Auckland Festival 2009

The Wife Who Spoke Japanese In Her Sleep

Writer: Vivienne Plumb, adapted from her Hubert Church Award-winning short story

Direction: Colin McColl

Auckland Theatre Company: The New Zealand Post Season at Maidment, Auckland Until 4 Apr 2009

Reviewed by Kate Ward-Smythe, 16 Mar 2009

Playwright Vivienne Plumb and director Colin McColl choose the ideal creative team to bring to life Plumb's quirky tale, The Wife Who Spoke Japanese In Her Sleep: a surreal antic about Honey Tarbox, an ordinary house-wife who suddenly starts doing exactly what the title says.

In particular, the combination of Brad Gledhill's dynamic lighting and audiovisual design, and John Parker's clean stylised set design, is a winning combination.

Parker's magnificent movable box of over-sized shoji screens which open and close with the assistance of two black-clad Kurogo (stage hands in the Kabuki convention: Chye-Ling Huang and Jordan Mooney), with strong upper thighs and very good timing, is fantastic.

Gledhill takes full advantage of this rice-paper canvas with inventive and suggestive design. Familiar wallpaper slowly fades and as a new Honey evolves, Japanese writing pulses through the old pattern and colours become more and more vibrant. Gledhill's use of shadows and shapes is also very effective, extending Honey's hitherto insular world beyond the inside of the established box.

John Gibson's sound design is a wonderful perfectly-timed mix of timeless, inoffensive 'mall muzak'; crisp suggestive oriental textures and tinkles, dotted here and there; and common kiwi sounds, such as the hum of a distant lawn mower.

Nic Smillie's costume design is similarly a wonderful mix of cultural contrasts: Beige and boring gives way to detailed beauty and bold colour, all Japanese in design, as Honey's metamorphosis takes hold.

Finally, the black and white yucca massacre, captured by cameraman/editor Theo Gibson, as Honey declares war on Howard's garden and decides to make it her own, is suitably stylised and melodramatic.

As to the story itself, Honey's transformation from ordinary to extraordinary is rich with Plumb's accessible humour and knowing observations about how everyday people choose to deal with extraordinary circumstances. The opening scene in particular, is an effective juxtaposition of normality and surrealism.

Straight away we plunge into Honey's mind, hear her night-time ramblings, as a nocturnal oriental dream sequence unfolds, with 4 white-masked singers appearing in exquisite traditional kimono. The next morning we meet a regular retired kiwi couple living a narrow existence, immersed in domestic routine and the little things in life, with weather reports on the radio as their constant companion.

Howard is patriarchal, referring to Honey as 'the wife', pedantic, racist, talks in a series of clich├ęs and is largely out of step with Auckland's modern cosmopolitan landscape. Yet he gets enormously excited about his plants, especially the yuccas and is very comfortable making the bed in his y-fronts and sewing his patchwork quilt.

Honey is not so content. She frets, is essentially quiet and submissive as Howard condescends, (though the GP says her blood pressure is rising). She scans the junk mail for daily enlightenment and has no interests of her own, except the local mall. The highlight of their week from his perspective is staying home to watch a DVD and eat takeaways to mark their wedding anniversary.

Plumb sets up a familiar world for many, then takes us on an amusing magic ride as a seemingly normal middle-aged woman takes control of her new found gift, and celebrity status as a kind of 'guru' or psychic, and turns her life, and her husband's, upside down.

Performances are individually sound, yet collectively uneven and out of step with one another. And herein lies the issue I have with this production overall: Yes, we are willingly drawn into Honey's story. Initially. Quigan and Phillips are every bit the ordinary Kiwi couple from the 'burbs and yes, I do suspend disbelief when Honey starts "turnin'-Japanese-ah". However, when some of the supporting cast deliver performances that are less naturalistic, even dissolving into caricature at times, it is difficult to view the end result as little more than a larger than life farce or slapstick. No doubt it is a intentional device by McColl to fuse our (my) western expectation of acting styles and storytelling, with the two most prominent forms of Japanese Theatre, Noh and Kabuki, which are characterized by stylized movement and gesture. Certainly Rutter's energetic moments do get laughs from the opening night audience.

