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INFLATION CONFUSES AND DISTORTS

Print Version

NZ Fringe Festival 2013
WHAT THE, SHEEP?
By Gemma McLean

at Massey University, Wallace St, Entrance A, Block 5, D14, Wellington
From 22 Feb 2013 to 23 Feb 2013
[1 hr]

Reviewed by James McKinnon, 23 Feb 2013


The inciting incident of What the, Sheep? is simple but original: a woman wakes up one morning and discovers some unwanted sheep on her property. The next hour is spent trying to figure out where they came from – or rather, trying to prevent the characters from figuring out where they came from, since that discovery would end the play. Actually, I'm still not sure why the sheep were there, because I did not understand the explanation when it finally came.

Indeed, the play raises many questions, occasionally challenging the very nature of theatrical representation. For example, two of the sheep, oddly, are wearing garter belts and fishnet stockings – obviously, they are novelty blow-up sex toys, but are we (and the characters) supposed to accept them as “normal” sheep? Or are the fictional sheep they represent also wearing lingerie? The characters never acknowledge it, yet the sheep clearly are a source of erotic pleasure for one character, who gropes them and pretends to come in his pants at the sight of them.

Also, why is Lady Williams, who is not really the protagonist but merely the victim (since she does not act but is only is acted upon), wearing a dress that belongs to a different era and a much older woman? My guest and I both assume the play is set in the 19th century until the other characters appear… and then are returned to confusion by a denouement which refers to the gold rush.

The dress seems to be a signifier of Lady Williams's upper class status, which is also signalled by her monarchism and bigotry, the latter trait established when she speaks in condescending monosyllables to an Asian character. But then the next time an Asian character appears, she responds respectfully. Are we supposed to see the former as an Asian character and the latter as an Asian actor playing a white character? The dialogue, at least, leaves no doubt that the Maori actor is indeed playing a Maori character.

Notwithstanding my confusion, the actors and the director work very hard to ensure that we understand everything. For example, if someone is talking about his penis (as is frequently the case), he will point to it or grab it, possibly while winking at the audience, to make sure you know what he means. If a question is raised, all present will stroke their chins ponderously, and everyone speaks slowly and leaves long pauses between the lines (punctuated by a looped tape of bleating sheep) so that we can digest the dialogue.

The actors would chew the scenery if it was three dimensional, and frequently flash raised eyebrows, knowing glances, and quizzical gestures at the audience. One seems to act in slow motion deliberately, as if (to use a reference that dates me) his character were playing at 33 RPM while everyone else is on 45. 

That is to say, What the, Sheep? is presented in the style of a pantomime: the characters are broad stereotypes, and most of the jokes, aside from the world's most belated Crocodile Dundee reference, are about some combination of bestiality, supposed sexual orientation, penis size, or some combination of the three (for example, the stereotypical Australian has a penchant for snakes, and when he asks other characters if they have seen his, they assume he is referring to his penis).

I might have enjoyed these jokes if they were paced more briskly, or if I wasn't uncomfortably aware that they were being watched by several toddlers in the audience, who were evidently as baffled as I was (it was a thoroughly unusual evening).

What the, Sheep? began life as a ten minute script for a university course, and one can easily imagine why it would have been a hit in that format. But the lesson many of us took away from The Hobbit (Part One) applies here: more is not necessarily better. Pumping the original story full of hot air has made it confusing and distorted.

One character practically admits that his quest to find his snake really had no purpose except to make the play longer, and once the plot has been wrapped up, the audience applauds, only to discover that there's another scene – which also serves no purpose, except to endanger the actors by introducing wine glasses to the stage. One of them broke within 45 seconds, right next to an actor in bare feet who then had no safe way to leave the stage. Never use glass on stage.

I suspect that the writer has taken on too much responsibility. She has not only expanded the play but also taken responsibility for directing and producing. The premise is clever enough, and mentorship from an experienced director or dramaturg might help test its potential for further development. But learning to write, produce, and direct all at the same time is flirting with disaster. Like trying to drive a car, bake a cake, and repair a vacuum all at the same time, the only thing you'll learn is that there must be a better idea.
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