Downstage Theatre
Feb 18-March 7 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

NEW ZEALAND has one of the world’s best wind resources. Wind farms seem to be on the ‘side’ of moral ‘good’ – a relatively clean way to generate electricity. However, harnessing this resource is not without impacts that can be severe on local communities and the environment. These impacts can be overlooked by the ‘drivers’ of wind farms – commercial power companies. The moral conundrum of the good of the many versus the welfare of the few is given life through the family drama at the heart of the SEEyD Company’s production Turbine.

In contrast to last year’s offering, Paua, the characters here have depth and development. The audience’s empathetic connection with the embattled Gusten family is established early on when we see them standing under a tree scattering ashes. By and large, their pain and struggle feels genuine. Mother Gail Gusten struggles to keep her disparate family together. Although her husband has recently died, the reality of her situation emerges – she has been doing this alone for years. She defends her piece of paradise in Ohaunui (a thinly veiled Makara) staunchly, even as it becomes clear that her children, staunch feminist and erotica fiction writer Susan and autistic son Ariel will hardly be contenders to take over the family home. Into her nest intrudes Mark Lachlan, an ex-Greenpeace activist who has switched teams and is now liaising with the locals for the power company that wants to implant turbines around their community. The Gusten’s home will be the closest – in trying to persuade them of the benefits of the wind farm, Mark is almost irresistibly drawn into the family.

The original cast from the BATS production two years ago features again, with the exception of Susan Gusten, who is played time around by Lee Smith-Gibbons (originally by Rachel Forman). She at time appears a little tense on stage, although she pulls off lines such as wanting a “shag without the garnish” with aplomb. Tim Spite directs and plays a variety of characters, including the autistic Ariel, the power company manager (humorously called Rod Shaftsbury), departed husband Rolph Gusten in flashback scenes and Gail’s Maori partner George Tuhaka. Spite’s performance strays occasionally into the self indulgent, although Ariel emerges as an important symbolic figure. Sadly I don’t think this is fully capitalised upon in the conclusion of the show – Ariel is a wind spirit in Shakespeare, and it is hinted early on that he is the key to the resolution of the show; however, this doesn’t come to pass.

The standout for me was Emma Kinane – as the embattled matriarch of the family, Gail, a character I felt for, was frustrated by and also genuinely liked. Kinane plays the role with an incredible amount of heart and earthiness. The scene in which the conflict between her and her daughter comes to a head was particularly good. Nick Dunbar completes the cast as Nick, who, as he drops the spin and opens up to Susan in particular, becomes increasingly likeable. His own internal battle as his belief in the goodness of renewable energy is challenged is subtly charted by Dunbar.

The scenes move back and forwards in time, shifting from realism to stylised sequences. The Environment Court room scene was a bit superfluous, but comical. Maori issues are given the once over lightly treatment in a single scene between Gail and George Tuhaka, where she horrifiedly learns he has taken money in exchange for allowing turbines on his land. This hardly seems reflective of the battles Maori have had to go through in the Courts and community to have areas of cultural and spiritual significance respected, although the play would have to enlarge its scope considerably to fully deal with them. Many of the scenes set in the present tend to end abruptly and flatly, robbing the play of much of its dramatic impact although this improves as the play progresses

The scenes in which we are shown two alternative futures – ‘Bad Future’ and ‘Good Future’ indicates that the drama is directed less towards whether the wind farm will be constructed (it inevitably will), but he impact it will have on this family. The ending itself seems to suggest that the resolution of the human dramas is more important than the environmental/ethical ones (which are perhaps irresolvable), although it is strangely devoid of emotional impact.

The play is well served by its design elements. The set, designed by Spite, features an ‘any Kiwi’ living room, surrounded on three sides by white walls. The actors draw on the walls, creating and changing the landscape, which features realistic and idealised suburban and rural scenes at first, but as the play progresses this landscape increasingly gets filled with electrical appliances and other non-natural debris. It’s an effective rendering of human impact on the environment. Jen Lal’s lighting design is excellent, as is Gil Eva Craig’s sound design. Lal often employs low light to force increased focus on a scene, and creates a great visual effect of the turbines on light in the scenes set in the future.

Despite being a reworking of a show that was originally performed several years ago, Turbine feels far more ‘current’ than last year’s Paua – with Project Hayes, the ETS and the reforms to the RMA in the media over the last few weeks. The Tuesday night near full audience at Downstage hopefully illustrates to the theatre that they can programme relevant, modern New Zealand theatre and achieve commercial and artistic success.