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By Patrick Evans
Based on the novel of the same name
Directed by Conrad Newport
It is 1955 and beyond the famous hedge something magic is about to happen.
In his beloved garden the “Father of the Nations Fiction” Frank Sargeson is waiting for his old mate Harry to turn up. Instead, he encounters a young woman fresh from a mental institution. Her name is Janet Frame. Their world is about to change forever.
From the director of Rita and Douglas comes this very funny and profoundly moving story. Touring the Arts Festivals in 2013 to incredible reviews and widespread acclaim it’s now Wellington’s chance to experience this celebrated New Zealand production.
Janet: Sophie Hambleton / Circa Season: Harriet Prebble
Frank: Andrew Laing
Harry: Simon O’Connor
Producers: Fortune Theatre
Writer: Patrick Evans
Director/Sound Designer: Conrad Newport
Set Designer: Matt Best (2013) | Daniel Williams (2015)
Set Build: Peter King
Lighting Designer/Operator: Jennifer Lal
Costume Designer: Maryanne Wright-Smyth
Production/Stage Manager: Rebecca Tapp, Dan Williams
EVOCATIVE GESTURE TO LITERARY TREASURES
Reviewed by Lena Fransham, 11 Oct 2015
Gifted is adapted for the stage by Patrick Evans from his own novel of the same name, which tells a story based on the relationship between authors Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson when she lived in the army hut in his garden and wrote her first novel, Owls Do Cry.
We look into the interior of Frank’s pokey Takapuna house and garden, cosily walled by the high hedge with an arched gateway that reveals a letterbox. Pages are strewn across the hedge, radiating out from the archway like a kind of wild wallpaper. In the corner sits the famous hut. The set (Daniel Williams) suggests a secret world fecund with potential.
Frank (Andrew Laing) faces us and begins to narrate his reminiscences of the time Janet arrived, beginning with the long absence of the love of his life, Harry Doyle (gorgeously portrayed by Simon O’Connor). When someone arrives at the hole in the hedge, he hopes it is Harry but it’s Janet (Harriet Prebble).
Laing is a charismatic Frank, irascible but vulnerable and sometimes given to pompous soliloquy. His narration is surprisingly chirpy and he confidently carries our attention. Frank’s relationship with the rascally old drifter Harry adds an endearing humanity to both characters.
The character of Janet speaks to my own tendency to romanticise her as a writer, with a poetic, though simple, portrayal of her transcendent relationship with words. Prebble vividly inhabits the odd demands of the character, evincing shyness and stubborn individuality while retaining an ethereal quality.
In an establishing scene, Janet sees her first ever capsicum in Frank’s garden, and asks why he calls it a pepper if it’s supposed to be sweet. She is not content with his curt assertion that names come from history. She goes on to lament the gap between words and the things they describe. She wants to find the point of origin where the word is the progenitor of the world: “You speak a world. Yes, that’s what it is, language that uncreates. A language that rolls back the reel of time and reverses the Fall. So there’re no more gaps between us, people aren’t strangers anymore … A language that will heal us and make us whole.”
The idea of the word being so far from what it is describing is illustrated in the conflict induced by Frank’s reaction to hearing Janet was diagnosed as schizophrenic. She was not schizophrenic, but in Gifted, the wrongful diagnosis, and the ignorant stereotypes associated with it, functions like the application of a misleading name – ‘pepper’ for a sweet capsicum – that creates division and misinterpretation. This seems to acknowledge, too, the gap between the real Janet, the real Frank and the myths that have grown up around them; myths on which this play itself draws and to which it in turn contributes.
Clearly, Frank and Janet are an unlikely pair, but the difficult relationship is creatively fertile, at least for Janet and for literary posterity. Frank proudly reminds us that he is the father of the nation’s fiction, because he pioneered a literature that attempted to reflect New Zealand life. He is credited with opening the way for a uniquely New Zealand literature.
The narrative depicts a relationship that fostered an expansion of his legacy: though a very different writer than Frank, Janet was enabled during her time as his protégé to innovate a writing that opened a door from the New Zealand cultural landscape into richly interior worlds.
“I wanted an imagination that would inhabit a world of fact, descend like a shining light upon the ordinary life of Eden Street and not force me to exist in an ‘elsewhere’.” – Janet Frame, To the Is-land
Frank is non-plussed by her ideas about language and writing, and suffers from writer’s envy as she types incessantly whilst he is devoid of inspiration. He becomes preoccupied with the mystery around what she is writing and where she disappears to, and he’s alienated by her word riddles, which he at first condemns as ‘schizophrenic’ ravings even while racking his brain for what they mean.
This play, like the novel it’s based on, is fiction, inspired by and written loosely around Janet’s time with Frank and the production of Owls Do Cry, though it’s easy to forget that the characters, though they bear the names and some fabled characteristics of the real people, are not the same as the real people. Janet famously hated Evans’ 1977 biography of her, and the Janet Frame Literary Trust is scathing about anything he’s written on her, deeming it appropriative and prone to perpetuating erroneous views of her that promote his personal agenda. This being said, Evans’ admiration of Janet Frame is such that he has devoted decades to researching her life and work, so his knowledge is pretty vast even if his interpretation is arguable.*
While the problem of mythologising is actually commented on in the course of Frank’s narrative, the play is itself an unashamedly romanticised mythologising. The character of Janet has all the qualities of the muse figure and she remains somewhat fey throughout her development, never quite becoming solid. She manifests from the point of view of Frank, the male author, so we don’t get a sense of her own subjectivity except as interpreted by Frank, in keeping with the modernist tradition he represents.
She’s mysterious – suddenly arriving at his place like a silent apparition in scarf and dark glasses, hiding in the hut, tapping away at a maddeningly secret manuscript, speaking in magical language as if suffering divine madness, disappearing inexplicably (Frank speculates that she has ‘fallen out of language,’ based on her stated theory about the world-generating power of words), and leaving him unintelligible riddles on slips of paper.
This powerful enigma and Frank’s efforts to understand it seem to be telling the story of a writer’s own personal response to Janet’s writing and the inspiration she has been for him. It’s a story of creative process, about which Frame herself wrote so much: bringing the angel to the table of the here and now.
I’m left thinking about genius and muses and world-making, and how if you are an artist who draws on real people for inspiration and material, you must also wrestle with the ethics of how you represent these figures in your own art.
If you separate the characters of Gifted from the real Frank and Janet, it is a seductive, funny and enchanting story, robustly directed by Conrad Newport, honouring the two authors in its own way. It gestures evocatively to the treasure they bequeathed to New Zealand literature, even if we could not necessarily expect the real Janet or Frank to recognise themselves in the characters.
10 October − 31 October 2013
Tues and Wed 6.30pm
Thurs – Sat 8pm | Sun 4pm
$25 Preview Friday 9 October
$25 Matinee Sunday 11 October
Tickets: $46 full / $38 senior and students / $33 Friends (until 25 October)
/ $39 groups 6+ / $36 groups 20+ / $25 under 25s
“Like an exquisite work of art, the play Gifted is honed to near perfection … go and see this gorgeous production.” – Taranaki
“Superb performances by all … it is thrilling … it makes for astonishingly joyful, mischievous theatre.” – Dunedin
“Sheer quality” – Christchurch