Bus Stops on the Moon: Red Mole days 1974–1980 by Martin Edmond (Otago University Press, 2020), 274pp, $39.95
On the book’s cover they have the stance of a rock band; they bristle like hip young gunslingers tuned into the New Wave zeitgeist. They are the Red Mole theatre troupe, the magnificent inner core of seven, photographed in black and white at Coney Island, New York, during an 18-month sojourn performing overseas towards the end of the 1970s. In Bus Stops on the Moon, Martin Edmond remembers, celebrates and eulogises a generation, an era, a mood—and in the main chronicles a few hectic years, the glory days, to tell us what it was like to be part of New Zealand’s foremost avant-garde theatre group that was itself the product of a particular historic moment.
Much has been written, as the internet attests, about the multifarious artistic activities of the polymorphic, globe-trotting entity known as Red Mole, which spasmodically acquired and shed many members over the three decades of its existence. Some of these accounts are a bit confusing, like red herrings dragged over the trail of a subterranean and subversive legend. Martin Edmond, who was there almost from the beginning as an eye-witness, lucidly disentangles the many anarchic, fuzzy, intoxicating strands—the mythopoetic bluster and sales pitches—to get the stories straight and frame a coherent chronological narrative, albeit looking back from his own considered and sober point of view now to his younger self, who quit Red Mole in 1980 when they were at their height.
Indeed, his account, from the arresting opening sentence—‘The summer I turned 22 I went mad …’—starts as autobiography, or perhaps a kind of Künstlerroman: a depiction of him serving an apprenticeship as a writer while working for and as part of the Red Mole experience. As the author puts it: ‘I already knew I wanted to become a writer and, since I didn’t know how to do that yet, it made sense to drift along in the wake of a group of people who seemed to know what they were doing and how to go about doing it.’
Red Mole was founded by Alan Brunton, together with his partner Sally Rodwell, in, it was claimed, ‘an opium den behind the Shell service station in Luang Prabang’. It was, then, a product of pharmacology as much as metaphysics. Brunton was an English graduate student, poet and inspirational force whom Edmond first encountered in a poetry reading for the launch of Freed magazine, co-edited by Brunton, at Auckland University in 1970. That reading, ‘chaotic, delirious, irreverent, theatrical’ as Edmond describes it in this book, featured the entire audience of Orientation students together chanting the word ‘erotics’. ‘In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art,’ wrote Susan Sontag in her classic 1966 work of cultural criticism Against Interpretation, and it was as if the poets of Freed had taken up the challenge. To be ‘liberated’, to be ‘freed’, was the central cultural ethos of the Sixties, with the birth of numerous ‘liberation’ movements. Brunton himself wrote: ‘My dream was born in the Sixties.’
After that Freed reading, Brunton went travelling through India, Southeast Asia and Europe before returning to New Zealand and forming Red Mole. It was the pattern of a lifetime, one that made him the wandering albatross of New Zealand literature, a magnetic yet mysterious figure gliding aloft in the empyrean of twentieth-century Modernism. As Edmond informs us, Brunton was brought up in Hamilton ‘where nothing was original’, by his grandmother, within a strict Christian sect. Later, as a poet and as the main scriptwriter for Red Mole, he wrote in patterns that often resembled a kind of glossolalia, a ‘speaking in tongues’, but erudite, witty and far-ranging rather than a babble, as if to repudiate the narrow fundamentalism of his upbringing and the monochrome conformity of his hometown.
Martin Edmond observes: ‘Alan … valued innocence, because he was a kind of innocent himself. He’s come up through a system—church, primary school, high school, the universities—that automatically disparaged people like himself … poor, working class … and developed ferocious defence mechanisms. He had a sharp tongue … he liked to parody authority figures … Offstage, he was just as funny.’
Emblematic of the hippie or yippie counterculture, Red Mole’s aesthetic sought to embody the shared fever dreams of true believers in pursuit of catharsis. Theirs was the kind of theatrical ensemble that aimed to convert its deprivations and inadequacies into advantages, into a virtue. They created performances using scavenged and home-made props, along with hand-me-down themes and motifs, all given an ironic, sardonic or comic twist. They made theatre from the day’s news, neighbourhood events and the mythic possibilities of National Geographic magazine. They welcomed happenstance, serendipities and synchronicities; they prided themselves on their catch-as-catch-can glamour; they were like a cartoon creature suddenly aware that it is over the cliff-top and out in mid-air, running to keep up with itself. The Red Mole manifesto claimed their purpose was ‘to keep the romance alive’: that is the romance of the Sixties. As a ‘poor theatre’ of vagabond actors they were out to challenge the complacencies of mainstream theatre and its ‘bourgeois formalism’. Sometimes raw, shambolic, even amateurish, they were nevertheless, as a tribe, energised and effervescent. Onstage, their quicksilver energy made them incandescent, even dazzling. Performing relentlessly in the second half of the 1970s, they drew audiences to their flame.
