After receiving the unanimous stamp of approval from Auckland’s finest, Arthur Meek’s On the Upside-Down of the World has immigrated south to Downstage Theatre.
From the personal writings of Lady Mary Ann Martin, Meek has created a superb testimonial to the early colonisation of New Zealand, with the vitality, beauty and humour for which he has become so acclaimed. Mrs Martin, a Victorian woman of good heart with an unfortunate disability, departs England for the brooding shore of New Zealand, where her husband—the nation’s first Chief Justice—awaits her. An extraordinary tale of self preservation, our heroine must learn a land, a language, a people, and herself.
Laurel Devenie’s portrayal of Lady Martin is as jolly as it is sombre, accompanied by the quixotic Victorian curiosity we may nowadays deem shrewd. She is clever, understanding, and infallibly British, maintained by an engaging tenderness and honesty. Devenie’s consummate presence on stage generously complements Meek’s diary-like text that is delivered in miniature anecdotes, stops and starts.
It is therefore unfortunate that the stage itself cannot uphold what is an otherwise enchanting piece of theatre. Tony Rabbit’s intricate orchestration of steel ladders—four large panels shall we say, the two farthest back ascend heavenwards, as the front two incline towards each other, creating several A-frame passages parallel to the audience—while looking very impressive, are rarely used and essentially act as a means to fill a large stage. Their saving grace is the delicious pit of sand and stones in which they stand, adding contrast in texture and colour; an extended metaphor for the meeting of cultures and/or generations, perhaps…? John Gibson’s sound design often serves to heighten the impression of an environment, but at times becomes all too intrusive or unnecessary.
As Director Colin McColl writes in his programme, “it’s a great pleasure to be back showcasing two of the brightest young stars of New Zealand’s theatrical community”. And this is very true. Arthur Meek and Laurel Devenie are powerful talents to be reckoned with, ‘nuff said.
On the Upside-Down of the World
By Arthur Meek
24 August—10 September