Every year, Auckland Theatre Company puts on a series of plays starring and created by some of Auckland’s most promising upcoming talent. Some of the stars of these plays are still in high school - for them, it’s a rare and valuable chance to work with professional playwrights and directors and to further their acting chops.
This year’s festival consists of three shows, taking place almost back-to-back at The Basement.
BED, by Benjamin Henson and directed by Virginia Frankovich, is the first of those three.
Narratively, BED is a stream-of-consciousness piece. We follow a dishevelled leading man, (Devin Grant-Miles) as he wakes up and is confronted by the various parts of his subconscious mind. It’s an absurdist take on the anxieties of growing up, first and foremost, and to that end, the audience is blasted with an almost non-stop cavalcade of different imagery – the cast regularly swap to new characters and back again, with proceedings only staying in any one place for a minute or so at a time.
The actors are game for the challenge, bringing with them performances that are sharp and distinct enough to mean that every new scene lands, even given the breakneck pace of proceedings.
The text of the play revolves primarily around fears of adulthood – around anxieties of purpose, of identity, or fears of potential failure. These ideas are built up in the text in a very abstract way, with the audience being offered a series of motifs and images repeatedly, and from different perspectives. As such, much of the play is an exercise in interpretation – and there isn’t really a clear answer on offer. It’s a remarkably complicated structure for a work that was, in large part, created only over the last few months.
The Basement is an intimate venue normally, and this effect is only multiplied by the outsized cast and constant entrances and exits. Several times during the play, cast members descend to the stage on a rope hung from the ceiling, while at other points, actors burst out from spaces in the walls or reveal themselves suddenly from their hiding space under bedsheets. The costuming and set design live up to these precedents – the production comes across as the work of a Russian Terry Gilliam, more than anything else.
When compared to the specificity offered by the other two shows, BED can feel a little lifelessly broad. One doesn’t get a sense that we’re exploring the psyche of a single, recognisable, person so much as we’re meant to be looking into everyone (and by extension, ourselves). At times, this feels like this weakens the ability of the play to give any kind of resolution to the problems facing our lead, and as a result, proceedings sometimes fall into a frustrating misery.
Counterbalancing this weight is really the play’s biggest strength - its sense of humour. The production is littered with seemly spontaneous asides and is marked by a willingness to pursue weird ideas for their own sake. Characters will wander on stage to try to sell the lead a pet dog, proceedings will grind to a halt for a one-minute union mandated interlude. The play as a whole works best when gliding on this energy – when it’s at its strongest, it’s the most energetic and involving show of the festival.