Eternally Hip: A Review of BATS PLAYS
Hannah Banks reviews BATS PLAYS by Ken Duncum and Rebecca Rodden, and reflects on the importance of BATS in New Zealand theatre and the role of these two incredible playwrights.
'Wellington was dark then – next to nobody lived in the city and by 6pm there were only stragglers on the rain-blasted streets. The urine-coloured streetlights were on but the shops were out, and an emptiness consumed block after block. Old Wellington was dying – under the reign of the architect-mayor, buildings disappeared over the weekend, leaving rubble then empty sockets. Nothing seemed to be being built. Three-day southerlies descended like judgement.'
When I opened BATS PLAYS by Ken Duncum and Rebecca Rodden, I expected to read six of their plays from the late 80s and early 90s that were performed at BATS Theatre. But those first few sentences made me realise it wasn’t just going to be a collection of old plays; the book was something else, something new. New Zealand is a small country with a small and underfunded theatre industry. The plays that get published tend to be the big hits – the box office smashes, national identity defining, landmark plays. It is rare that smaller alternative plays get to live forever on paper. This is part of what makes BATS PLAYS so exciting: six plays that were important in the early history of BATS won’t get lost forever in time. Instead, Polythene Pam (1985), Truelove (1986), Flybaby (1987), JISM (1989), The Temptations of St Max (1993), and Panic! (1993) are now documented and published.
But Duncum and Rodden’s plays themselves are not what kept me engaged in this collection. While the plays are ambitious and interesting, it was the history recounted before each play that made me excited. This is where the richness lies, and is what makes the collection worth owning. Duncum and Rodden’s memories of BATS during that time are evocative, and Duncum especially draws the reader into the complex world of how and why each play was made. I have never read something like this before: the collection invites the reader to understand how each play came to exist, and discover how both Duncum and Rodden developed as writers and theatre makers. They play with different styles and techniques, push performance design boundaries and challenge expectations. While the plays are provocative, original and even today can command attention, it is reading about Duncum and Rodden’s process that makes the collection unique.
Many New Zealand theatre makers found their feet and grew up on stage at BATS. Many of us, myself included, consider BATS to be our home. We have all passed through those doors, some going on to have massive careers, others flying in and out, some disappearing altogether. But BATS is the constant, it’s always there, always working, always fighting.
Before I discuss the plays themselves, it’s important to acknowledge why the collection is titled BATS PLAYS. BATS – the Wellington theatre that began in 1979 – connects the plays together, and each page of the book evokes the feeling and memory of that theatre. Many New Zealand theatre makers found their feet and grew up on stage at BATS. Many of us, myself included, consider BATS to be our home. We have all passed through those doors, some going on to have massive careers, others flying in and out, some disappearing altogether. But BATS is the constant, it’s always there, always working, always fighting. I’ve always thought that someone needs to write a history of BATS before time muddles everything, and BATS PLAYS gives us a taster of how beautiful that could be. In the section, ‘Fly by Night: Memories of BATS,’ Duncum articulates why that theatre is special to so many:
The lights are on now in Wellington; Courtenay Place is lit up like the world’s fair at all hours; and warm light spills out the big new windows of BATS Theatre, inviting everyone in. It’s a better town to live in and the seats are more comfortable, but, crucially, the black box is the same. Regardless of ownership and leases, BATS belongs to anyone who’s splashed up a coat of black paint there – covering the layers and accretions and ideas of all those who’ve been there before.
BATS PLAYS not only charts the early careers of Ken Duncum and Rebecca Rodden, but it also straddles a moment of change for BATS Theatre. For most of the 1980s BATS was a venue for hire administered by BATS Incorporated. From 1985-1987 Duncum and Rodden produced the plays Polythene Pam, Truelove, and Flybaby. On the page these works seem scrappy in their presentation, but punchy in their ideas. In fact they were much like the building they were performed in, as BATS by the end of the 1980s due to ‘neglect and a lack of funds… was deteriorating rapidly.’
In 1988 Simon Bennett and Simon Elson, both fresh out of drama school, devised a way to save BATS. They negotiated a lease, fundraised, refurbished, redecorated, and re-opened BATS as a professional venue in April 1989. One of the opening shows was JISM (1989) by Ken Duncum and Rebecca Rodden. When you get to JISM in BATS PLAYS you can see a clear shift in Duncum and Rodden’s work. Now performing in a professional theatre, the two writers lifted their game. This new level of finesse can be seen in the last three plays in the collection: JISM (1989), The Temptations of St Max (1993), and Panic! (1993).
Before their partnership reached the giddy heights of those later plays (with their conjoined twins, perfume made from monkey semen, martyrs and disco dancing saints), Duncum and Rodden’s writing was small and intimate. Beginning BATS PLAYS with Polythene Pam is logical in terms of chronology, but also works as a gentle introduction to the special relationship between the two writers. Duncum begins his introduction to Polythene Pam with, ‘We were not lovers. I did write Rebecca a poem. And then we wrote some plays together. But we were not, as some assumed, lovers.’ Rodden also muses about their connection when she writes, ‘…a strange intimacy grows, spending hours together writing and laughing, gut-buster primary-school giggles.'
I imagine that seeing Polythene Pam would be a different experience from reading it; on the page it doesn’t feel like you are reading a piece of theatre, but is instead like an insight into the writers’ minds. Gary Henderson describes it perfectly in his introduction when he states, ‘It’s easy to see Polythene Pam as a transition from poetry to play. There’s no story. Instead, it’s a series of images, reflections, evocative anecdotes – set up, digressed from, then returned to – which build to a view of life.’ In this collection, Polythene Pam acts as a prologue or a transition into the remaining plays.
