Horseplay has audience braying like donkeys

Horseplay by Ken Duncum
Auckland Theatre Company
Maidment theatre
Until May 29th

I was ten when James K Baxter first appeared to me. It was in the 1950’s. My father was a Wellington publican and would often let Baxter doss down in one of the spare bedrooms when he had indulged too much after 6 o’clock closing.

It was after midnight and in one of the dimly lit passages I saw a ghostly, near naked figure shuffling along, gesticulating and mouthing lots of words. I was dumbstruck and petrified at the apparition. This was the first mad artist I had met.

Watching Tim Balme recreate Baxter the other night in Ken Duncum’s play “Horseplay” brought back some of those memories. He didn’t have a beard and he wasn’t as skinny (or as funny) when I first met him but he did have a powerful presence. It was the capturing of that presence and the aura of the poet that made the character and the play come alive.

In “Horseplay” Duncum imagines a meeting between Ronald Hugh Morrison and James K Baxter in Morrieson’s home town of Hawera in 1972. It involves a night of adventure and mayhem as the two great writers of the mid century New Zealand compete with each other over talent, women and drinking.

The play has the two writers caught up in a scenario which could have come straight out of one of Morrieson’s books, with the writer having run over a horse owned by the local dairy mafia and which has ended up in Morrieson’s kitchen.

The two characters, the famous poet and the failed “outback Charles Dickens" spar with each other over the importance and relevance of their work with Morrieson seething in his attacks on Baxter and the literary establishment.

John Leigh as Ronald Hugh Morrieson, the salt of the earth boy from “Hara” manages to produce a brilliantly flawed character. However his occasional lapses into a thespianic mode, prancing around the stage, weakened the character he has created.

Tim Balme plays a James K Baxter who is part poet, part prophet and totally preoccupied with love, death and god with a inspired performance which seems to reveal the mans soul..

In several places Baxter resorts to his own poetry such as his Indian poems and more visionary works which the playwright manages to insert cleverly into the text. Baxter even uses one of his Pyrrha love poems when trying it on with Morrieson’s girlfriend Wilma

The comedy is generally brilliant and Duncum can’t help but make as many horse jokes as possible but there are occasionally some succinct and pointed comments.

Speaking of Landfall Baxter says (or is it Duncum) “I’ve found the editorial staff to consist of duck-arsed, over potty-trained pricks whose critical insight is restricted to pulling their foreskins over their heads and shouting “I have found a new National Literature”.

Duncum also manages to convey how both writers found inspiration for their work, Morrieson from his local rural environment while Baxter from his more personal and philosophical encounters with people and events.

Both wrestle with their ailing bodies (both died in 1972) and their demons in their search for love and meaning as well as their difficulty with public adulation and indifference.

Even though the play was written in the 1990’s it has a contemporary relevance in the competition between writers with the recent media generated spat about the rivalry between C K Stead and Nigel Cox

Elizabeth McRae as Morrieson's aunt and Toni Potter as Morrieson’s girlfriend Wilma nicely portray the innate conservatism and growing liberalism of mid century New Zealand with performances which add density two the two main characters.

Director Simon Bennett controlled the action, the actors and dialogues skillfully, making sure the comic twists and dramatic events merged faultlessly so that the farce never became just slapstick. He manages to insert a hint of menace and unease, something of the New Zealand Gothic.

The set designed by Tracey Collins with its slightly surreal shapes also convey the sense of New Zealand Gothic and this is heightened by the lighting of Bryan Caldwell.


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