THE COMPANY THEATRE
Suitcases by Bruce Mason
Reviewed by ROB LIST
Suitcases is the union of two domestic quartets into a full evening at the theatre which provokes emotional and academic reactions. Especially in The Evening Paper, but also in The Light Enlarging, the audience is asked to consider our national obsession with safety and security and the shackles it creates. In The Evening Paper the Branson family are united by routine in a bondage which brings them some comfort but none for the audience, who can't even decide who to blame. The tearaway moment is rationalised away and a sad little cloud of pessimism settles. The Light Enlarging, written ten years later, shows the beginnings of positive alternatives to 'biting the bullet' when two of the quartet move out into new country - both literally and figuratively. This examination of alternatives and counter-culture became much more obvious in Bruce Mason's 1970 play Zero Inn.
The Evening Paper was written in 1953 and The Light Enlarging in 1963, yet colloquial language has changed sufficiently in that time to make originally normal lines appear as jokes to an audience who haven't taken into account the era of the plays. A greater problem for a modern audience is the seeming caricature of characters and the heaviness of 'messages'. On the surface, that doesn't speak well of Bruce Mason, but the same time lag applies again. Our capacity and demand for subtlety have increased, probably at the same rate as the cries about our lack of culture. If that seems improbable, a quick survey of plays, novels, visual art and popular music of the 1950s compared with their present equivalents should be illuminating. It is an embarrassingly unsubtle decade to look back to and these two plays emerge from it with more dignity than many of their contemporaries.
In a sense these plays are more useful to us now than they were when they were written, for they have become documentary milestones of our self-consciousness and self-confidence as New Zealanders. Although Mason was attacking the spirit of servile colonialism that still tainted the air in the 'fifties, he gave a fair picture of attitudes to 'Home' and from it we can see how far we have come and perhaps judge how far we have to go.
The plays of Suitcases are dominated by their language which is all-important and commands the pace. Wit and pathos are in balance but always the audience must accept that these are period pieces if they are to get the most from them, and The Company Theatre's production gave them every chance. Bruce Mason is no tyro as a director and he had a sound team of four to work with; each actor taking two parts. Christine Lloyd and Geoffrey Darling gave ample evidence of their continuing growth as actors who can bring intelligence, experience and real talent to the service of New Zealand theatre. Christine's Winsome in The Evening Paper was true gauche 'fifties, yet none of that carried into her portrayal of Barbara Everiss in The Light Enlarging. Typically, Geoffrey Darling played the parts for which the audience had the least sympathy. It is infuriating to have an actor of his ability put down because thoughtless 'critics' mistake the role for the performance, but after Suitcases that should not happen so easily. Warren Atkinson had to really strive to match the performance of his fellows, but despite his lesser experience he rose to the challenge when he might have accepted eclipse. The real surprise, however, was Sher Crowther as Elfrida and Miranda. If she can show us how pathetic Elfrida Branson's dominating energy really is in her stage debut, what will she offer in the future?
The Company Theatre has not aired old plays in this production but made a comment on our theatrical progress and given valid entertainment at the same time.
(The Company Theatre, Tauranga, August 12 to 26)