Duncum writes at the beginning of his introduction to Truelove, ‘We needed a play,’ and in many ways Truelove feels like the classic first play from new but exceptional playwrights. It’s about relationships, romance and love; some is grounded in truth and realism, but there’s also magic and holes in space and time. It confronts many themes and moments that are relatable for an audience, while still combining Duncum and Rodden’s poetry and sense of humour:
Asteris: You’re not even considering that it might be the best thing to do. You don’t understand how I feel. Dash: I understand. You need space, time, room, other people, excitement that old dreary deadhead doesn’t provide. Asteris: I knew you’d take it personally. Don’t you want me to be happy? Dash: That’s not fair. Asteris: I asked a simple question. Dash: So loaded it’s going to blow my head off.
The characters of Asteris and Dash struggle their way through their story, and this matches the struggle experienced by the cast and crew. Duncum’s introduction to Truelove so accurately describes the difficulties of making a new show that it reminded me of disastrous production weeks that I’ve had. I found it strangely comforting to read the horror story that they had never rehearsed the beginning of the play with opening night only hours away:
…I went to BATS and tried to fix everything that was wrong. The actors came in early and we blocked the beginning of the play… There was a sense of controlled panic. Sarah, as stage manager, had to come in and stop us, saying there were people outside who wanted to come in. She basically pushed the actors off the stage, and next minute I was looking at actual audience members.
Armed with this knowledge and when reading the unrehearsed beginning of Truelove I can imagine the feeling in the theatre on opening night - that panic, that adrenaline; that feeling sometimes fuels the best theatre.
The third play in the collection, Flybaby (1987), is presented with the original ending that Duncum and Rodden wrote, as well as the alternate one that was performed. This is the kind of theatre history gift that BATS PLAYS offers the reader: the intended ending of Flybaby was an angel and a demon wrestling. I agree with Duncum’s introduction when he states the original ending sounded much more exciting. Alas, the director was thinking of the budget, and Duncum and Rodden wrote another much quieter and more achievable ending.
Two years later however, with the opening of new BATS Theatre, quiet and achievable were not goals anymore. JISM follows conjoined twins Lily and Rose as they are sucked into a world of extreme advertising to sell a perfume made from monkey semen. It is as insane as it sounds, but it’s also a riot of a time. The fifth play, The Temptations of St Max is written by Duncum alone. While the story may seem more contained, certainly less sprawling than JISM in terms of location and subplots, St Max is a bold and ambitious work. I’ve made a lot of shows at BATS Theatre, several with elaborate sets, but the description of the set design by Andrew Moyes makes me baulk:
He designed and built a set of levels, one that could open out and out again. Framed in metal with a prison-like ceiling grille which was intermittently lifted on rattling chains to become the grim gates of heaven, and which were in turn cast crashing downwards by the transfigured Max…
Despite an incredible design, Duncum writes in his introduction to St Max that, ‘You could argue that this was the one where it all went wrong… reviews were uniformly mixed. They all liked some things but were baffled by others… This was the production where I paid all the actor’s BATS bar tabs.’ Despite the lacklustre reception back in 1993, I agree with Duncum that this play shouldn’t be disregarded. The Temptations of St Max is an incredible part of BATS’ history with one of the most ambitious sets ever seen on that stage. While it may be complicated and a ‘rampaging beast’ of a play, it is interesting, meaningful and deserves to survive on the page.
The last play in the collection, Panic! (1993), appropriately sees Duncum and Rodden writing together again, this time with performer Petra Massey. Despite Panic! premiering earlier in the year than The Temptations of St Max, beginning and ending BATS PLAYS with two works created for a solo actor is incredibly satisfying: it sets up a comparison of two characters at opposite ends of eight years of work. If Polythene Pam is poetry, Panic! so clearly sits in the realm of theatre. The dramaturgical clarity and assuredness of this play demonstrates just how much Duncum and Rodden developed as writers over these eight years, and it is a development that readers can share through the collection.
The thing about history is that we can learn from it, and this collection feels important. It is a step forward for the theatre industry in terms of documenting our work and history...
There’s also something cyclical about beginning and ending BATS PLAYS with two monologues. There is definite growth within the six works and the memories attached, but while reading the collection I couldn’t shake the feeling of history repeating itself. Duncum, Rodden and their collaborators describe the successes and failures that I have felt in my own career. The struggles that they faced in the late 80s and early 90s are the same struggle many artists face today.
The moment the feeling really struck home was when Duncum described the lack of forward momentum for artists once they’ve produced work at BATS: ‘A few years after JISM I was picturing my career as stranded… stuck on the no-man’s-land traffic island with been-there-done-that BATS on one side of the road and the unreachable Downstage on the other.’ This problem still exists, and in fact it’s worse since the closure of the Wellington theatre, Downstage. Uther Dean wrote about the issue in the 2014 Playmarket Annual:
Theatre in this city is now a two-horse race: between the eternally hip and young BATS, and the resolute and experienced Circa. Both doing their own work very well, but with a wide chasm between the two in which more and more practitioners are finding themselves caught – too big for BATS, too young for Circa.
I do not have a solution for this, and it’s an issue our industry has clearly been circling around for decades. BATS PLAYS by Ken Duncum and Rebecca Rodden doesn’t solve it, but it does document an important part of the New Zealand theatre industry’s history. The thing about history is that we can learn from it, and this collection feels important. It is a step forward for the theatre industry in terms of documenting our work and history, and I hope that it is the first of many.