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Arts Festival Review: Bright Abyss

Bright Abyss

Reviewed by Richard Thomson

Bright Abyss
James Thierree: Compagnie du Hanneton
St James
2–6 March

The lavish restoration efforts at the St James have managed to retain some of the air of faded opulence that marked the days when it had declined into a venue for jaffa-hurling kids at blockbuster movies such as Sasquatch. The key to this peculiar charm is the musty yellow colour of the walls, which looks as if it has been produced by decades of gasping and puffing nicotine fiends.

Bright Abyss is exactly the right show for this theatre, for both share a fantastic other-worldliness that is definably but immaterially early-twentieth century. When everybody smoked, in fact. Even the chilly drafts that seeped through the stalls from a bitterly cold southerly outside added to this sense of fin de siecle evanescence.

The gloriously tattered gold curtain shimmers and fades, to reveal the scene that you've probably all seen in the festival publicity; a figure on stilts wielding a mad armoury against an unseen foe. Always a good move to get the expected out of the way at the outset.

What follows is more than a match for expectations. There is some kind of story here: five characters struggle against loneliness and isolation, against obstinate surroundings that refuse to behave as expected. A world that may have seen better days.

When so many shows now employ giant TV screens, and other digital devices to add – well, yes, what exactly? – it's refreshing to go to a show that relies purely on reality to create its near-perfect illusions. For true perfection, I would have asked for an orchestra in place of a recorded soundtrack, although that's understandably the one point where logistics might demand verisimilitude over the genuine article.

Now and then one tries to speak, to explain or to question or simply to ask for help – we never find out exactly what, as the words don't come.

This is director James Thierree saying, firmly: don't ask me to explain, that would spoil the fun. He's right, of course. There's nothing here that any student of modernist angst won't be familiar with. But Thierree's genius is to create a home for the inarticulate mutterings of Samuel Beckett, and the confusion and fumbling of Charlie Chaplin, that is dazzling enough to outweigh the fear and doubt.

Simple things – a sofa, a newspaper, a gate, a piano and a corset – are invested with pure magic. For each inevitably faltering story there is a rich spectacle of humour, music, slapstick and eye-popping acrobatics. Bright Abyss fully lives up to its name. Uplifting is a tired word, but this is its literal and figurative embodiment.


NZ Festival: Bright Abyss
Scoop Audio: Interview with Bright Abyss director James Thiérrée
Scoop Full Coverage: Festival 06

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