Reviewed by Jodi Yeats
To write a fictitious play about two much loved and only recently departed New Zealand writers was brave and I was unsure about how well it would work. I need not have been concerned, Ken Duncum’s Horseplay is a hilarious and satisfying night’s entertainment.
Horseplay is set in 1972, shortly before the deaths of both Ronald Hugh Morrieson and James K Baxter. While they never actually met, Duncum draws on their biographies and their writings to invent a meeting in Morrieson’s home town of Hawera.
The play opens inside Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s Hawera home, where he lives with his aunt (Elizabeth McRae).
The home has terrifically asymmetric windows and doors, in a wonderful set Tracey Collins describes as “NZ Gothic Expressionist”. Collins draws on the muted palette and angled architecture that features in work of leading expressionistic NZ landscape artists of the 1930s to 1950s, such as Rita Angus, Doris Lusk, Christopher Perkins and William Sutton.
The play starts with loud, slightly raucous violin music redolent of melodramas, which plays between sets.
Dead horse arrives on set
There’s a crash and shouts - a truck revving. Morrieson comes in and loops a rope around a cupboard and back to the off stage truck. There is much accelerating, the cupboard collapses spilling plates everywhere, and a dead horse is hauled half way through the door.
Morrieson and James K Baxter crawl over the horse into the kitchen and the stage is set for a farce with more than a hint of the macabre – classic Morrieson territory.
“Perhaps I should have doubled the clutch?,” Baxter says in an eloquent register.
You can see at a glance that “Hemi” from “Hiruhama”, with his, as Morrieson puts it, “Old Testament haircut”, is not the man you’d want manouevring a truck when you’re in a tight spot.
Likeable portrayals of both men
Baxter is endearingly played by Tim Balme who portrays an ethereal, intellectual eccentric, with a broad mind and a kind heart.
John Leigh’s Morrieson is a Kiwi guy who is fond of drinking and racing. He has picked Baxter up, recognising the poet, as Baxter was fleeing a Maori ghost at Hiruhama Jerusalem.
Danger lurks in Hawera
Unfortunately they hit and killed the prize racing filly of a murderously demented local man.
Boot’s men are out and about, armed and dangerous, looking for the horse and that sets a dramatic background for the conversation between the two writers, as Morrieson prepares a fry-up.
A NZ version of Shakespearian language
The language is a delight – Baxter’s erudite and poetic, Morrieson’s Kiwi vernacular with archaisms, such as “esquire” thrown in for good measure.
In a Q&A with ATC literary manager Philippa Campbell, he says, “I did want to write something with characters who could really use language, who weren’t stuck in “ordinary speak” and who showed what a New Zealand version of Shakespearian language could be like, both in its poetry and its slang.”
Literary jealousy fuels conflict
Morrieson was largely unknown in his lifetime, whereas Baxter was widely acclaimed, published, as well as highly educated and well traveled. Morrieson’s literary jealousy creates tension and conflict between the characters, especially as Morrieson gets progressively drunker and starts threatening Baxter with a gun.
Token female reveals character
Morrieson’s girlfriend, Wilma (Toni Potter), climbs in through the window, symbolising her marginalised place in his life. Potter plays the Naki girl to a tee, but her character is pretty formulaic – wanting to “trap” Morrieson into a domestic life of marriage and kids. Yet Wilma is also a mechanism that shows both men up as womanisers, and illustrates Morrieson’s emotional incapacity to grow up and leave home.
Characters go on a journey
The fictitious meeting takes each of the two poets on a personal journey , with Baxter rediscovering his vitality and sexual energy, and Morrieson finding expression for and affirmation of his talents as a writer.
Left me wanting to revisit the writers, learn more
The result is a bawdy, laugh out loud comedy that piqued my interest in rereading both authors and learning more about their lives.
By Ken Duncum
Auckland Theatre Company
Starring Tim Balme, John Leigh, Elizabeth McRae, Toni Potter
Directed by Simon Bennett
Set design by Tracey Collins
Lighting by Bryan Caldwell
Sound design by John Gibson