Free Theatre's production of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant in 1988 marked a turning point for the company. The scrapping of the PEP (Project Employment Programme) by the Labour Government in its second term meant it was not possible to maintain a regular working group in the same way. At the same time, the relationship with the university had grown stronger with student interest in the INCO drama course growing to the point that a dedicated theatre programme was inevitable. With this in mind, the university had begun paying the lease for the theatre in the Arts Centre that the original members had built. University classes were taught in the theatre (renamed University Theatre) and it was via the Free Theatre that the university re-engaged with the site it had gifted to the city two decades earlier when the campus was moved to Ilam. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, in some ways, represented a transition with members of the group working with students from the university and collaborating with design students at the Christchurch Polytechnic.
Before his career took off in film, Fassbinder had worked in experimental theatre. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant represented a crossover as it was first produced in the theatre (1971) before being turned into a film (1972) with his regular collaborators Margit Carstensen, Hanna Schygulla and Irm Hermann. The film retains an intense theatricality and reflects the influence of Douglas Sirk melodramas on Fassbinder; grand, sweeping portrayals of everyday lives and relationships that in their excess reveal the machinations of the wider society on the individual - an hysterical scream of the repressed, reflecting internal conflict silenced by societal forces of conformity. In The Melodramatic Imagination, Peter Brooks described melodrama as the "text of muteness": "We may legitimately claim that melodrama becomes the principle mode for uncovering, demonstrating and making operative the essential moral universe in a post-sacred-era". The sado-masochistic role-plays between three female protagonists was where Falkenberg began work with the actors to recontextualise Fassbinder's work for New Zealand in the late 1980s.
Free Theatre's production subtly questioned the society of the time, epitomised perhaps by the popularity of TV series Gloss, considered "a coming of age" in New Zealand television. Gloss' representation of excess and 'yuppie' culture was seen as symptomatic of the 1980s. The introduction of 'free market' values had a profound, insidious effect on even the most personal aspects of the individual's life and relationships not to mention outlook on the world and 'reality'. Reality was shaped by the new, neoliberal economic perspectives. The Christchurch production saw Julia Allen in the title role of fashion designer Petra, following on from her collaboration with Falkenberg on Lulu. The production was notable for exploring these concerns via an innovative collaboration with designers with the designer clothes worn by the all-female cast and the designer furniture they sat on and moved around, all available for purchase. Prices were included in the programme - everything was for sale. The performance also began with a pre-show fashion parade with professional models, which in the context of the performance signalled a consideration of New Zealand's turn to 'free market' polices where every thing and everyone is for sale. Following Fassbinder's film, the Christchurch production also incorporated a musical backbone (always a strong feature of Falkenberg's work) that included Verdi and The Platters, heightening the sense of melodramatic excess alongside the excess of fashion that so typified the dramatic change in New Zealand society on the 1980s.
As Free Theatre continues to develop a key project, How Not To Be Hamlet?, which explores the effects of the 1984 social and economic reforms on New Zealand society, it is instructive to consider this formative Free Theatre production. As with so much of Falkenberg's work, like Fassbinder, there is a prescience and unflinching gaze at contemporary political life via the personal experience of the collaborators. Perhaps even more so than Fassbinder, who famously replicated his personal life on stage and screen (Bitter Tears a prime example), Falkenberg is closer to Brecht in finding through a conversation with his collaborators a political perspective that does not rely so heavily on his personal perspective. This is not to say Falkenberg is without a personal view but it is his ability to inspire questioning in the collaborators that allows the work to come into being, making it relevant and important to everyone involved in producing the work. This is evident in his theatre work and his foray into film with Remake in 2007.
In a culture famously reticent when the subject of politics is raised, Free Theatre's approach to theatre elevates the experience to be a relevant gauge of the time and place. The company finds ways of provoking discussion that may not always be popular but that are nevertheless appreciated as essential by those that view art as a means of resisting the conformity of the status quo by making visible ideological perspectives that are hidden as seeming natural or inevitable.
Any life story that deals with a relationship or whatever is a melodrama and, for this reason, I think melodrama films are correct films. The American method of making them, however, left the audience with emotions and nothing else. I want to give the spectator the emotions along with the possibility of reflecting on and analysing what he is feeling. With Brecht you see the emotions and you reflect upon them as you witness them but you never feel them. That's my interpretation and I think I go farther that he did in that I let the audience feel and think. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1977
It's got a certain transparency about it, because if the clothes weren't so fashionable, so slick, there would be no transparency at all. Often women hide behind a glossy exterior of fashion and there's more to people than this superficiality. Penny Bainbridge, Producer, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant