becomes a satire on a whole society. From her fluffy dressing gowns to her valuable ‘predictions’, Honey’s character is mined for digs at the materialist project, private enterprise.
One major theme Plumb has added is the contemporary issue of Asian immigration and the racism that often accompanies it. While her treatment is squirmingly funny, Lynda Chanwai-Earle’s Man in a Suitcase also reveals an underside to the issue that is more than just a little uncomfortable.
To the ‘realities facing our oldest and newest migrants’, Chanwai-Earle adds something of the universal experience of refugees: ‘people forced to live out of suitcases or die in them’. They are represented by a chorus-like character, Kauki Paw, a former refugee from Burma (Myanmar), who is always present. Sometimes this figure, based on a real person, comes to the foreground, announcing the next episode in the story; sometimes she participates in the action as a journalism student and part-time hotel-cleaner; sometimes she’s in the background as a reminder or support, or cradling someone who is suffering. She brings a complex symbolic dimension to a story based on real events: the murder and dismemberment of Chinese international student Wan Biao in Auckland in 2006.
Complexity is the strength of this script, which presents its Asian characters as diverse, flawed and sometimes contradictory. The author addresses issues like homophobia and racism both inside and outside the Asian community, aiming to challenge us with implicit questions: to do otherwise, she suggests, would be to ‘sanitise history’.
The stage record of this hard-hitting piece, it is perhaps unsurprising to hear, involved the Chinese Ministry of Culture withdrawing its support for a 2012 tour to Beijing which had been in preparation for three years. A pre-booked two-week season at the Beijing Fringe Festival was hastily replaced by a three-night performance at another venue, with a censorship ban on advertising and reviews. Chanwai-Earle nevertheless puts on record the ‘dynamic collaborative’ process by which it was created, involving the Court Theatre (which commissioned the work), Creative New Zealand and Peking University’s Institute of World Theatre and Film.
I found Man in a Suitcase a gripping read, with its eight actors playing considerably more parts; the other two plays in the volume also achieve a wide spread of behaviours and attitudes with casts of six or seven. Just as Plumb gives translations for all the Japanese speech, Chanwai-Earle also renders speech in different Cantonese, Mandarin and Kiwi idioms, making translations available within the script or in notes to show when characters understand or miss another’s meaning at crucial times.
In one sense, we are given a true representation of the messiness of life, the bad outcomes of hasty decisions, the serious import of things said or done with no decision at all. There are few indications of where the narrative will lead, as generations clash in two Chinese families and individuals are entangled with different social groups that don’t have each other’s interests at heart.
Yet the author has so structured her play that scenes are contrasted and compared, characters placed in each other’s way, for very good reason. The running story of Kauki Paw’s past provides depth as well as breadth to the local scenario – Christchurch now, not Auckland, as stipulated by the Court Theatre in its commission. There is also the complication of aftershocks interrupting the action at random intervals: a ever-present ground-note that means something to a southern audience, just as the character Kauki Paw has become habituated to ever-present war.
HELEN WATSON WHITE has been a theatre critic and reviewer since 1974. A Dunedin-based writer, she has published articles, short stories and poetry as well as art, opera and book reviews.