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New Zealand Herald Preview, 21 April 2004






Goldie again in the spotlight

21.04.2004 By GREG DIXON

It looks to be just the sort of place to find an artist. The dank, concrete, glass and steel space of the Auckland Theatre Company's Ponsonby rehearsal studio has the damp, chill, well-lit ambience of a painter's lonely garret. It's the kind of place imaginations might roam free because there is little, apart from the odd pile of junk, to distract from the work at hand.


Michael Hurst (left) plays the obsessive Goldie to George Henare's Patara Te Tuhi.
Picture / Carolyn Elliott

And indeed an artist is in residence. Dressed in a collarless shirt and striped waistcoat and white pants, Michael Hurst is busy being Charles Goldie as a small company of actors work through a scene where the famous New Zealand artist convinces a group of Maori to let him take their picture.

With a week and a-half until curtain up on the ATC production of writer Peter Hawes' play Goldie, such scenes are still being tweaked and lines still being honed. But Colin McColl, directing his first production for the company since becoming ATC's artistic director, says he's confident all is in hand for tomorrow night's opening at the Maidment Theatre.

However, Hurst tells me after this day's rehearsal ends and the director disappears, it is McColl's way to change things right up until the last minute. "But I like that," Hurst qualifies.

"In a play I did with him in Christchurch last year he had a dream and came in the next day and changed the whole set," says a laughing George Henare, who plays Patara Te Tuhi, one of Goldie's favourite subjects. But the changes are always for the better.

McColl's Goldie, which features Sophia Hawthorne as Goldie's wife and Cherie James, daughter of the late comedian Billy T. James, as Goldie's long-serving housemaid, will be the first outing of a reworking of the play which Hawes wrote some years ago after researching a television documentary on the painter.

"I read somewhere that when Goldie died they found hundreds of bits of paper in his studio with his name scrawled across them," Hawes says, "so I wrote a play about why he did it."

The play opens with Goldie returning from study in Paris in 1898. He has come home as an award-winning painter with a cunning plan: he will make his fortune and fame by painting local Maori.

"He says there's a whole South Sea industry here [in New Zealand] that's not been satisfactorily served by Gauguin's daubs," says Hurst. "He believes good sensible paintings of what's here in New Zealand will sell for a fortune."

Which they did, with Goldie asking as much as £105 for large paintings before World War I. And the popularity and expense of his works seems to know no bounds nearly 60 years after his death. Earlier this month one of his smaller works, Te Aho, painted in 1905, fetched $589,625 during New Zealand's first dedicated online fine arts auction. It was a record price for a Goldie.

Yet many of us know little of the man who painted many hundreds of portraits of Maori, paintings which have since become the subject of fierce bidding and of forgery, most notoriously by Karl Sim (who at one point changed his name by deed poll to CF Goldie).

Both Hurst and Henare were in they same position before taking the play's lead roles.

"I always associated Goldie with the Victorians," Hurst says. "I hadn't understood that he died in 1947 and a lot of his works were painted through the 1920s and 30s. That was the period when he got into repeating stuff. I hadn't realised at all that there was a creative crisis in his life and that he went mad. I don't think many people do."

Hawes, who has written novels, plays, children's books and for television, explores Goldie's reaction against Modernism and his decision - after at first seeing Maori as subjects to exploit - to try to get closer to and to understand Maori, particularly through his friendship with Te Tuhi. The piece leads to Goldie's real-life mental ill health from heavy drinking and lead poisoning (from the lead-based paint he used to treat his canvases) and his obsession with his signature.

However, Goldie the play is no grave and arduous history piece - both actors say it is richly humorous, albeit with a dark centre. And Hurst says there are differences between the historical Goldie and the man in the play.

"We're doing a play in which a man is having an absolute crisis in the face of the Modernism. If you want to extrapolate it out you could say it was the struggle of the closed mind in the face of this wave of open-minded thinking, Modernism. And then there's this whole other thing, the Maori thing, which is fantastic.

"He constructs a reality for himself where he has not only sided with the Maori people, but still half believes they're a dying race, and he's doing a noble thing and all of that. It's a construct and it was not the case."

ATC's Goldie will feature a fabrication of another sort, too. While the artist's famous early painting The Arrival Of The Maoris In New Zealand (a collaboration with L.J. Steele done shortly after Goldie's return from France) will be on display at the Auckland Art Gallery for the duration of the Goldie season, something like it will appear in the show. Figurative painter David Kayrouz has created a replica from the original for use on stage.

But don't be having any ideas about its future - the copy will be destroyed at the end of the production.


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