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Sunday 11 October 2015

Review: Club Paradiso

Posted in: Performance
By Lexie Matheson - 8th June 2015

Club Paradiso
Produced by Leki Bourke and Gaby Solomona for FCC
Written by Victor Rodger

Directed by Vela Manusaute
Lighting Design by Suivai Autagavaia

At the Basement 02 to 06 June 2015 at 8pm


Last week, four incredible things happened.

Sepp Blatter resigned as head of FIFA, Caitlyn Jenner came out for Annie Leibowitz on the cover of ‘Vanity Fair’, the Black Caps beat England at Headingley and Victor Rodger opened a new play at The Basement.

While the first was surprising, the second astonishing, the third unexpected, it was the fourth that will stay in my memory the longest. In ‘Club Paradiso’ Victor Rodger has turned a new page in the chronicle of theatre in Aotearoa New Zealand.

That’s a big call, I hear you cry.

Yes, it is, and I stand by it for a multitude of reasons.

Getting excited about going to the theatre is what I do – sometimes twice or three times a week – but there’s a special excitement when I hear about a new Victor Rodger work because I’ve learned that he’s an elusive bugger and just when I think I have a handle on what he’s up to he blows me out of the water with what he does next. I thought he was talented when I saw ‘Sons’ a million years ago but it was a one off so I didn’t let myself get too excited. He might be a single-shot wonder, I thought, like so many before him.

Since then, of course, we’ve had ‘My Name is Gary Cooper’, ‘At the Wake’, the outstanding ‘Black Faggot’ which I hear he’s adapting for film, and most recently, my nomination for ‘Play of the Decade’, the outstanding ‘Girl on a Corner’ from February this year. Thanks to the particular genius of Letti Chadwick and her extraordinary, but under-rated, team at PIPA (Pacific Institute Performing Arts) there are now trained Pasifika actors well capable of realising the multi-textured characters Rodger creates and they have, collectively, created a model for indigenous theatre that is second to none in the world today. Turn the lens slightly and we also have a unique Pacific take on the queering of Pacific theatre in the 21st century, and, for me, that’s mighty exciting too. All in all, my blood pumps harder and I feel more alive knowing that this work is happening, and continues to happen, and at a level of performance that is quite simply astonishingly good.

It’s not just actors and playwright, however, as Rodger is now regularly teaming with Arts Laureate Vela Manusaute, co-founder of KKK (Kila Koconut Krew), and co-director Anapela Politaivao (‘Girl on a Corner’) under the banner of FCC (Flow, Create, Connect). This collaboration aims to produce ‘complex and challenging plays for Pacific talent’ that will ‘connect emerging artists with seasoned veterans’. ‘Club Paradiso’ does that in spades, linking Robbie Magasiva as Q, Anapela Politaivao as Tahlz and Amanaki Prescott (‘Girl on a Corner’) as Bubbles with a clutch of amazing youngsters who are, in one way or another, all from the PIPA stable.

The first thing necessary after arriving at The Basement for this auspicious opening night was to settle our somewhat grumpy Mr Twelve on a couch in the foyer to do his homework while we went inside. Why was he grumpy? Those of you who read my reviews will know he goes to everything with my spouse and I but tonight he can’t because the ‘powers that be’ have determined ‘Club Paradiso’ to be R18 and nothing attracts a tween more than an age restriction. To be serious though, he loved ‘Black Faggot’ and ‘Girl on a Corner’ and is, as all my family are, a fan of Pacific theatre and of Rodger’s work in particular.

Rodger is right though, this is not a work for the faint-hearted, and the R18 rating is fully justified. The advertising says it’s because the play ‘contains strong language and sexual situations’ and, while it’s absolutely correct about that, it doesn’t mention that there is also the most relentless graphic violence I’ve ever seen in a theatre, so real I fully expected to read about it in the NZ Herald the next morning. I didn’t, but what makes it doubly effective as a piece of performance art is the fact that I have read about events of this nature happening in Aotearoa New Zealand, events that absolutely turn the stomach.

The marketing says it better than I ever could and here it is: ‘It's closing time at ‘Club Paradiso’, a run-down bar on the outskirts of Flat Bush in Otara. Everyone's ready to go home after a long night at the club … until notorious criminal Q and his sidekick burst into the bar, covered in blood, high on P and running from the cops. At ‘Club Paradiso’ all hell's about to break loose.’

And it does, but that’s all you’ll get of the plot in this review as any ‘spoiler’ would, well … it would totally spoil the mandatory jolts and the physical revulsion that you’ll experience as you join Q and Si on this predetermined journey to self-destruction. Q tells us he’s ‘going out with a bang’ and he plans to take as many souls with him as he possibly can.

You’ll love it – you probably won’t like it, though – because it’s a glimpse into the misery inflicted on people, and on society, by the sons, brothers, fathers and uncles of others, those who we try to shut out, those we try to deny, those we try to pretend don’t exist and who, from time to time, simply say ‘fuck this’ and run amok. ‘You trying to be the man?’ Q asks. The answer is simple, ‘he’s the man.’

