31 Jul 2012
It sounds like the beginning of a dodgy joke: a South African Director walks into the New Zealand Drama School to direct an Australian play containing 400 buttons and nearly a kilometre of rope.
Award-winning Cape Town director Geoffrey Hyland arrived in Wellington a week ago and immediately got busy directing Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker at Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School.
Our Country’s Goodis set in Australia in 1789, one year after the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay. The motley collection of convicts, marines, governors, and crew has established the first penal colony in Australia. Conditions are grim, and a young married lieutenant is directing rehearsals of the first play ever to be staged there. With only two copies of the text, a cast of convicts and a leading lady who may be about to be hanged, conditions are hardly ideal…
Winner of the Laurence Olivier Play of the Year Award in 1988, Our Country’s Good is based on actual journals of the time and deals with love, barbarity, and ultimately the power of theatre as a humanising force.
“It’s a fascinating play, full of metaphor about how the arts work to transform society. I love watching people begin to understand their common humanity and see the individual not a number or a stereotype. Our Country’s Good delivers that along with the spectacle of a big play with a big cast and big design requirements,” Hyland said.
There are 21 characters in Our Country’s Good and for Daphne Eriksen, the costume design is her graduation project in a Bachelor of Design (Stage & Screen).
“I started down this road in 2005,” Eriksen said. “I paused to have two children and have loved coming back to complete my degree and work on a project which allows me to explore the rich and textured world we see in Our Country’s Good. One important focus of the costume design was to use authentic materials of the time, like wool, cotton and linen, and through the dying and distressing process the materials can then communicate deeper metaphors of the play and world.”
The garments are all being constructed as they would have been made in the 1780s and then ‘broken down’ to look like the characters have been wearing them non-stop for years. To help with ‘distressing’ the costumes, Toi Whakaari is bringing in John Harding, who was the New Zealand costume designer for Avatar and has also worked on Lord of the Rings and King Kong.
“Each character’s costume holds a sense of history and time; of where they have been and who they are as individuals,” said Eriksen. “Through a visual language the costumes become a vehicle for storytelling.”
There are 14 costume students working on the show, alongside two professional costumiers, and they have more than 400 buttons to sew on to the soldiers’ uniforms, not to mention all the other little details that make the period setting work.
By contrast, the set design for Our Country’s Good is very sparse. It also uses all natural materials, including sand and leaves. Most interesting though, is the 900-odd metres of rope that creates a cell for audience and cast alike and holds an eight-metre-high eucalyptus tree.
“While the set is simple, it is not simplistic,” said Joshua Foley, the set designer, and like Eriksen, a graduating design student, “I’ve enjoyed the challenge of making this play relevant to the context of New Zealand today. As a creative team we worked to create an environment that could speak in metaphor, rather than re-creating a historical landscape. We’ve had to be very resourceful in finding 900 metres of rope and an eight-metre high eucalyptus tree – thankfully we have a great team working on the show!”
What: Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker, directed by Geoffrey Hyland
Where: Te Whaea Theatre, 11 Hutchison Road, Newtown
When: 7pm, Thursday 16 – Saturday 25 August
Price: $22 full / $15 concessions
The performance on Tuesday 21 August will be audio-described for blind and partially sighted audience members.