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August 18, 2010 | by  | in Theatre | [ssba]

The December Brother

The December Brother has a lot of expectations to live up to. Not only is it “The Bain Play” that everyone has heard about but it is also the latest work from SEEyD theatre company.

SEEyD began in 2000 with a show, unsuprisingly, called SEEyD. From the very beginning they have been a company of profound and tremendous creativity and theatrical flair. Their stock in trade being the indepth and extremely balanced discussion and exploration of big issues. SEEyD was about genetic engineering, inSalt about the Māori land claims, Turbine was about wind power (and much better than that sounds written down). SEEyD, led by Tim Spite, are a power-house. A force to be reckoned with. If there was ever a theatre company that should make a work about that one horrible morning in Dunedin on the 20th of June 1994 it was them. It should have been great. It should have been amazing. Yet, I found myself underwhelmed.This is the problem with expectations, you see. The December Brother is, without doubt, a good play. A great play even. It’s just not SEEyD good.

Split very clearly into three acts, with each act being a self-contained show in and of itself, The December Brother’s structure is much more of an equation than an actual dramatic shape. The first act – a retelling of Spite’s father Tony Spite’s search for his real parents and the labyrinthian family tree that uncovered – plus the second act – a clinical and hyper-accurate re-enactment of both the prosecution and defense’s stories for the Bain killings – equal the third act – a totally fictional work that takes the previous two acts as a clear starting point. Telling the story of Rebecca (Nikki McDonnell), a vet who discovers that she was adopted. Her search to find her real parents throws her into the middle of the tangled legal case of Cain Fraser (Brad McCormick), a man convicted of murdering his parents. Though evidence that may have proven that his father was in fact the murderer was rejected on shaky grounds. 1 (Spite) + 2 (Bain) = 3 (Cain).

All three of the acts fair very differently and while it is an interesting way of structuring a piece – showing the audience your working, if you will – it doesn’t feel like a total success. The second act, the Bain act, the one everyone will be talking about, is by far and way the highlight of the world. It is a master class in tension and audience manipulation. The way it invokes, expresses and sustains incredibly complex emotions with such simplicity, efficiency and style confirms Spite’s place as a world-class director. The performances by Hadleigh Walker (as David) and Spite (as Robin) are breathtaking. Gil Eva Craig’s soundscape comes into its own in this act, with each tiny click and pop perfectly placed and timed. Jennifer Lal’s lights are an beautiful exercise in subtlety, isolating spaces in the group created set – a floor-plan of the Bain house. This second act is 20 minutes of heart-breaking theatrical perfection.

It is by their juxtaposition with the middle act that the other two falter a little. The opening act, written by Tony Spite, is clearly part of an ongoing exploration of the form of theatrical auto-biography by Tim (he directed Biography of My Skin and Lullaby Jock at Downstage in the previous year, both of which explore extremely similar ideas in extremely similar ways) and while he clearly has a flair for this particular form that does not stop if from feeling self-indulgent. I, personally, found it hard to care as much as he was asking us to.

The final act felt simply unfinished and rushed. All the right ideas are there, most of them in the right order. It really stumbles with where to pitch its comedy. The use of stereotypes – the gay lawyer for one, the broad South Island skank for another – doesn’t sit well within a work that asks its audience to question its assumptions about everything. There is a very fine full length work in this third act hoping to get out. I really hope that Spite and the rest of company revisit it and expand it into a fuller, more refined work at a later date.

SEEyD’s work always soars to its apex when Spite surrounds himself with people who are just committed, talented and mad as him. He works best when those around him can give his creativity a run for its money. While McCormick, McDonnell and Walker, are all very, very fine actors in their own right, they just aren’t the endlessly re-shape-able Tim Spite. SEEyD has in all their previous work, had a great sense of the ensemble, of the group, of a cluster of people chewing up the world and spitting out theatre, each cast and crew member and individual tooth in that theatre gob. What drags The December Brother down from being SEEyD great to just normal great is that that ensemble nature doesn’t seem to be there. Tim Spite is SEEyD but SEEyD should never just be Tim Spite which is the feeling you get walking away from The December Brother.

The December Brother
by SEEyD
wri. Emma Kinane, Brad McCormick, Nikki McDonnell, Tim Spite, Tony Spite and Hadleigh Walker
dir. Tim Spite
perf. Brad McCormick, Nikki McDonnell, Tim Spite and Hadleigh Walker

At Downstage, 12 August – 11 September 2010


About the Author ()

Uther was one of the two arts editors in 2009. He was the horoscopier and theatre writer in 2010. Alongside Elle Hunt, Uther was coeditor in 2011.

Comments (2)

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  1. Susie says:

    I saw the play last night. Overall I thought it was very good. The first Act was good but proved a bit long and boring by the end. The second Act “Every St” was incredible, you could have heard a pin drop even though the theatre was packed. The sound effects and lighting were superb, and Spite WAS Robin Bain. See the play just for this Act! The third Act was good but some characters (namely skanky Shandine) were superfluous to the story. Watch out for Spite’s portrayal of an elderly woman in this Act though – it’s awkward and hillarious! And Brad McCormick is haunting as the voice of Glynis Peach’s diary. 7.5 out of 10.

  2. smackdown says:

    ah yes i too will see this play for its cheeky sense of humour

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