Renee Liang - The Big Idea
NZ playwright Gary Henderson’s classic play Peninsula is having a revival at this year’s NZ International Arts Festival. Renee Liang goes behind the scenes with director Jane Waddell.
Peninsula, Gary Henderson’s classic play, premiered at Court Theatre in Christchurch in 2005. Seven years on, a lot has changed in the world. But the play, which evokes a 1960s childhood (with some details drawn from Henderson’s own childhood growing up in Duvauchelle Bay on Banks Peninsula), finds its place as “an acknowledgement, a nod to a time and a place that was a step on the way to here and now.”
In a 2005 interview in the NZ Listener, Henderson talks about plays as showing just the tip of the iceberg: “I wanted to show just the tip of the iceberg, but I wanted that tip to be so perfectly drawn that the rest was really clear.” In Peninsula, a volcano is used as the metaphor, its gradual rumblings eventually shaking apart a child’s innocent view of the world. It’s a powerful image.
I spoke to director Jane Waddell about her process for bringing the Peninsula world to life.
Peninsula was first written and performed in 2005. Has Gary made any changes for the 2012 production, and why?
Apart from a few minor tweaks the script of Peninsula is true to the original script. Of course a new production brings its own unique interpretations and no two productions of the same play would ever be the identical, but overall this production remains faithful to the playwright’s intentions when he wrote it in 2005. It is about capturing the essence of the story and being truthful in the story telling.
Why restage this play in 2012?
We are not so much 'restaging' Peninsula but more finally bringing it to a Wellington and International Festival audience. Peninsula has so far not been seen in the North Island so it is fantastic that Circa and the Festival have been able to support and mount a production of the play here.
In many ways, the world of the play - a small town on the Banks Peninsula in the 1960s - is gone forever. How did you and the actors research this world?
Small town New Zealand in the 60s is really small town NZ anywhere. There is something iconic about rural NZ no matter what era. Essentially what makes country folk different from city folk still holds today. It's about the pace of life, the distance from the modern world and its pressures. Not without its own dramas and stories, scandal, and gossip etc but just on a different scale. There are those of us in this production who knew the 60s or heard from our parents about life in the 60s. I'm from Invercargill so I am quite familiar with the territory the play explores.
How much did you draw on your own childhood when making the play?
Gary Henderson the playwright says when people ask 'How much is the play real to his own experience' he answers "The characters and the story are fictional. Everything else is true. The characters are an imaginative mixture of types rather than an actual documentation of real people who lived in Duvauchelle Bay in the 60's.”
That is true for me too. I recognise aspects of all the characters, I recognise the landscape of small town NZ and Gary’s ability to catch the turn of phrase of these characters is so accurate to the period and so familiar to my own ear that I feel I know the people as if they were family.
Playwright Gary Henderson has said (Listener article 2005) that he asks writers to "write anything you like, but then go back and dig into it. I want... to examine with some rigour what it is they do instinctively.” Is this how directors approach a work also?
Directors approach work in a similar way. You gather the arc of the story and start to develop the characters with the actors by delving into the layers that make up those characters. You work with the actors to peel back the layers like an onion and find all the hopes, dreams, fears and aspirations of each, and then see how it works when they are put in situations in and out of that character’s comfort zone, hence creating drama, tensions, passions, emotions etc. All the good stuff of theatre. There is the instinctive impulse of the actor and also the nudging of the director to push it further.
What are the major considerations with restaging a classic play such as Peninsula?
What makes a classic play? The only consideration is truth and the script. You are there to work with the playwright’s intentions in good faith. Peninsula has had two other seasons since it was written, and with a new crew cast and director we bring our own personalised Peninsula to our audience.
You've also directed another Gary Henderson play, Home Land. What draws you to his work and do you find common elements running through his plays?
The first play I directed of Gary Henderson’s was Home Land and played to packed houses. What made it so successful was the way we saw our own life/family in the characters. If you can relate to the characters as an audience then you invest emotional energy with them, you want to know them and champion their success and grieve for their failings. The common theme is family, the way we belong and the changing roles as we grow up and the important and yet small decisions families make
What other projects are you working on?
Next up I change hats and will be working not as a director but as an actor in Roger Hall’s play A Shortcut to Happiness on at Circa Theatre in April.
Later on in the year I return to directing with an exciting new play by Dean Parker, The Tigers of Wrath.
25 February - 31 March
The 2012 New Zealand International Arts Festival is on in Wellington from 24 February – 18 March.