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Lyricism in New Zealand Plays

Lyricism doesn’t have a strong presence in New Zealand drama – at least, not the kind that gets produced.

Baxter wrote some lyrical plays – as you’d expect from one of New Zealand’s all time heavy hitting poets when he has a mind to write for the stage. I saw one produced once at the Depot Theatre in Wellington – I think it was Jack Winter’s Dream. It had energy, and the language was assured, even if it felt a little dated. I haven’t heard of any productions since, so I guess JKB’s contribution to New Zealand drama hasn’t become part of the permanent repertoire.

And Allen Curnow, the other all-star in the New Zealand’s poetic constellation, wrote some lyrical plays, which to my knowledge remain unstaged. I did once have a look at them; they struck me as very wooden.

Playwright and stage director James Beaumont had rather more success, with a succession of expressionistic plays he mounted in Wellington in the 1980’s – laced with a dark lyricism. They were unique and – to me anyway – unforgettable. As I wrote in an earlier blog, it puzzles me that his contribution doesn’t continue to have currency. Perhaps his work is a little too eccentric/idiosyncratic to attract interest today.

My own attempts at poetic drama culminated in The Alhambra’s Master, an historic drama set in Wellington in the Nineteenth Century. A production was mounted at Bats Theatre in Wellington … and took a swan dive into oblivion! My most spectacular failure.

Twenty years on, and with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think the play was all that bad. Duncan, who did a great job directing my play Caramel Cream at the Depot a year or so earlier, didn’t quite come to grips with the demands of a lyrical drama – not that the blame should lie all with him though, by any means! The play needed another draft … or three.

Incidentally, something good came of that production: Duncan married the leading lady!

So is there a place for the lyrical play in New Zealand theatre? In these prosaic times it does seem a tough call. But I can rise to a challenge! Even now I’m writing another historic play about Chinese miners on the West Coast in the 1860’s. I figure that the heightened language will seem less mannered and self-conscious delivered by Chinese characters. After all, the Chinese have a strong history of highly stylised dramatic performance.

That’s my theory anyway … or am I just setting myself up for another embarrassment?

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