Review: The Unauthorised Biography Of… – high energy, sometimes chaotic histories of unsung heroes

Erin Harrington reviews the Court Theatre Youth Company’s devised production of The Unauthorised Biography Of…, directed by William Burns, at the Canterbury Museum, Wednesday 8 December 2021.

Set on the ground floor of the Canterbury Museum, Heather Straka’s multi-disciplinary installation, Isolation Hotel, places us inside the foyer of a shabby, run-down German hotel from the 1930s, a theatrical environment that’s oddly out of time and space. The work, which is presented in association with the SCAPE Public Art festival, is a fascinating setting for the Court Theatre Youth Company’s devised performance, The Unauthorised Biography Of... Practically speaking, through an associated public programme and the creation of a little theatrette, it’s a playful place-within-a-place. It also invites the deliberate creation, excavation or performance of stories within a colonial building that is likewise devoted to collection, display, and the telling (and naturalisation) of cultural narratives.

In this tattered, half-forgotten quasi-foyer space, a place of coming and going, the cast of 18 young performers, aged from 17-22, interrogate whose stories we see by dramatising the lives of those who are missing from these narratives. It’s a production that strongly highlights the strengths and challenges of devising work with young performers.

There are two ways into the museum. One considers pre-contact Māori history then heads into a hall full of taonga, and one goes the colonial European route. We take the latter, passing the little office where the museum’s first Director, Sir Julius von Haast, presides over skeletons of animals and birds, through into the 19th century Christchurch Street, which focuses on early Christchurch businesses in the developing city. The performers line the street, narrating names, facts and figures; this is clearly the Official Story of Christchurch, which also skews pale and male (and stale).

In the performance space proper, after the show playfully stops and starts a few times, the performers, dressed in dark trousers, neutral suit jackets and various types of white ruffled shirts, offer us theatrical explorations of three lives. These are presented as a series of interwoven vignettes, with swift (and sometimes jarring) shifts in tone marked by the movement of touring cases and sudden changes in lighting and music.

The story of highly decorated war hero Nancy Wake, a Wellington-born spy known as “The White Mouse”, is offered as a bit of a romp. The horrors of World War 2 are offset by knockabout farce, addressing the question of how you might represent atrocity and trauma by giving us comedy Nazis in the vein of Hogan’s Heroes. More serious scenes focusing on Connie Summers – Christchurch peace activist, devout Methodist, and ‘anti-war hero’ – give us a different insight into direct action, as we compare the way she was memorialised against some of the many instances of protest, over more than 50 years, for which she was repeatedly arrested and punished.

The most dramatically expressive of the three strands engages with Falema’i Lesa’s approach to the Privy Council in London to fight for Samoans’ rights to New Zealand citizenship. Unlike the other two sequences we don’t see her directly, but are shown context for the direct invitation of Pacific peoples to come to New Zealand to work, the experience of the dawn raids, and finally this year’s apology. This piece most successfully balances humour with candour, not least through its presentation of a clutch of huffing and hawing British lawyers, and of a drowsy, bearded queen of England, complete with pink twinset and pearls, who announces, blandly, that racism is now over.

A fourth group struggles to find a topic. They eventually talk us through their process and anxieties, which I appreciate, although these sequences have a nervous energy about them that is far less focused than some other groups. The metatextual ‘this speech is about not writing my speech’ approach is admittedly a hard one to pull off.

I am a long-standing fan of the Youth Company’s work, and it’s fascinating to see how different a show this is to 2014’s Do Not Touch the Exhibition, which similarly asked that year’s Youth Company to respond to the museum as space and institution, albeit in a much more stylised and controlled manner.

You certainly can’t question the dedication and energy of this year’s cast, who have been led through the devising process by director William Burns, and supported further by a whole range of creatives, from the Court Theatre’s Kaihautū Ahurea Vanessa Grey, to members of Y|NOT and Pacific Underground, as well as museum and theatre staff and technical creatives.

There is sense of joy, hope and earnestness that suffuses the show, from a symbolic toppling of living statues of Cook and Tasman, who gaze out past the audience as we enter, to a performance of waiata Ngā Iwi E as the show closes. Shifting in and out of character, performers speak with conviction about the stories and forgotten histories that they want to see more of in the museum; it’s a call for institutions to do better. They discuss the trickiness of creating authentic work that address systemic discrimination when you might not share your subject’s culture or language. Near the end, one performer outlines her familial connection with Connie Summers, and talks about how challenging it has been to present a brief account of a life without being flippant or simplistic. It’s useful (retrospective) framing that shows the rough edges in the process – a type of ‘show your working’ disclosure that gets to the heart of the choices made in any sort of curatorial exercise.

Sequences where the performers create strong tableaux are particularly successful. These demonstrate an awareness of how to use space, voice and energy to create a distinct sense of character and tone, be it representing the pain and drudgery of a labour camp, or dramatising the fear of a Samoan man during a dawn raid. There’s also a prickly sense of tension between an impulse to create more narrative, sketch-based storytelling, and finding ways of expressing tone and character that require more depth and vulnerability.

Elsewhere, the production’s energy becomes chaotic. Characterisation, movement and use of space can be quite imprecise, making lines of action at times hard to follow. Clarity of voice work – often an issue with younger casts – is an issue within the unusual acoustic space, and I fear for the vocal health of some. In particular, there’s often a lot of cross-talk that is hard to parse from the audience. Perhaps it’s a case of remembering to play for the audience, and not just one another – a challenge when moving out of the devising process and into performance proper.

Overall I find The Unauthorised Biography Of… to be an energetic and thought-provoking production, but one that’s still in very much in process as it looks to find its centre and place to stand – a little like the museum itself.

The Unauthorised Biography Of… runs at the Canterbury Museum from 8-11 December 2021.

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