Flashback #7... in 1991, Free Theatre Christchurch connects with Free Theatre Munich to present Heiner Mueller's HAMLETMACHINE
... simply the most exciting theatre piece Christchurch has experienced in years... HAMLETMACHINE's opening night full house proves that Christchurch audiences do support serious theatre
If the 1980s had been about establishing a youthful, energetic presence in Christchurch, the 1990s saw exciting developments in Free Theatre's aims and growing influence. This included engaging with international contemporary performance artists and the founding of a dedicated Theatre and Film Studies Department (est. 1997) that unfettered the theory and practice of theatre and film from the traditional, marginalised existence in the literary dominated realm of English Departments. Canterbury University was the first in the country to do so and its Theatre and Film Studies Department quickly became successful with a rapidly growing postgraduate culture. This ultimately culminated in the emergence of the groundbreaking Te Puna Toi Performance Research Project in 2001.
While the company had engaged with past and current avant garde in the 1980s, it was perhaps a collaboration with Free Theatre Munich (est. 1970) in 1991 that really established the company as a noted presence in the international contemporary theatre scene. Falkenberg initiated the collaboration with this theatre company from his home town, inviting directors George Froscher and Kurt Bildstein to come to Christchurch to present a reimagined production of a Heiner Mueller work, HamletMachine. They had presented the work previously in Germany and the US. Mueller's work, considered the most important in Germany since Brecht, had never been staged in New Zealand, let alone Christchurch, and this offered the opportunity for local artists and the students of the growing Theatre Programme at Canterbury University to have access to international contemporary theatre through the making of it with established international theatre artists. On the strength of the international exchange, Free Theatre Christchurch secured an Arts Grant from the QE II Arts Council of New Zealand (later CreativeNZ). Remarkably, the company would not receive another CNZ grant until 2012 despite many years of trying with an extraordinary array of high profile, high quality work with a diversity of collaborators.
HamletMachine is typical of Mueller's work in that it is based around a collaging of texts and monologue's, rather than conventional narrative or plot. In this instance, the work is concerned with what it means to be an actor - a concern that Falkenberg would return to in different social, historical contexts, including current project How Not To Be Hamlet? A combination of professional actors and students worked on the HamletMachine production, which took place around the Arts Centre, in Rutherford's Den and the Great Hall. It was a hugely successful production both in popular and critical reviews and paved the way for a series of dynamic projects through the 1990s.
Below are some stills from a Nightline (TV3) piece on the production. The full clip itself can be found on the HamletMachine page.
A big thank you to Charlie Gates for sending this beautiful image of The Gym the year it was built. Originally the gymnasium for Christchurch Boy's High School (which occupied the buildings next door), it eventually became the home of Academy Cinema in 1976 when the university gifted the wider site to the city when it relocated to Ilam. The Academy occupied the building until the earthquakes of 2011 closed the entire site. As part of the restoration of the Arts Centre, the building was stripped back to its original form and strengthened. Free Theatre has occupied the building since September 2014.
The development of a strong ongoing Free Theatre Group in the early 1980s was made possible by the Project Employment Programme (PEP) introduced by the National government of the time. A wider scheme across multiple industries, it also allowed artists to work in the theatre with a view to developing skills that would contribute to ongoing employment.
This allowed for a dedicated ensemble to develop in the new Arts Centre theatre the company had built in 1982. A diversity of works were produced in line with the company's manifesto:
To stage old and new rarely staged European plays in original translations, new New Zealand plays, and classical English texts in an unusual and experimental style. Emphasis is placed on non-verbal action and high production standards, discouraging the star system and encouraging long rehearsal and training periods in a company context.
Productions through the early to mid 1980s ranged from works produced by Peter Falkenberg such as the company's magnificently gruesome King Lear, hauntingly beautiful Leonce and Lena and spectacular Lulu, to stagings of new works written by company members, including Nansi Thompson (Texts For Decomposition) and Stuart McKenzie (The Joffongract, A Letter from L, The Mortal Pleasure of Wanda Lust and The Rapist Over Susannah). Meanwhile, Robin Bond initiated with Electra what would become an ongoing series of productions of classical Greek texts that he translated and directed.
