Erin Harrington pokes around at the Off Centre festival, including performances of Requiem and Much Ado About Nothing, at The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora, Friday 3 – Sunday 5 March. For other coverage see a review of A Baby Called Sovereignty here.
When The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora was severely impacted by the Christchurch earthquakes, the damage was far more than physical. Yes, a complex arrangement of category one heritage buildings, the largest collection in New Zealand, was terribly affected, the Gothic Revival architecture rendered properly gothic. Thank goodness the organisation had secured insurance. But the site has for decades been such an important component of the city’s artistic, social and cultural identity, and a home to so many artists and organisations, that it really felt like the earthquakes had ripped the guts out of something fundamental. There’s been a sense of eerie quiet at that end of town, particularly with the absence of the old Dux de Lux, that’s only incrementally improved as new places have opened.
Chances are, if you are from or have visited Ōtautahi, you have some kind of memory of or connection to The Arts Centre – especially if you have a love for or involvement in the arts. For me, the place felt like a living room: music lessons, school events, the School for Young Writers, Summer Shakespeare, the cafés, the food stalls (occasionally dubbed Salmonella Alley). The overstuffed weekend markets that drew locals and tourists alike. The odd little craft and gift shops. The galleries. Limping up the stairs in Old Chemistry on crutches to a music exam because three days prior I’d had a freak knee dislocation in school chapel. Illicitly performing theatre work outdoors in the quads at night. Jamming into the foyer at The Court Theatre. All-nighters painting sets at the University Theatre, 12-hour weekend work shifts baking muffins, the Buskers’ festival, the cinemas, Fudge Cottage samples. The Dux (seriously, fix it). Insert your own, but for the most part gone.
But now the fences are almost entirely down, with the exception of the old Dux and the building that once housed The Court Theatre. So how do you bring people back, express a sense of continuity and growth, and open the doors much wider than before, when it’s been so long and people’s behaviour has changed?
The Off Centre festival, held from 3 – 5 March across the complex and helmed by local arts heroes Holly Chappell-Eason and Chris Archer, acts as a corrective. On one hand it’s a celebration of the fact that now almost all of the buildings have been restored, and lovingly so, with the inclusion of new ways of walking through the site. You can see why you’d want to show off: it’s a showcase of stunning restorations that marry painstaking craft with 21st century infrastructure.
At the same time, it is an articulation of the organisation’s identity and aspirations, and an invitation for the community to return and see the place once more as the home of events and a hub of creativity. Some honesty: elements of the ‘old’ Arts Centre had started feeling pretty shabby, in some areas there was real resistance to change or development, and it was not particularly inclusive – unless you ran a food truck. There has been a deliberate and extremely welcome shift in recent years, as evidenced by last year’s terrific Matariki programming, to meaningfully celebrate the arts and cultural practice of the whole community, not just those with links to the city’s British colonial past by way of the site’s former identity as Canterbury College (later the University of Canterbury). You can see this in the festival’s near over-stuffed programming, which draws almost exclusively from local talent and showcases some of the site’s tenants. It’s far-ranging. There’s weird / great carnie and circus stuff, dance, music, talks, theatre, comedy, workshops, poetry, craft, film, exhibitions and a market. There’s a significant amount of work led by Māori, Asian, and Pasifika creatives, by disabled artists, by all of the above, and others whose work, for whatever reason, sits outside the tiny boring little box that gets called the norm and that usually gets all the sunlight.
How do you review a festival that jams around 80 events into two and a half days? You don’t. Instead you wander around over a couple of days feeling great about the incredible sense of energy and the happy crowds. You grab food from vendors, bump into friends, and sit to watch Woolston Brass here, or Circo Kali there. You browse the shops, watch buskers and check out a couple of massive dogs (Lyonbergers?) lounging in the carpark. There’s a bunch of stuff I want to get to but can’t including A Baby Called Sovereignty, led by Māori arts powerhouse Juanita Hepi (sold out! and a clash – but reviewed here), and mixed-ability dance company Jolt’s Whakapapa (sold out!). I’ve seen earlier seasons of some other things (Asian Kiwiana, Th’Orchard, Rollicking Entertainment’s carnie shows for grownups and kids, The Revolver Club, Tusk Puppets’ delightful puppet show) and am extremely happy they get new audiences. Lots sells out, which is a significant vote of confidence. I do wish there are some buffers between acts, as I can’t get into a talk on theatre in Christchurch when something else I’m at runs long, but I am able to tuck properly into two seated works.
On Saturday, the hour-long dance work Requiem, performed by the Rebound Dance Company and led by movement director Fleur de Their and artist Simon van der Sluijs, reflects on the city’s challenges of the last decade or so. It takes us through a process of collapse, change, and renewal. It features eleven dancers, ten women and one man dressed in whites and greys, who later perform with impeccably, empathetically designed brown paper puppets that sit between the wondrous and the uncanny. The performers welcome us into the Great Hall – again, sold out, seats oriented usefully towards the back of the room – with plates of snacks and drinks, all constructed out of cardboard. Live, laugh, love, snack, drink, laugh again, louder – but what happens when the party is over? Soon the increasingly shrill atmosphere feels like last drinks on the Titanic, or the final round of canapés before the guillotine gets wheeled out, and then we’re into more angular and less representational movement as bombs drop and we must deal with collapse. Various scenes build on fear, empathy, uncertainty and collaboration. Dancers move anxiously across the stage, waving their hands in fearful benediction. We arrive eventually at a poignant death: a dancer works a delicate, child-sized red-robed puppet with wizened features. In a gentle duet, its life fades away.