Red Mole emerged from a particular nexus of creative ferment in New Zealand. Martin Edmond provides a vivid sense of the kaleidoscopic swirl of political, social and cultural unrest taking place. Partly it was that a great wave of Plunket-raised baby boomers came of age, disenchanted with the old order and seeking transformation, enlightenment, euphoria. For the first time, there was mass jet-set travel and the spiritual uplift of a variety of mind-altering drugs available: in the 1970s, the term ‘high society’ was repurposed through-out the land. (Though, as Edmond’s reference to his fit of madness at the start of the book implies, there was also drug psychosis and addiction to contend with.) This youth wave, in keeping with the carnivalesque atmosphere, prized theatrical self-expression. Edmonds lists Blerta, Philip Dadson’s From Scratch, Jack Body’s Sonic Circus, Paul Maunder’s Amamus, Ken Rea’s Living Theatre and Francis Batten’s Theatre Action among other artistic collectives that sprang up, alongside of course the numerous rock groups, all wanting to express some measure of local cultural identity.
Red Mole evolved out of this artistic activism as more ludic and playful than most, and certainly more articulate and quick-witted; along with those staged by Split Enz, the Mole’s mock-baroque, psychedelic performances came to symbolise the artistic excesses and aspirations of the decade, locally at least. Just think of moon colonies, another promise of the Sixties. The very title Martin Edmond chooses for his epic chronicle—taken from the title of one of Red Mole’s stage shows—points to the conceptual absurdity in which the Red Mole entourage revelled: who wouldn’t want to be on that bus to the dark side of the moon?
The origins of the troupe’s name can be traced back to their first show, ‘Whimsy and the Seven Spectacles’, performed at Victoria University of Wellington and dealing with the botched arrest of Doctor Bill Sutch by the government’s Security Intelligent Service in Wellington in 1974. W.B. Sutch was accused, falsely, of being ‘ a red under the bed’, a Soviet spy, ‘a red mole’: a very exotic creature in New Zealand in the 1970s.
Martin Edmond was recruited into Alan Brunton’s circle in 1974, first as an arts writer for Brunton’s new magazine Spleen, then as a performer in Red Mole. He was at that time at Victoria University in Wellington and on track to become an academic, a prospect all too boring and predictable. Instead, seduced by the smell of greasepaint and the roar of the crowd, all he wanted to do, as he says, ‘was run away with the circus’.
From this temporal distance, Edmond sometimes sounds like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner as he delineates the inevitable tensions and resentments of Red Mole’s pressure-cooker lifestyle; the long-ago ups and downs; the disillusionment, resilience, recovery and renewed engagement displayed. Yet he’s also shrewd, perceptive, a keeper of the faith, both sceptical and loyal. And as a pre-eminent prose stylist, he provides a significant and highly readable work of cultural history, eloquently recalling a time when everything seemed up for change.
Edmond’s pen steadily sketches and crosshatches a vast cast, with many slightly fugitive characters given walk-on parts in a sentence or two, from campus revolutionaries to denizens of Wellington nightlife, to a tartly observed array of colourful chancers and low-budget entrepreneurs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and London.
The seven central figures who feature on the cover are: Martin Edmond, his partner musician Jan Preston, bass player Neil Hannan, actor John Davies, and ‘the Gang of Three’—Alan Brunton, Deborah Hunt and Sally Rodwell. Deborah Hunt acted, danced, ate fire, made masks and was an all-round force of nature from the Hokianga. Sally Rodwell, a doctor’s daughter and university graduate who always wanted to act, is summed up by Edmond as ‘the most versatile among us … the hardest working, the least egotistical … utterly reliable … Sally was the still centre around which everything else revolved.’
There were many other important contributors along the way: the mime artist Ian Prior (‘His clown was called the Essential Kropotkin’), cartoonist Barry Linton who created the Red Mole logo, and Joe Wylie who designed iconic posters. Also: Arthur Baysting as the master of ceremonies Neville ‘On the level’ Purvis, Red Mole’s New York manager Nance Shatzkin, ace roller-skater Modern Johnny Warren, and so on. Edmond writes of Cabaret Capital Strut’s seven-month season at Carmen’s Balcony in Wellington in 1977: ‘Anyone who wished to join Red Mole could do so as long as they had an act … I don’t recall anyone being turned away.’
Everything that Red Mole stood for was nurtured in the ribald and emphatically corporeal cocoon of Carmen’s Balcony, where, we learn, Carmen herself one night graced the stage with her formidable presence. Here, in this Weimar-on-Wellington-Harbour, a burlesque nightclub starring dancing drag-queens, Wellington came out of the closet in style; and flaxroots theatre made by all achieved a kind of beatnik satori as performers and audiences, night after night, supped from the communion cup.
In the end, the roll call of talent associated with Red Mole in their picaresque peregrinations around New Zealand was all-embracing as New Zealand moved towards the civil war-like atmosphere of the 1981 Springbok Tour anti-apartheid protests. Martin Edmond ends his main narrative account in the early 1980s, just before rebellion became commodified and the sweetness of light of Sixties idealism curdled and turned rightwards towards Rogernomics.
Red Mole were guerrilla theatre, as their name confirms, and, at a time of neo-nationalism, intended to be every bit as morale boosting as the Kiwi Concert Party—which was the New Zealand Expeditionary Force Entertainment Unit of World War Two. Brunton himself said in the Seventies, with tongue in cheek, that Red Mole was as Kiwi as a can of Wattie’s Baked Beans (served undoubtedly on burnt toast).
DAVID EGGLETON is a poet and writer based in Ōtepoti/Dunedin.