Rodger says ‘it’s tough, uncompromising and sometimes brutal - and it's breaking new ground in Pacific theatre.’ He’s right about that. His tough, beautifully crafted script explodes with dark beauty and provides an extraordinarily real platform for some equally courageous performances. ‘It's everyone's worst nightmare’, Rodger says, and I’m ever so glad my son is in the foyer with a bottle of Coke doing his Year 8 literacy work while I’m in the theatre. There are moments when I almost wish I was with him but, like most humans, I can’t drag myself away from the carnage and I, at times unwillingly, stay and struggle with the unyielding and relentless nature of this inhumanity. ‘Intense is the best word I can use to describe it’ Rodger says, and I can only nod wordlessly in agreement. It’s powerful stuff, and we quickly forget we’re watching actors with scripts, a plotted narrative, costumes, and all the detritus of an extremely sophisticated performance piece. It’s life, Jim, but exactly as we know it, exactly, and I sense there are long periods where nobody in the auditorium dares to breathe at all.

It’s a tacky club in Flat Bush, Otara, is ‘Club Paradiso’. There are plastic seats, a few chromed barstools, a small service area, a hand-painted sign edged with hypnotically tracking fairy-lights that says ‘Club Paradiso’ with the final ‘O’ a chocolate coloured cocoanut, and there’s a good-sized circular riser centre stage for the singing of karaoke. It’s a serviceable set, accurate, but more important it’s closing time for Tahlz (an empathic Anapela Polataivao) and her sons Ave (a subtle Hans Masoe) and camp Dante (recent PIPA graduate Gabriel Halatoa). All these performances are finely tuned and resourcefully delivered.

The bar is cooking and the prime culprits are the gaudy Sasha (an exquisite Sandy Vukalokalo) and the aptly named Bubbles (Amanaki Prescott). Prescott, a favourite of mine in both PIPA’s ‘Teen Faggots Come to Life’ and as the headliner in Rodger’s hit from earlier this year ‘Girl on a Corner’ has, in Bubbles, created a quite different character for this production, softer, less edgy and it works a treat against Vukalokalo’s brazen shamelessness and Q’s hostility. It’s always fulfilling to see fa'afafine characters portrayed with maximum authenticity and by actors of the quality of Prescott and Vukalokalo. It’s also deeply satisfying to see a playwright of Rodger’s stature writing mature and richly textured roles for these extraordinary actors, something that seems a long way from any current reality with palagi playwrights with the possible exception of Robert Gilbert who is workshopping ‘Trans Tasmin’ in just a few days at the Court Theatre in Christchurch. Let’s hope it’s a ‘watch this space’ and that Gilbert’s finely crafted work receives a full production sooner rather than later, or not at all.

Sidekick to Q, the intellectually limited Si, a powerful performance by Levon Rawiri in his first professional production, leaves zero to the imagination. His is commitment personified and he pushes the play forward with an intensity that is totally appropriate but almost impossible to watch – and in this case that’s a good thing. Throughout he’s Q’s bitch and, while his attempts at intimidation are woefully impotent, the ever present firearm and his otherwise ‘loose-unit’ behaviour create an ongoing threat that disguises his ultimate vulnerability behind a mask of drugged-out swagger and bravado.

Robbie Magasiva is Q. If there is a better actor in Aotearoa than Magasiva I’ve yet to see him. There were moments – dancing slowly on the riser (see the production, you’ll know what I mean) – where his likeness to Robert Downey Jr is uncanny and it’s this star quality that ultimately makes this crazed butcher unbearably likeable. It’s great conceptual playwrighting – and spectacularly astute acting – and it’s in every pore of this excellent production.

Rodger says ‘The main inspiration for‘Club Paradiso’came from Robbie’ – no surprise – ‘who has acted in four of my plays before, sayingthat he wanted to play a bastard since he's never played that kind of role.’ Well, he has now, and he is frightening good, so good, in fact, that he makes Rodger’s gritty and audacious text seem like everyday speech, it’s embedded so deeply in the actor’s psyche.

Naturalism is one thing but this is something else altogether.

Opening night or not, Magasiva is in total command of the stage, the language, the other characters and the entire world of the play, so much so that the boundaries between what is real and what is staged become inexorably blurred and we sit, deeply uncomfortable, in that no-mans-land. It’s a stunning realisation of a role that makes Jake the Muss look like Jake the Puss.

So you think that’s another big call? For sure, and as always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and, should you resolve to partake of this actor’s feast, I have little doubt that you will agree. Remember, though, what Rodger himself has said: ‘It's dark and some people can’t handle the dark.’ You will, of course – it’s just a play after all – but it will wring your withers and crunch your hackles exactly as really excellent theatre always should.

Rodger goes on to say that he believes that ‘this is ground-breaking theatre - especially in terms of Pacific theatre – gripping and intense, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in New Zealand before.’ Again, I agree with him totally.

This may well be New Zealand theatre’s dream team – sublimely good acting with Magasiva superb as the damaged psychopath and the rest of the cast stunning too, with taut, dynamic direction from Manusaute and Politaivao and everything in the safe, eloquent hands of Victor Rodger, quite simply the finest playwright working in Aotearoa New Zealand right now.

It doesn’t get better – or scarier - than this.

Lexie Matheson - 8th June 2015

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