Black Confetti

by Levi Kent

Directed by Andrew Foster

Reviewed by Rosabel Tan

Shivering and Shaking ; The Glittery Black

Keith Adams and Kip Chapman in Black Confetti. Photo: MIchael Smith

Siggy (Kip Chapman) is the quintessential drifter. He’s spent the past seven years “finding his niche” – that is, working his way through every stage one paper offered by the Faculty of Arts – and he’d happily continue this search, only The Dean (Adam Gardiner) is now threatening to kick him out: Not for his unrelenting dedication to underachievement, not even because he’s a small-time drug dealer catering to staff and students’ appetite for black (a fictional drug not unlike cocaine), but because one of those students – Billy – had a heart condition, shouldn’t have been sold the drug, was sold it anyway, and died as a result.

Siggy’s also dealing with the presumed suicide of his dad, a renowned seismologist whose boat was recently discovered offshore without him in it, but there’s more to it than this – he just doesn’t know it yet. There’s also his childhood friend Katie (Virginia Frankovich), who’s back from Berlin with big news of her own, and you might think: these are some heavy things for a person to deal with. And you might think: I know what kind of playthis is going to be, but try not to, because one of the most striking aspects of Eli Kent’s Black Confetti is the way it resists taking you where you expect it to go, both on a scene-by-scene basis and as a whole, and not in ways that feel contrived – just unpredictable, the ground beneath constantly shifting in ways that surprise.

Commissioned by Auckland Theatre Company, who have workshopped it over the past eighteen months, the play is a pastiche of naturalism and caricature, the supernatural and the surreal, murder mystery and thriller, and at the centre of it all, Siggy, played by Chapman with laidback charm. You get the sense that life is something that mostly happens to him: His dad’s brother, Ray (Edwin Wright), is the one giving him black and telling him – and his best friend Elvis (Nic Sampson) – to sell it; He doesn’t meet a girl, a girl – Flo (Julia Croft) – meets him; and when the Haitian spirit of the dead, Baron Saturday (Keith Adams), shows up, it’s clear who’s in control.

The cast give great performances, though there are two stand-outs: Sampson as Elvis is utterly compelling, channelling that particular brand of nonchalance and humour you see only in a twenty-something: the kind that’s deeply intelligent but grounded in the volatile marriage of unchecked optimism and existential terror (strangely, he feels the most developed – whereas Siggy drives the narrative, Elvis is the real heart of the play because he hurts in a way that feels real). The other highlight is Adams, whose Baron Saturday is a mesmerising presence onstage, his movements and his voice like liquid sateen, his unpredictable playfulness a constant delight.

It’s also through Saturday that Kent showcases the sort of writing that would feel clunky in another character’s mouth: imagery so startling or beautiful that it tugs at you long after you’ve seen it. And the quality of the writing is something worth noticing, especially the scenes with Siggy, Elvis and Katie, which give credence to ATC’s bold claim that Kent is the voice of a generation. There is the odd occasion when the writing feels like it wants too badly to be quoted on some dude’s Facebook page. I suspect this is, at least in part, because the play experiments so ambitiously with genre, scratching so many surfaces at once.

This approach – I enjoyed and admire it immensely, but I struggled with its occasional inability to reconcile itself. At times it felt as though the more surreal or stylised elements excused the kinds of expectations you might place on a more straightforward narrative (AKA I’m too long out of University and have forgotten my roots – postmodernism for lyf yo). Example: The way all the authority figures acted as inappropriate comic relief. While Gardiner played these roles with impeccable comic timing, I couldn’t buy in to their hilarious incompetence. It was too jarring having caricatures sharing the stage with realistic, fully-developed characters. It was the same with Flo –you want to be able to understand her, but you can’t. We’re not given the chance. And when somebody does something crazy, you want it to come from a place that’s human and rational, and if we can’t see where that place is, if it just seems like it’s crazy borne from more crazy, then it’s hard to care about that character.

Though it does make for some nail-biting moments – and under Andrew Foster’s expert direction these feel heightened. Foster also manoeuvres some incredible scene changes. I know this sounds trite but I mean it. What’s more, the technical aspects of this play are stunning. Rather than acting as a support system, an afterthought, these are designers who have clearly been inspired by the play and who have collaborated according to this inspiration.

Eden Mulholland’s sound design vibrates and reverberates through the room, creating an atmosphere that feels at once cavernous and claustrophobic.

The set, designed by John Parker, is a mass of layered black boards, crude tectonic plates that reveal a large hole in the ground and a long, jagged crack on the back wall that leads only to more darkness. Rupturing through the centre of the stage is a spine of black bars, and hanging from the top are clusters of LED lights, forming part of Robert Larsen’s gorgeous lighting and projection design – and let’s just say there are some seriously amazing effects created here. I haven’t felt this excited about the technical aspects of a show in a long time (we’re talking The Andersen Project in 2009-long).

But this is what Black Confetti does: it makes you excited about theatre. It’s a dark and glittering show that shivers and quakes, and one that keeps you guessing about what will happen next, not only in the play, but in New Zealand theatre.