At the same time, a slew of imaginative new works emerged that exposed local audiences to international contemporary theatre through presentations of avant garde innovators from Brecht to Sam Shepard, Patti Smith and Peter Handke... Mahagonny, Cowboy Mouth, (both directed by Falkenberg), Action (dir. Carol Bellini-Sharp), Tongues (assisted by Bellini-Sharp and Falkenberg), The Ride Over Lake Constance (dir. Nick Frost), Red Cross (dir. Leonard Wilcox with Falkenberg) and Takeaway (dir. Falkenberg with Roy Montgomery). Alongside this, an education programme with immersive productions such as The Hunting of the Snark began to attract students. Current Free Theatre ensemble member Emma Johnston cites Free Theatre's Snark production as a most memorable early theatre experience.
These productions served as the foundations to the emergence of a special new voice of contemporary theatre in New Zealand. The Press Arts Editor Chris Moore, previewing Faust Chroma in 2008 said: "For quarter of a century, Free Theatre has redefined cultural horizons and shaped Christchurch perceptions of contemporary theatre". With daring and determination, Free Theatre established itself in the 1980s as part of a tradition of Christchurch arts organisations and artists in the visual arts, music, literature and film that developed new work that was distinct and influential in the wider cultural landscape of New Zealand.
We've yet to feature all Free Theatre productions on our website (its a big archive!) but below are a few pics from the productions mentioned some of which feature on the website (links above). You can also see images from productions over three decades in our archive gallery.
Texts for Decomposition
Leonce and Lena
Action / Tongues
The Hunting of the Snark
Every social order creates its own reality which is backed up by propaganda, whether it is subtle or obvious – things like the work ethic, the marriage ethic and the desire for happiness and security. Any individual who stands out against these myths is treated with suspicion or down-right hostility.
At the same time, as the Free Theatre was gaining new audiences, popularity and notoriety in Christchurch, links were being established with contemporary theatre makers in other parts of the country. Conversations were initiated with Amamus, Red Mole and Theatre Corporate. Falkenberg also collaborated with other theatre-makers, most notably acting as dramaturg for Tony Taylor’s production of Big and Little (Gross und Klein) by Botho Strauss at Downstage in Wellington in 1981. The production was considered by critics to be a bold, new signal for New Zealand theatre to consider other possibilities beyond the usual English literary theatre. Strauss was considered a bright light of the German avant garde at the time. For the Dominion, Ralph McAllister wrote: “I’ll dream that Wellington audiences will flock to see this, one of Downstage’s finest accomplishments”. McAllister claimed that he and Bruce Mason attended on multiple occasions, running from table to table, “applauding, stamping and calling out “Bravo!” in different voices”. Mason, reflecting on the relationship between art and theatre, had initially written a scathing review that seemed to scare audiences away: “Big and Little is an exercise in mountainous banality". However, in an unusual follow-up review in the Evening Post, Mason reconsidered the work, comparing it to the experimental work of John Cage and “credited it with making him consider afresh ‘just what a play should be and from what assumptions it proceeds. For this experience alone, I must thank Downstage’”. He would later conclude: “Finally, this production can be viewed as either a monumental act of courage or an equally monumental folly. I concede that it is the responsibility of a professional theatre to let us see, from time to time, a tough, thought-provoking even grueling play from Europe. I will end, therefore, by saluting Downstage for an act of courage”.
The production was, I felt at the time, even more meaningful than the one I had seen at the Kammerspiele in Munich and gave me an incentive to make theatre in this country. On the other hand, the excellent lead actress that met me during a Court production in Christchurch later did not seem to find any more challenging work in New Zealand that would have made her stay and shared stories about the season of Big and Little, where on one night the three audience members present applauded a rat that run across the stage upstaging the actors.
Most memorably, I played several roles in the four-hour-long production of Botho Strauss's Big and Little a visionary production inspired by Taylor's study trips to Germany. This was one of the first productions of this post-modern, existentialist epic outside of Germany and it demonstrated, not for the first time, Downstage being ahead of its time, a genuine leader in the arts in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Despite a desire to work together again, Falkenberg and Taylor were unable to make it happen in Christchurch. However, it has long been a feature of Falkenberg's work that he has attracted and been attracted to working with artists of high calibre with a view to really pushing the boundaries in search of exciting new work. It is one of the defining features of Free Theatre work.