Theatre review


Pieties by Michael Heath


New Zealand has a tendency to be either too determinedly chauvinist about its playwrights or too dismissive of them. It is refreshing to find, therefore, that Michael Heath, whose new play Pieties was premiered at Wellington's Circa Theatre in August, really fits into neither category. At this stage of his career, he can best be described as a fringe writer with strong, and proven, international connections.

Floating in time and space, Pieties is a work which brandishes the butt-end of a kind of universal social moral hypocrisy that so often isolates and scars an individual, leaving them little room to manoeuvre in a realm we like to think is reality. It is tough material, true in feeling to a strong tradition in New Zealand writing generally, although tending to be too diffuse in its language and imagery to be completely successful as theatre drama. Nevertheless, it comes very close indeed, with unnerving frankness and real bite.

In its first production, directed by Heath himself, Pieties was set in the high-rise apartment of Hannah (Donna Akersten) - a woman alone, turned in on herself. She is visited by McLaughlin (Stephen Tozer), a helicopter pilot in the city's airborne suicide and accident squad. Or is her caller merely a figment of her imagination?

Although loosely sign posted as being in London, the apartment could be in any metropolis - or any confined space - anywhere, and at any time. This illusion was expertly conjured in the threading of music and sound through the production.  But the performances of the two actors stood out above all.

Akersten was in superb control as Hannah, creating a woman for all seasons along a scale that effortlessly ran through shadings and timbres of the most subtle kind and of the utmost integrity. The role lies right at the centre of the play and with her, Hannah lived. Tozer was the most generous of foils in the less verbal role, complementing and pointing-up Hannah's abrupt switches in mood, yet remaining a dominating presence throughout.

Heath returned to New Zealand in 1977 after several years overseas and this play was written on his return. Interestingly enough, the Circa opening almost exactly coincided with its opening at Theatrespace, in London's Covent Garden. Another of his shorter plays, The Privacy of the Patient, played in the fringe at last year's Edinburgh Festival and later ran at the ICA in London. His full length play, All Good Soldiers in the West Wind will be premiered at the Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles towards the end of the year.

Even if Heath has yet to prove (assuming he wants to) that he is of mainstream taste, Pieties more than hints at a real international connection for a local playwright. (Circa Theatre, August 22 to September 9)