After seeing three shows in the Auckland Arts Festival this week, Sam Brooks reflects on the place of art in the wake of national tragedy.
After a week of self-inflicted Wellington time, it felt a little strange to come back to the Auckland Arts Festival. After the events of 15/3, even more so. There were important conversations being had on all corners of the internet – or at least the right corners of the internet – and to take time out of those, to stop listening and engaging with what had happened, felt wrong. It felt out of place to see work that had been programmed what felt like ten years ago, even if it was work that I’d recommended on this very site.
As someone who writes about art, and less frequently makes it, what I do can feel frivolous. There’s always important news. There’s always something more important to be talking about. There’s a thin line between engaging with a piece of art and escaping into it, and sometimes the latter can feel more helpful than the former.
When people are trying to give news in the most sensitive way possible as fast as possible, when people are making space for more important voices, the last thing anybody wanted was a piece about me playing a squad-based shooting game online for the first time. (Yes, that was an actual piece that I had planned to write. No, nobody needed it last week. Frankly, nobody needs that any week.)
But, hey. I had signed up to review three shows, no matter how frivolous and futile writing about them seemed. This week of all weeks, there was something more important to be talking about, and engaging with any art felt like an escape from the weight of that importance.
The first of these was Neko Case, a Canadian indie singer whose two-decade career is more or less unbeatable. I’ve loved Neko Case for most of those two decades, and have never had the chance to see her live. When the gig was announced, I was stoked to be able to see it, and when I checked a set list website to see what she was playing, because that’s the kind of nerd I am, I was doubly stoked to see that she would be digging into some of her deep cuts. We’re talking ‘Deep Red Bells’, people. ‘Hold On, Hold On’. ‘Ragtime’, for goddess’ sake.
It was a great gig. Case’s voice remains titanic and powerful, the banter was on-point, and it had all the energy of the band doing their last set of the tour – a joyous final exhale.
But what struck me most was the bubble around the gig. At any time, stepping into a Spiegeltent is like stepping into Narnia. Whether it’s in the middle of Aotea Square or in the middle of a paddock in Edinburgh, a Spielgeltent feels the same. The tables with impossibly awkward sightlines, the chairs stacked together, the bars at the back of the house. It’s out of place, out of time.
It feels doubly so when the entire audience is feeling the weight of a national tragedy. For an hour and a half, a couple hundred people step out of the real world into a place that feels definitively unreal. Somehow, no matter how many gigs I see, it feels like fantasy to finally be in the presence of someone whose voice I’ve heard hundreds, thousands of times through tinny headphones. It’s a bubble even on the best of weeks, but for the first time this bubble felt protective.
The flipside of this experience was Ulster American. From the acclaimed Traverse Theatre, written by a playwright who says he “finds it hard to end his plays without violence”, it’s one of those handsomely made shows – you know, the kind with a set that looks like a rich person’s apartment. The acting is loud, clear and big enough to register for the cheap seats. The script is so workshopped and calculated that the audience’s laughter might as well be written into the stage directions. Ulster American comes to our shores clutching awards from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and a rave review from The Guardian, the kind of things that make it bulletproof to critics and audiences elsewhere. The kind of things that make an international tour more of a victory lap than anything else.
Like Neko Case, I went into Ulster American expecting some kind of balm after a rough day, expecting a similar kind of bubble. There’s a dull, numbing pleasure to handsomely made theatre, even when it’s not doing anything excellent. You can turn your brain off a little bit and rest in the comfort of a non-challenging, non-confrontational show.
But while Ulster American is handsomely made, the content is hollow provocation. At the simplest, most reductive level, it is three unsympathetic people expressing quote unquote controversial opinions for 85 minutes. Beneath the surface, David Ireland has something to say about the ways people weaponise and deploy identity, but when the surface is as caustically unpleasant as this, it doesn’t inspire much digging.
It’s the dark side of the bubble, to mix and stretch a metaphor. While Neko Case felt like a bubble of warm safety, Ulster American felt like a bubble of ignorance. In all honesty, I went along hoping to think about something else for an hour and a half, and found myself mostly wishing that this play, in some impossible way, acknowledged the world and the place it was currently taking place in.
The Dreamer did this, with a small gesture that felt huge. Before the show, the company asked us all to share in a moment of silence and solidarity. The crowd at The Civic, a venue that feels as out of place and time as the Spiegeltent, stood up. The world outside was acknowledged, and space was made for the piece of work that followed.
And what a joyous piece of work it is. A gorgeous blend of dance, physical theatre, it’s one of the most exquisitely designed pieces of work I’ve ever seen – the kind of collaboration that makes you believe in investing in the arts. If arts funding gives us work like this, why on earth aren’t we doing it more? The company filled that space with life, with more life than I thought The Civic could even hold. The joy I felt in that theatre, the collective, shameless joy was more soothing than anything else this week.
But even in that joy, The Dreamer took on an extra weight. It’s a show that riffs on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Peony Pavilion, following a woman who is so desperate to escape her life that she literally retreats into her dreams. It showed the joy of revelling in your dreams, but it also showed the power in facing up to your reality and going on anyway.
When I got back home from Wellington, I didn’t unpack. I didn’t check social media. I didn’t look at the news. I went straight into the lounge and booted up Mass Effect 3. It was a peculiar choice as a uniquely bleak game about saving the universe against overwhelming darkness, and as a game that’s about seven years old. I didn’t want to engage, I wanted to escape.
Throughout the week I would rush home from work to that game because it immersed me in a world where 15/3 didn’t exist. After six straight hours of playing, I didn’t feel joy, I felt numb, and I felt a little shame. I’d spent six hours in a bubble. Six hours pretending that I was Commander Shepard, saviour of the galaxy, rather than Sam Brooks, dude who writes about culture for a living.
At the end of this week, I read Mohammed Hassan’s poem ‘National Anthem’, as powerful a piece of writing as any I’ve read this week.
Hassan doesn’t give answers, he doesn’t give direction, he makes space for processing to begin. In a time of grief, in a time of nationwide trauma, that’s important. At its best, art doesn’t put a bubble around you. At its best, art is a conduit to processing the real.
And, at its best, art doesn’t provide an escape; it provides a way through.
I want to leave you with a message from Hofesh Shechter, creator of Grand Finale, a show in the Arts Festival that I missed but heard nothing but frothing raves about. It’s a programme note, which often gives no more illumination than a dimmed phone screen, but after a week of pretending, it gave me comfort:
“Art is a good starting point. Many times in these kinds of situations, I ask myself why make art? It seems so impractical, so futile.
“And yet other answers emerge – art is a place inside where no one can touch us where we have freedom to feel, think and experience anything that rises and most importantly where we get to share our human experience collectively.”