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Print Version

NZ Fringe Festival 2013
Director: Bop Murdoch
Pat-A-Cake Productions

at Wesley Methodist Church Hall, 75 Taranaki Street, Wellington
From 25 Feb 2013 to 28 Feb 2013

Reviewed by John Smythe, 26 Feb 2013

I am tempted to write “WTF?!” and leave it at that. After all I have just spent 80-odd minutes watching something that is so completely fails to communicate anything coherent or connect with its audience in any meaningful way that I feel resentful at having to spend more time writing it up.

But reading the programme note and the media release, I realise the makers of Thin Skin are earnest and sincere in their endeavours and this is the Fringe after all so I'll try to honour my side of the bargain.

“Did Christchurch steal Wellington's earthquake” is the slug line below the title on the programme cover. “Whose Fault line is it anyway??” is the heading of the media release. “Pat-A-Cake Productions' Thin Skin plays the terror away.” And play they do. 

As we enter the hall, and get a free cup of tea, coffee or Milo (thank you) then find a seat facing into the three-sided space, the five actors – Ingrid Saker, Sam Skoog, Sarah Tuck, Tim Keats and Jody Burrell – are hard at it in a playground of cardboard cartons and packaging of various shapes and sizes. They build structures and knock them over and inevitably get into a fight over who gets to have what.

Chaos reigns until a stern voice demands to know what's going on and insists they each apologise. This doubles as a means of each actor introducing themselves and describing whether, and how, they feel connected or disconnected to this event. So far so promising.

What follows is what they and director Bop Murdoch have devised – with the help of Moema Gregorzewski – in response to Murdoch's experience of returning to post-quake Christchurch and finding her home town barely recognisable, and her family and their community coping in various ways. The idea that this could have – even should have – happened in Wellington is also a key component.

What they seem to have done (I can only guess) is played with a diverse range of ideas drawn from their research, abstracted them into performance modules then randomly strung them together to make their ‘play'.

Anyone who was in on the whole process may well be impressed by the results. But for those of us who come to it ‘cold', off the street as it were, it soon becomes apparent that although every moment in every sequence clearly has meaning for them, we are excluded from sharing in anything other that the privilege of watching them play with their cardboard toys.

Of course there are moments of recognition and understanding but they soon give way to more ‘private play'. Or is it that their overriding intention is to demonstrate, over and over again, that whatever else is going in, chaos and confusion dominate.

Language is sometimes included, in whole sentences even, but the acoustics of the hall often mitigate against complete understanding, especially when actors turn away.

There are times when I think this feels offensive to those who went through the earthquakes – like in the supermarket scene where the checkout staff seem to be playing at freaking the customer from Christchurch out with sudden jumps; or the speech about A J Hackett that seems to be equating the need to face challenges brought on by the earthquakes with the joys of bungy-jumping.

A court room scene makes the legal system look really silly without making any clear satirical point. The prisoner in question is one of the few recurring elements amid the countless brief scenes that come from nowhere and go nowhere. But what are we to make of her being mesmerised by the mimed orb she turns in her hands while her wrists are bound by handcuffs?

This is the image that ends the show and one of the company ‘off stage' has to lead the applause to tell us it's over: a clear indication of this show's lack of structure. Yes, I know, structure collapsed in Christchurch too …

If the audience was let in on what events and experiences the performers are exploring and evoking – in role, while creatively using the props to hand – then the constant collapsing into further insecurity and uncertainty would be valid. But when it seems clear that only the performers know what each element is based on and therefore what their abstraction of it represents, and we are not to be let into their secrets, “I feel disconnected from this event.”  

As Robert Gilbert noted in his review of Bare Hunt Collective's Munted, “Artists have always attempted, and will always attempt, to make sense of the senseless, interpret, and reflect,” especially in the face of momentous and traumatic events. But playing in private behind the proverbial mirror is not enlightening.
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