Then, a new way of being, perhaps, as more masked figures emerge. The piece works through to an impassioned, emotionally complex duet featuring dangers manipulating puppet heads. It then builds to an optimistic crescendo: the image of a revisionist Vitruvian Man, now a gender fluid hybrid, is revealed as the large cardboard boxes that have formed the simple set are manipulated and reconstructed.
It’s clear that this boom-and-bust cycle can cater to a few different readings. My experience of the work is shaped by having walked to the venue past the Christchurch City Council offices, which the day prior were visited by rangitahi involved in more School Strike for Climate action. Scuffed chalk messages demand long term solutions not short term thinking, changes to farming practices and mining consents, a viable future, help, help, help. I think of the dreamy, ecocritical dance work Daybreak Estate, which was performed in Ōtautahi a year ago almost to the day, by All You Can Eat Productions. What is our collapse and renewal, then?
There is a lot to commend here. I love Nicole Reddington’s musical accompaniment, which combines cello, a loop pedal, percussion, and pre-recorded music and soundscapes. The Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, K. 626 features heavily. I always appreciate Rebound’s focus on older dancers. There’s a joy in seeing the movement of such confident, experienced bodies, in an art form that frequently fetishises youth. I also love van der Sluijs’s props and puppets; it reminds me how good and original his work with surrealist puppet theatre company Tablo was. I do get frustrated that the work leans into a few on-the-nose moments, such as the announcement up top that it’s “summertime and the living is easy” or the recitation of Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into the good night”. They do too much work for us, and underestimate the audience, when so much of this piece stands on its own merits. Ambiguity and abstraction are good for us. I suspect I am in the minority on this though, as many in the crowd get to their feet at the end; it’s a clear success. And how good to see a dance work in a packed theatre, filled with multiple generations.
The festival closes with a joyful, stripped back performance of Much Ado About Nothing from touring backyard Shakespeare company The Barden Party, led by director Laura Irish. It’s unfortunately been pelting down all day, resulting in the cancellation of the Sunday market and some outdoor performances, but this high energy production is thankfully moved into The Gym, which has housed some of the headline acts. The stage, which features a catwalk thrust, the concrete walls, and the rows of seats (again, full) require some big changes to the blocking. Another change: Irish is joining the five other actors as sharp-tongued heroine Beatrice for the first time as Covid has taken the usual performer out of commission. If it’s all a bit hectic on their end, you wouldn’t know. It feels seamless. It is also one of the funniest, most enjoyable experiences I’ve had at a show in ages, and on a par with their delightful take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which toured last summer.
The rockabilly-themed production demonstrates profound, but irreverent, love for the play. Shakespeare’s text, all matchmaking, tricks and misunderstandings, is cleverly edited, and augmented with pop songs and frequent comic asides. We open with a roof raising rendition of The B52s’ “Love Shack”, Beatrice and gender-switched Leonata (Julia Guthrey) slamming away on tea chest bass and guitar at the circular end of the stage, welcoming soldiers home from a successful battle. Between verbal spars, and musical interludes, witty rivals / lovers-to-be Beatrice and Benedick (Ollie Howlett) clamber through and hide amongst the audience, begging them for help. An audience member, and very good sport, becomes the priest who presides over the play’s weird weddings.
It’s all fun and games with words until Claudio (Caleb James), misled by the vindictive bastard Don John, calls Hero (Lucia Evans) a slut at their wedding. The silliness falls away to reveal the raw beating heart of the play, so by the time Beatrice demands Benedick fight Claudio to the death over his slur the emotional stakes are high. There’s a plot to make Hero seem dead (isn’t there always??). Constable Dogberry and the incompetent night watch call upon any of us who can read and / or write to help them bring the brigands to justice. Love and truth win out. And all ends well as we close with an invitation to shake it like a Polaroid picture to Outkast’s “Hey Ya”. So yes, it’s big and silly, and it proudly takes some liberties, but hopefully even the most ardent of purists will recognise the skill and clarity with which the actors deliver the text – often at considerable speed.
The production is economically staged. The cute, country and western (by way of Little Golden Books) themed costume and production design is charming. My MVP for the night is the slightly unsteady eyepatch that Wiremu Tuhiwai puts on when he switches from playing kind Don Pedro to his wicked brother, Don John. Boo, hiss! In fact, let’s be honest, I love the whole thing. It’s hard to think of a happier way to wrap up the weekend’s events.
It feels weird so many years after the earthquakes to still have moments where you go “oh, I remember this – this is what it’s supposed to be like”. It’s a weekend where within just a handful of blocks the central city feels packed with events: Dramfest, the CSO performing Back to the Future to a sold out crowd, a dance party in Cathedral Square, and more, all coming off the heels of Tiny Fest, Electric Avenue, and the Bread and Circus World Buskers’ Festival – and so on – in recent weeks.
Off Centre is more than just an invitation to return to a restored site, and a worthy celebration of local talent and audiences. It’s a reminder that yes, this is a city, and there’s still more than buildings to be restored.