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July 17, 2017 | by  | in Theatre | [ssba]

WEED — Anthony McCarten

Say what you want about Anthony McCarten. Literally, say what you want, there’s a good chance he can’t hear you; there’s a good chance he’s laughing his way to the bank off the success of his screenplay for Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything. WEED, originally written and performed in 1990, stands in stark contrast to that particular poignant punch as a comedy revolved around elderly farmers in New Zealand who, falling on hard times, swap farming their usual carrots for the Devil’s lettuce.

The opening is more than a little awkward. A semi-monologue regarding the functionality of a shed and a ramble about punching lawyers is certainly a unique way to begin a production, but it doesn’t quite pay off. The short prologue, in which Henry Donovan (Gavin Rutherford) fields questions regarding the sustainability of his farm at a New Zealand Farming Conference is a shaky introduction to McCarten and Ross Jolly’s (original director) vision of 1990s New Zealand.

McCarten says in the programme notes that WEED is “a comedy, no more no less, it’s duty… to entertain,” which does little to explain the relative lack of big laughs in the first Act (having a tough crowd is no excuse, given that the couple sitting behind me seemed as high as the show’s characters, giggling incessantly at the end of each line even though no one around them joined in).

In fact, the first half of WEED feels almost exactly like trying to converse with someone very much stoned when you are very much stone cold sober. It’s funny, even interesting to engage for a little bit: they have a few charming quirks, and you might even find their clumsiness strangely charming. But in the end it’s not much use trying to gleam anything tangible from them; they’re in a bit of state, not exactly firing on all cylinders, and only laughing at their own jokes without having the capacity to share the punchline. There are some lovely moments: the physical comedy of the piece shines, with leeks, pens, suitcases a la Pulp Fiction, and more being used to glorious aplomb, but these moments are too few and far between.

To take this forced analogy to its logical end, the second Act of WEED is like speaking to the same individual, only they’ve already sobered up and they’re trying desperately to regain their street respectability. The characters that once appeared annoying or irritating, McCarten now goes to serious lengths to make them at least empathetic if not lovable. Turei’s previously naive Terry is given a backstory as a somewhat failed artist, being “used to rejection” and unable to stay still for fear of wasting her life away (like Henry has?). Hugh is transformed from a slackadaisical stoner to someone addicted to making money and making his success by any means necessary, outgrowing his family’s honest legacy. Henry and Jack become foe, then friend, then foe, then friend again, all the while displaying some of the finest acting to grace a New Zealand stage. It doesn’t completely make up for the lackluster first Act, but it does it’s best.

WEED doesn’t stay too long in the system. In fact, it doesn’t make you laugh half as much as you might have been led to believe. But WEED does provoke reaction; if it’s not always laughter, it’s thought, whimsy, nostalgia, or all of the above. It takes a while to kick in, perhaps a bit too long given how strong it’s expected to be due to the nature of the supplier. But it gets there in the end, and WEED even manages to surprise you with how it makes you feel — not quite what I expected, but nice nonetheless.


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