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June 8, 2010 | by  | in Arts Theatre | [ssba]

The Intricate Art of Actually Caring

“Fuck off with your assonance and get some better words. “

The Intricate Art of Actually Caring is the kind of play high-school students New Zealand wide should be made to see- especially if they’re studying Baxter. I don’t mean this in the sense that only high school age students will enjoy it- just that it’s one of the few youth-oriented ways Baxter’s poetry has been presented in recent years outside of the classroom. I would certainly have benefited greatly from seeing this a few years ago.

If you pay any attention to Wellington theatre, you know the story by now: against a backdrop of grief, depression and the unfulfilled potential of their early 20s, Jack and Eli road-trip to Jerusalem to visit the grave of James Baxter following the death of their high-school friend at his 21st birthday party. Combining post-adolescence, friendship dynamics, family relationships and rites of passage with the oak-matured voices of Baxter and Tuwhare creates a human insight rarely seen.

For those of us who have experienced a young and untimely death of someone close to us, this play will strike a bittersweet personal chord. Seeing these two guys on stage (who at times so reminded me of people I know, and even occasionally myself) dealing with the incommunicable realities of death, guilt and self-analysis was an interesting experience. The brutal honesty of this play is compelling.

The way the poems have been woven into the script is so seamless that at times I wouldn’t have realised the lines were Baxter’s had I not read his poetry, and Shadbolt’s delivery was enviable to say the least. I was also particularly impressed by the song (written by Kent, sung by Shadbolt) which I took to be a very crafty home-spun version of Baxter’s “Lament for Barney Flanagan”? (I could be totally wrong on that one though- I didn’t get a programme to check – (ED – Yep)). The graphic simplicity that could so easily have seemed tacky and crass instead comes across as poignant, with a hint of dark humour to keep the soppiness at bay.

The design team has done an incredible job – the use of screens and OHPs created a simple but salient backdrop that was perfect for such a verbally rich play. For a production originally created for a bedroom, the staging has developed impressively. Instead of opting for a classic bedroom set, a more abstract approach has led to an innovative and visually diverse environment for the productions’ events to unfold in, the projections showing everything from road-kill to minor characters. The use of lighting design also creates an extra dimension for the production, the shadow play especially.

In the final section of the play, Eli’s Ritalin-fuelled character explains his atheism in the most eloquent way that I have ever heard. It is interesting that he is the one to have such a violent outburst considering it is Jack who claims to be suffering from depression. It also shows that while the character of Eli is seemingly shallow and riding on the reputation of more prolific family members, he has a far deeper recognition of human folly than he lets on. The fact that this outburst of articulacy was book-ended by a majesty of emo ranting was like a slap in the face- it was the perfect portrayal of how people really behave, even though we’d rather not admit it.

A Few Niggles: knowing that these were people playing themselves onstage it was impossible not to be distracted by a quiet but constant stream of thoughts about what was factual and what was theatrical embellishment. Some of the early direct audience interaction was really stilted and the explanation of why they were addressing the audience was unnecessary. But these are minor things, the fact I haven’t seen any of the earlier renditions saves you from my compulsion to compare.

I recall seeing an interview with Jacquie Baxter a few years back, and in it she made a flippant comment that has stuck with me over the years about Baxter leaving his family and pursuing his ideals of commune life and redemption and all the while his tuxedo was pressed and ready at home in the closet. Nothing can be as pure and honest as we’d like, even the closest friendships are shadowed by the unspoken and I appreciate how this show portrayed that.

The Intricate Art of Actually Caring
wri. Eli Kent
dir. Eleanor Bishop
perf. Eli Kent & Jack Shadbolt

At BATS theatre, 1 – 5 June 2010


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  1. Jack Sergent says:

    Hi, Thanks for your review. Its the most eloquent and in-depth I’ve read in a while. Just to clarify for you and others that may have been wondering- The Character of Jack is barely based on Me as a person (i.e none of the beliefs of Jack or notions he follows are/were necessarily my own. They belong to the writer) . I feel weird people thinking that, so I thought I’d just say, Thank you for letting me


  2. Alison Embleton says:

    Why thank you, it’s one of the most eloquent and in-depth plays I’ve seen performed in quite a while, so it was only fitting.
    Cheers for the clarification too, I probably ought to have done a bit more homework before writing the review!
    Best of luck for your shows in Auckland and Hamilton… really looking forward to seeing what you get up to next.

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