A talk show… about theatre? You mean Shakespeare and shit? Sam Brooks watches the first episode of Louise Wallace’s Opening Night.
Theatre is a hard sell. Even for people who enjoy theatre – hell, even for people who make theatre – it’s hard to get people to actually go to a play. If it’s not a musical at The Civic, or Shakespeare at the Racecourse, the numbers are eclipsed by even a single episode of Dancing with the Stars. So, in the year of our lord 2018, it’s a pretty brave to base an entire a TV show on theatre and the people who make it.
And so we get Opening Night, – no, not John Cassavetes’ Opening Night, a great 1978 film starring the legendary Gena Rowlands, but Real Housewife Louise Wallace’s Opening Night, on Face TV (Sky channel 83). If ever you forget what the show you’re watching is called, the set is there to remind you. And remind you again. Louise Wallace sits on a plush chair, like your aunt who enjoys criticizsng your posture first and drinking red wine second, and her guest sits on a bizarrely large couch opposite her. So you know, like every talk show ever. So far, so good.
Wallace is a savvy choice to host a show like this. She has a high-ish profile, she’s an actor herself, and she has a clear enthusiasm for theatre (or at least a certain kind of theatre, we’ll get to that). Wallace also splits the difference between ‘red wine drinking aunt’ and a mildly motivated interviewer, allowing her to push through to get answers to her questions.
The first guest on the first episode is Blair Strang, who is most famous for playing Rangi on Shortland Street, slightly less famous as a barrister (which Wallace brings up a lot, or at least more than any other interviewer would) and probably even less famous as a theatre actor. There’s a clear rapport between him and Wallace – they worked together on a show called So You Wanna Be A Popstar and I need those tapes immediately – and in a classic moment that would only ever happen in New Zealand, she says that she stalks him on Facebook quite a lot.
It’s a long interview, nearly fifteen minutes, and if I was watching this on my TV and didn’t have a vested interest in Wallace, Strang, theatre or the specific theatre show he was promoting, I would drift off. The rhythms suit a podcast more than they do a television setting, and there’s not enough dynamism – whether in the visuals or the editing – to keep an audience engaged or entertained.
The next interview is with Alison Bruce, who is one of the best performers in our country and deserves all the awards, acclaim and good things that come her way. There’s a little bit more substance to this interview – that is, after Wallace fangirls over Bruce’s role in Mercy Peak, a show that she was in fifteen years ago. There’s talk about modernisation, a great quote from Oscar-winner Lee Grant’s time at the Mercury Theatre (“If someone dries [forgets a line] onstage, darling, never be the first to speak because they’ll think it was you”) and at least one dryly incisive question from Wallace (“Who are the serfs in the Hawkes Bay?”) in relation to The Cherry Orchard being modernised to a 1970s New Zealand setting. It’s a solid fifteen minutes.
Speaking as a playwright, a creative pursuit which ranks below magician and only slightly above mime on the coolness scale, it’s great to see local theatre on television at all (Full disclosure: I didn’t actually watch it on a television box; I watched this on Louise Wallace’s Facebook because Face TV had yet to upload it onto their website.)
The sceptic in me sees Opening Night as a good venue for theatre PR. It’s better suited to discussing the form than the fluffy five minute interviews on The Cafe, for example, and shows some potential for serious exploration in its first outing – I mean, when was the last time you heard the word ‘Chekhov’ on television? But it’s a long way from Opening Night to the likes of Graham Norton in terms of talk-show polish, and even further to someone like (Guardian theatre critic) Lyn Gardner when it comes to criticism. (As an aside, I’d love to see Wallace get some more avant-garde theatremakers on this show)
Because while Louise Wallace is an entertaining and warm presence, she isn’t quite the interviewer a show like this requires. There’s the occasional interesting or probing question, but these are outweighed by all the times she talks over her interviewee, so much so that she pushes past her own question without the interviewee ever getting a chance to answer it. Alison Bruce manages to avoid sharing her worst moment onstage because Wallace is busy musing on what actors are most terrified of onstage, and seeing as it’s a question that Wallace seems to want to end each interview with, it feels strange to pass over it.
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But sometimes that lack of experience leads to the show’s more bizarre, kind of beautiful moments. Would we catch Graham Norton reading out theatre listings, including a deeply sarcastic quote of a critic’s review that a play was ‘so effing funny, I nearly died laughing’? Probably not. Would we catch him finishing a show saying that theatre is subjective, describing fairly popular if controversial critic Rex Reed as ‘some dude’, and musing that ‘even an Oscar winner can get a bad review’? Unlikely!
And would we catch him with that bizarre red floral centrepiece right in the middle of his set? Definitely not. Opening Night might not be great, or flawless, but as for primetime (using the term loosely) theatre talk shows, right now it’s your only choice, and you could do a damn sight worse than Louise Wallace talking to her actor friends about theatre.
As of writing, you can find the first episode of Opening Night here. It has yet to be uploaded to FaceTV’s website. The show airs at 7:30pm on on Tuesdays onFace TV, Sky Channel 83.
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