Maidment Theatre
Sept 4-27 | Reviewed by Renee Liang (contains spoilers)

‘Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly….’

The stage is dark. Otherworldly strains of the familiar song ‘Blackbird’ permeate the space as glowing figures move along behind a green frosted window. Two figures eventually open a door and tumble into what is revealed as a messy staffroom. The lights come up on a complex and disturbing psychological drama.

Blackbird, a play by David Harrower, deals with the aftermath of a relationship between Una (Leisha Ward-Knox) and Ray (Michael Hurst). Una was twelve at the time she was seduced by Ray, a “family friend” in his forties. Now, fifteen years later – after both characters have had to deal with the fallout from the discovery of their illicit relationship – Una has tracked down Ray in the factory where he works under a new identity.

Over a sometimes lingering 75 minutes, Harrower engages with the taboo topic of relationships between minors and adults, stopping short of any moralising. He instead explores how something like this can happen – and continue to happen. His play isn’t about paedophilia or even about sex. Instead, it questions the motivations behind believing we are in love, and the layers of mendacity and truth in the stories we tell to stay in a desired relationship. Una and Ray move between the roles of victim and predator, confessor and listener with convincing fluidity. Each manipulates the other, and the audience, into believing their side of the whole sordid story, but as time goes on, the story begins to unravel. And a note for the faint hearted: we are not spared the intimate details of their testimony.

Michael Hurst’s portrayal of Ray is restrained and powerful. He gives a credible impression of a pathetic older man who seems to regret the past. How can such a pitiable character – a liar, a coward, someone who cleans up for the men he’s supposedly supervising – be the object of continuing lust for the young and beautiful Una? Yet by the time we come to this, we believe it could happen. Una is the real blackbird of the piece: damaged, limping, seeking the dream which is also her doom. Leisha Ward-Knox does a good job of Una’s mix of vulnerability, anger and desperation, though her playing lost intensity in some places against Hurst’s surer hand. I find her physicality very watchable. It’s graceful and, in the few moments where the rawness of her feelings are allowed to leak out, riveting.

Kudos to the other cast members: acting students from BEST Pacific Institute, Unitec, and other acting schools: Maria Hollins-Werry, Emma Devlin, Chanel Savea, Thomas Natoealofa, Melissa Ravi and Gabrielle Rhodes who played the shadowy factory workers and other roles. I found it sad that these talents were uncredited in both the printed programme (except in very tiny print on the last page) and the website, although apparently there’s a good reason for their omission. But they did not even get a curtain call for their hard work. Good on the ATC for giving them the opportunity, but a little of the limelight would have been even better.

The characters in this play spar largely with words. Apart from a few intense, violent moments, director Margaret-Mary Hollins keeps the movements small, the characters physically distant from one another. Most of the wide, curving set is unused for the majority of the play. It’s a directing decision that has its pros and cons. On one hand it isolates the characters in the most important landscape, the emotional one. On the other hand, the play loses energy at times because of it.

The set design, by Robin Rawstorne, features splashes of colour and a large industrial air vent to give visual interest while still conveying a feeling of factory mundanity. The emerald-green windows add to the feeling of claustrophobia – we can see and hear the world outside, but never enough to know if it is really there. The costumes, also by Rawstorne, give nice clues to character – Ray’s tucked-in shirt and high waisted pants contrasting with Una’s red dress and high heeled boots which are so self consciously sophisticated as to give her away. Lighting design by Bryan Caldwell and sound by Andrew McMillan are subtle and effective.

Some eavesdropping in the foyer afterwards, followed by a Google when I got home, revealed that the final scene of this play was cut from the production. Why, my detective work was unable to tell me, though the prohibitive cost of portraying a car chase with a quick scene change may well have proven too much, even for the ATC. Whatever the reason, the effect of stopping the play at the second to last scene was a little sudden (the audience took a while to clap), but also intriguingly enigmatic, leading to some good audience debate as we all filed out.

Enjoyable? Not sure. The script is powerful but I sometimes found myself losing concentration, and wondering why. Was it because it was all too uncomfortable to pay attention? Or was it the production? I found myself yearning for a little less restraint, a little more rawness in the playing of what is, after all, a very wounding story. But thought-provoking? Definitely. I left the theatre with more questions in my mind than I had entered with, and over the next few days I’m sure they’ll continue to brew. And that for me is the test of a good play.

See also:
» Peter Kowitz on Blackbird
» Blackbird (Reviewed by Simon Sweetman)
» Blackbird (Reviewed by Helen Sims)