Ahead of the Auckland debut of Ranterstrantrum, Victor Rodger reflects on the play's inception 15 years ago and whether anything has changed.
Musicians often talk about their difficult third album. Ranterstantrum was my difficult third play, and it was a fucker, lemme tell ya.
I’d written my first two plays, Sons and Cunning Stunts, relatively quickly. But Ranterstantrum wasn’t just like pulling teeth, it was like pulling teeth AND getting your toenails yanked off while feeling the fight or flight response 24/7 for about, ya know, A YEAR.
I was a hot mess for most of its creation. Deadlines came. Deadlines went. I was badly juggling working as a storyliner and scriptwriter on Shortland Street while trying to finish the play.
I’d stay home on weekends, ostensibly to write, while my then partner hit the town. But all I’d end up doing was Googling shit on the internet that there was absolutely no reason for me to be Googling, and then as dawn spread across the Auckland skyline, I’d beat myself up for Googling shit that there was absolutely no reason for me to be Googling.
I even took a week off work and fled to a motel on Waiheke to get away from everything and just FINISH THAT FUCKING PLAY. All I ended up doing was watching rubbish TV all day long and ducking out of view from the proprietor every time she walked past, as if she was going to report me to the play’s producers.
As opening night drew closer and closer and the odd workshop here and there did little to help, my scrawlings begin to resemble something approaching the look and feel of a play. People kept asking me; what are you trying to say.
I had no fucking idea. Well, no, that’s not entirely true.
I knew I wanted to explore race in New Zealand. Specifically I wanted to explore the sort of scenario I had often found myself in, especially in my native Christchurch, when I’d be the lone brownie at a function and somehow be expected to act as a spokesperson for all the bad brown people of the world, none of whom, of course, I personally knew.
I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but you look like a savage.
In Ranterstantrum, Joe, a Samoan actor arrives at a Palagi dinner party and is apparently mistaken for a Samoan intruder who staged a home invasion. One of the chief inspirations for the play happened at a dinner party in the late 90s when I was eating a lamb shank with my hands. A Palagi woman from Australia leaned towards me at the dinner table and said, “I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but you look like a savage.”
In some ways Ranterstantrum was my response to that question, because my inner response was: of fucking course I fucking mind.
Somehow, despite myself, the play was eventually finished. Although, not until the last Monday before it opened. Its finishing was largely in part due to the skill of the director Colin McColl, the artistic director of Auckland Theatre Company. While I continued to be a hot mess, he calmly and confidently managed to pull that play out of me while sprinkling magic dust on it. Truth be told, if it weren’t for him, the play simply wouldn’t have happened.
The reaction on opening night in Wellington in 2002 was mixed. Certainly not everybody loved it; there was a Judy Bailey sex fantasy that was a bit too much for the delicate Evening Post reviewer; a Radio New Zealand presenter commented to an elderly actress that it was all a bit too mean spirited; but the people who got what I was trying to say, got it and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Yet, the biggest shock to me on opening night was how much people laughed at the beginning. SPOILER ALERT: the play begins with a hot, Samoan actor entering in a towel and getting dressed. The final piece of clothing he puts on is a balaclava. And once he puts that on, the action cuts straight away into a brutal scene of a Samoan man preparing to rape a Palagi woman. As played by Robbie Magasiva in the original, I think the laughter came from the shock of switching so swiftly from seduction to rape.
Ranterstantrum was bold, and it was provocative. No, it wasn’t perfect, but it was most certainly alive.
As the kids say these days, FML.
Cut to 15 years later and my entity F.C.C. have cobbled together a last-minute production of Ranterstantrum in Auckland. It’s been responsible for the single most horrific moment I have ever had in my career as a writer; discovering that one of the actresses in the play, Bronwyn Ensor, was only SEVEN YEARS OLD when the first production was mounted in 2002. As the kids say these days, FML.
The fundamental difference watching this production come to life has been that this time around, the director, Vela Manusaute, is a Polynesian. Colin McColl did an extraordinary job 15 years ago, no question but Vela gets the play on a visceral level in a way that perhaps only a director of colour could. He knows and feels what the play is saying. And seeing him direct a group of mostly young, twenty-something actors in this still brutal examination of race has been thrilling.
This production, like the one 15 years ago, is going to be a night at the theatre, but so so different.
Race continues to be a thorny topic, nationally and internationally. It’s only three years ago that I was in Christchurch and spoke Māori in front of a Palagi man who reflexively said, “Don’t talk that shit in front of me.” It had been a long time since I’d had that level of racism in my face and I was too shocked to bite back. But then I realised that because I generally hang out with like-minded people, I don’t often receive that sort of bald-faced racism. But I shouldn’t have been surprised, if you jump on talkback or if you flick through the comments on the odd Stuff article, you can see that variations of ‘Don’t talk that shit in front of me’ are pretty much everywhere you look.
The title of the play is cribbed from a Douglas Wright dance that left an impression on me when I was a high school student back in the 80s. Ranterstantrum is an amalgamation of two words; Ranters and Tantrum; a suitably angry hybrid for a play that contains a lot of anger. A title which Mr Wright kindly let me use.
So, 15 years later as Ranterstrantrum finally makes it’s Auckland debut how does it look? It’s still brutal and at times it’s still difficult to watch. It’s still funny, although it’s certainly not going to make everybody laugh. And though a friend who saw the original 15 years ago suspected that the conversation may have moved on since then, I’m not so sure that it has.
Ranterstantrum runs from July 20 - August 12 at the Basement Theatre. Tickets available here.