By Alva Casey
Date / Venue: Saturday August 30th, The Herald Theatre, Auckland
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents as we bravely struggled through the concrete maze of Aotea Square in search of the most elusive theatre in the world. The Herald Theatre, tonight's venue, is a beautifully intimate and comfortable theatre with friendly pleasant staff. However actually finding it is a mission. I would maybe suggest a few more signs dotted about, tour guides or possibly even a complimentary map and compass upon purchase of your tickets.
And what pray tell, oh drenched and melodramatic Alva, were you there to see I hear you ask. Well dear reader we were there to see Amy Herzog's 'Belleville'. This superb psychological drama follows a young American couple dwelling in the titled Parisian neighbourhood. Reminiscent of 'Gaslight' with elements of'Romeo and Juliet' scratching through we watch as in a 24 hour period the cracks in their already unstable lives shatter completely. Written by the clearly talented Amy Herzog and direction by Oliver Driver, "Belleville" showcases a fantastic cast. It stars Sophie Henderson as female protagonist Abby, Claire Danes of Homeland if you will, and Matt Whelan as her desperate husband Zack, otherwise known as New Zealand's answer to Ashton Kutcher. They are beautifully supported by Twanda Manyimo as Allioune, their property manager, and Karima Madut as his long-suffering wife Amine. I may not be American or French but with friends from both nations and a having been a previous visitor of those lands I thought the accents were wonderful. In truth the acting from start to finish was wonderful. We sashayed our way through humour, awkwardness, terror, and sadness. Never once did any performer let the side down. The intimacy of the theatre was perfect for this play. Being close to the action heightened every aspect of the emotions and it was an intense roller coaster.
The action never leaves their little Parisian apartment. A fact of which I was more then happy about as the set was fabulous. The graffiti drenched walls and retro furniture left us in no doubt of what sort of area the couple live in and their type of dwelling. It was an enjoyment as well that the audience was treated with enough intelligence to know that while Abby and Zack's apartment interior was hardly quite so defaced that the area around them would have been. This grim environment helps fuels the nightmare scenario in which they become entangled. The set had a 3D effect with the bedroom and the bathroom, both pivotal to the character's development, peeping through doorways and windows. Nothing goes to waste. Every bit of the stage is exploited leaving no member of the audience with an inferior view to the rest. There was also a window that I lived in fear of the entire time. To be seen to be understood.
The lighting was used perfectly to depict the moving of time. The colour and strength changing as does the time of day. During scene changes the lights dim. Quite often the characters remain on stage and the darkening helps offer a brief respite to the intensity we have just been a party of. A welcome break for my gentle soul. My only real criticism relates to the sound effects used throughout. With only a couple of exceptions I was felt that their motive, to enhance the psychiatric breakings on stage, was overly obvious and abrasive. The film world was encroaching on the stage and I am not sure that the stage benefited.
Overall, this was theatre at its best. Never once in the one hour 40 minutes did my attention waiver. Despite Abby having some very American sentiments it didn't alienate the foreign audience. Their petty arguments showcased disputes that every couple could recognise. You feel for these people, understand where they are all coming from in terms of motive and desperately want them to make it through this. Whether they do or not is at your discretion to discover.
Brave the rain, the maze and preconceived notions you may have about theatre patrons, and go see this little treat.
Belleville runs at the Herald Theatre until September 20th