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Wednesday 08 October 2008

Review: Auckland Theatre Company's Blackbird

Posted in: Performance
By Larry Jenkins - 9th September 2008

When Ray and Una embarked on a relationship, Ray was an adult – but Una was only 12. 15 years later she's tracked him down. Is she after revenge?


Review: Blackbird, a play in one act by David Harrower

Michael Hurst, Liesha Ward Knox

Directed by Margaret-Mary Hollins

Auckland Theatre Company Production

Maidment Theatre, Auckland, 7 September

David Harrower maintains that Blackbird is not about paedophilia. But if this Olivier Award-winning piece concerns deeper matters – ok, call it child abuse if that's what he means – they don't usurp the central man-and-child virgin theme. Una comes to confront her "seducer" Ray sixteen years after he deflowered her, aged 12, and they talk about nothing else. As psychodramas go, it's not a comfortable experience, nor is it meant to be. That, at least, we can agree.

This work, though, is not that simple, and ATC's production of it is in some respects a better interpretation than the original London one, which I saw last year. Set designer Robin Rawstorne's completely off-putting staff room in which the couple confront and try to rip one another apart mentally and physically is brought closer to the audience; and the long and invasive windows behind which the workers constantly parade back and forth are frosted, not clear as in the original, making the passaggiata that of ghostly apparitions rather than real but disinterested people.

Touchy subjects: Liesha Ward Knox & Michael Hurst

Michael Hurst makes Ray both a loathsome and a sympathetic creature, whose life, after the ten years he's spent inside rehabilitating from his brush with the underage Una, he thinks, has stablised. Una's sudden appearance at his workplace threatens to destroy his new nest. His reactions vacillate between seeming remorse and anger at having to face "all that" again, and Hurst is a master at such changes of gear.

Liesha Ward Knox is not masterful. Una, in her version, is a psychotic bent on revenge and to my mind she misses the point of the character. Her long monologue springing from the loss of her innocence and its immediate circumstances evokes none of the sympathy such a tale should, spoken as it is in a Dalek-like monotone, and the crucial timing at the end, when the audience needs to be convinced in an instant that all of Ray's protestations that he's "not like those people" are the ravings of a hypocrite and liar, was botched on opening night.

Bryan Caldwell's stark strip-lighting could've been harsher, but having experienced the unblinkered starkness of the original production's lighting, I was rather glad he hadn't gone that far.

And, finally, perhaps it is inevitable that director Hollins, being a woman, leaned towards a strong, rather than a vulnerable depiction of the Una character, but a more exposed approach might've made her seem more tragic. Quite frankly, I didn't care what she felt.

Blackbird is staged at Auckland's Maidment Theatre until 27 September.

Larry Jenkins - 9th September 2008