Performances are individually sound, yet collectively uneven and out of step with one another. And herein lies the issue I have with this production overall: Yes, we are willingly drawn into Honey's story. Initially. Quigan and Phillips are every bit the ordinary Kiwi couple from the 'burbs and yes, I do suspend disbelief when Honey starts "turnin'-Japanese-ah". However, when some of the supporting cast deliver performances that are less naturalistic, even dissolving into caricature at times, it is difficult to view the end result as little more than a larger than life farce or slapstick. No doubt it is a intentional device by McColl to fuse our (my) western expectation of acting styles and storytelling, with the two most prominent forms of Japanese Theatre, Noh and Kabuki, which are characterized by stylized movement and gesture. Certainly Rutter's energetic moments do get laughs from the opening night audience.

But from my perspective, the outcome is that two key moments revealing the magic of Honey's gift as some sort of trans-cultural suburban prophet are rushed and clumsy: first, when Miss Florica, played by Peta Rutter, hears a tape of Honey's nocturnal ramblings; second, when Honey's sleep-talking is observed by a wider group. The 'larger' acting performances simply eclipse the pace, flow and story of the lead character. For me, the diverse performances jar with the fantasy world Plumb and the creative team have successfully brought their audience to.

A stand out performance for me is John Campbell. His pre-recorded cameo is (sorry, can't help myself) ... marvellous. His effortless comic timing and understated reaction make for a totally believable on-screen performance, which received an applause on opening night. Similarly, Stephen Papps pitches both Dougie, the alcoholic lawyer who has fallen from grace, and Reg the towie, with finely tuned realism.

Quigan takes every opportunity to immerse herself in Honey's new world and even executes an impressive marshal arts sequence. Bruce Phillips does an effective job portraying the undisputed patriarch who becomes a lost husband struggling to cope with his wife's newfound celebrity status and confidence.

Kathleen Wong shows versatility playing stroppy receptionist Muhabbat, brash businesswoman Mrs Wong and the shallow shop-a-holic Momo. While Andy Wong's portrayal of Gus made me cringe, his Kenta is solid.

Finally, finishing this comical ride with a surprise blast from Nina Simone feels like an over-sentimental way to end a comedy about choosing to celebrate change and opportunity over cultural cringe and suburban-neurosis. Though perhaps finding the path that makes you feel good is the ultimate message to be taken from this production.

Second Review

The Wife Who Spoke Japanese In Her Sleep

AK09 review by Paul Simei-Barton

NZ Herald 4:00AM Monday March 16 2009

Alison Quigan is in fine form as the frustrated housewife.

Auckland Theatre Company's festival offering is a delightfully surreal fable based on Vivienne Plumb's award-winning short story about a timid middle-aged housewife whose life is transformed when she inexplicably starts sleep-talking in a language she does not understand.

The theme of metamorphosis is brilliantly realised in John Parker's set design, which folds and unfolds like a piece of origami to reveal a succession of magical chambers and surprising vistas. The effect is intensified by Brad Gledhill's stunning lighting and projection effects that have Japanese calligraphy popping out of the wallpaper while whole rooms are enveloped by blossoming flowers or falling petals.

The visual feast is precisely enhanced by John Gibson's lively soundtrack, and the whole production design is carried off with such finesse and panache that the actors are often at risk of being upstaged.

Alison Quigan is in fine form as the frustrated housewife but her character becomes considerably less sympathetic as she crystallises into an imperious and vengeful oracle. By contrast the husband, played with flair by Bruce Phillips, first appears as an insensitive despot but emerges as a tragic figure who is ennobled by his passion for Kiwi-style gardening.

The contrasts are brought together in Peta Rutter's animated portrayal of a wildly deranged language teacher who has immersed herself in Japanese culture but cannot suppress an atavistic craving for Tim-Tams and Marmite on toast.

All the characters are presented as over-the-top stereotypes in a strategy that reflects the extreme stylisation of Japanese performance traditions and fits the surreal tone of the piece but fails to capture the dramatic potential of the story.

Many of the parodies teeter towards condescension and the ironical approach crowds out the comedy that might have emerged naturally from the examination of culture clash.

This was particularly apparent with the Asian characters, with a kooky Japanese student and a crass Chinese businesswoman struggling to get laughs from their crudely drawn stereotypes.

On the other hand John Campbell, who has never had a problem with self-parody, delivers a superb cameo on the perils of ratings anxiety.

The show's superb production values sit comfortably alongside the high-profile international works at the festival and the script is consistently enlivened by Vivienne Plumb's wonderfully poetic language.