Blackbird examines the confrontation of Ray by Una fifteen years after their affair. This would be unremarkable, except Una is 27 now and Ray (formerly known as Peter) is 55 – she was 12 when they were ‘lovers’. The play takes place in a rubbish littered work place lunchroom over a tense 90 minutes. It was performed last year in Circa Two by Rachel Foreman and Nick Blake and was directed by Jane Waddell. New Zealand International Arts Festival features the Sydney Theatre Company’s production, with Peter Kowitz playing Ray and Paula Arundell playing Una, directed by STC’s new artistic director, Cate Blanchett, fresh from their nine week sell-out season in Sydney before they tour further a field. HELEN SIMS spoke to actor Peter Kowitz about the challenges the play presents and other matters ahead of reviewing the show.

This production is set in the round – why did you choose that method of staging?

We wanted the intimacy and the sense of combat; to give both a gladiatorial quality and sense that the audience was in the room. It’s quite confronting too because the audience can see people on the other side of the stage.

The local production maintained the Scottish setting – have you chosen to as well?

No. We took out the British/Scottish references to places and we do it in an Australian accent. In a meet the audience session someone who had seen the original production in Scotland said they thought the play there was so Scottish, but ours was so Australian. There is one reference that we kept that jars a little – when we refer to needing a passport to get on the ferry. However, there was something that Cate liked about travelling on a boat.

The writer of Blackbird (Harrower) has said that it is not a play about paedophilia – do you agree?

He can say that! It is, but it is also a play about love. (In the play Ray repeatedly insists he loves/loved Una and that she is/was the only minor he ever made love to). We’re seeing their relationship now at a more acceptable age. You are lulled into a false sense of liberalism and then Harrower pulls the rug out from under you with the reveal at the end. He’s having it both ways, allowing you to question and judge for yourself. You come with your own prejudices. Cate worked hard to emphasise the love story for this production and tried to make it less combative. One woman, however, took exception to the use of the word “affair” to refer to their relationship – she clearly saw it as abuse. That way it is less about Ray’s terror and Una’s revenge, which was the way it has been done in some places, like Berlin.

Harrower also drew inspiration from a real life story (that of ... who met a girl in an internet chat room) – why do you think he changed it to remove the internet element aside from practicalities? Do you think it makes Ray more or less culpable?

That’s interesting. It couldn’t exactly be based on a real life story because Ray wouldn’t have been able to change his name and start a new life under the alias due to the sex offender register. There are also protections in Australia now that filter the internet to protect young people. Culpability is interesting because Una knows she is getting involved with a much older man, but... In terms of society, everything really goes wrong once society gets involved.

What did you think about the character of Ray upon first reading the script? How did you prepare for the character? Have your thoughts changed?

I came with my own prejudices. Ray has low self esteem. This was difficult in rehearsals because an actor usually tries to convey confidence on stage, so this is different. I’ve done it in a slightly method acting way – I imagine a man with no self confidence at all – that’s why he gets involved with a 12 year old girl. It was hard for us in the beginning with Cate because we didn’t know what her emphasis was. It’s tricky with Ray because you are pre-disposed to hate him if you know the basic plot of the show. As an actor you go on stage to make the audience love you. However, immediately with this play you get the sense that something is wrong. Then my job is to convince the audience it is not as simple as that.

This was your first play with the Sydney Theatre Company – how was it?

Well, the Company is in a transition stage due to the arrival of the two new artistic directors (Blanchett and her husband Andrew Upton). It’s Cate’s first directing piece. There was a very long audition process and seven weeks rehearsal period, which is a luxury. We were incredibly lucky with Danielle, who plays the young girl. She’s 16 but looks younger and is a great actress – she’s done a few films.

Do you enjoy being in this play?

It’s a very tense show for an actor, like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Both Paula and I felt that over the 9 weeks tension built up, so we are looking forward to having a break – we have four weeks off then rehearse the show to tour to Germany.

Australia seems to have the same issues as New Zealand in terms of a proliferation of devised works being created by younger actors in order to create work for themselves. What do you think of this? Is it important for them to be generating their own work?

Yes, lots of good New Zealand actors come over to Australia – but we have too many there as well! Drama schools are turning out lots of grads and they have to accept all kinds of work. They think they’ll do it for the love if it, but practicalities almost always intervene. It is frustrating when you get into your 30s and you are still doing self-devised work. There are usually unrealistic expectations involved with devising, or you just do an American or British play. It is different for writers again – they need time to produce a good play – Harrower took 10 years between plays! It is just not interesting to see actors creating vehicles to showcase their talents as an audience member.

*   *   *

HELEN SIMS: I wrote in my review of the Circa production last year that this play is confronting and challenging. It’s also beautifully written. This production was no less so, but I felt far more detached from the action than I did in Circa Two. I think this was mostly due to the design of the seating blocks – I was looking down on the play, which really positioned me as a spectator. I also had some quibbles with the sound design as well – it just seemed unnecessary and disruptive of the script. Awkward silences did not need to be filled with sound – it would have been effective if they had built tension. Aggravating this was the poor sound insulation of the venue – on my side of the seating I could hear thudding and voices that were obviously from outside the venue. This was annoying and divided my attention – I heard several people complaining about it after the show. I also wondered if the space was a little too large – Una and Ray seemed to spend a lot of time standing far apart from each other – again tension would have been heightened by throwing them together in a smaller room. However, the gladiatorial style of the stage did emphasise the confrontation central to the work, and it was interesting to see the use of a hexagonally shaped stage.

Kowitz and Arundell acquit themselves well as Ray and Una. I found Kowitz’s performance particularly nuanced – he managed to generate the emotions of pity and disgust that are central to his character. I had some initial quibbles with the suitability of Arundell’s casting in the role of Una. Whether it was harsh overhead lighting or her costume she looked too old to play Una and her incredibly deep voice added to this impression. I also wondered about the racial angle potentially inserted into the play due to her casting. However, these quibbles faded as the play progressed and her skill as an actor was fully revealed.

In terms of direction, there were moments when I felt that despite Blanchett’s skill as an actor she is still relatively experienced as a director. The ending especially smacked of overkill – technological effects take the place of a powerful ending to a highly lyrical work.

However, this play is of such a high quality that it is still worth seeing as an example of a brilliantly written and compelling “intimate theatre” two-hander. Whilst I had some qualms about some of the features of this particular production it was a nice contrast to the larger scale productions that have featured in the Festival. However, it also demonstrates that Wellington theatres can produce work on a par with these larger international productions!