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Behind the Canvas
Sunday Star-Times, 2 May 2004



Directed by Colin McColl
Auckland Theatre Company
Maidment Theatre, until May 22
Reviewed by Gilbert Wong

How odd that everyone knows Charles Goldie's name, yet we know so little about the man. His portraits of majestic Maori, resplendent in feathered cloaks and blankets, were already anachronisms when painted and the artist has shared their fate, frozen before his time.

Peter Hawes' play remedies our ignorance, briskly and amusingly sketching out a little-known life as well as giving flesh to the ways Maori and Pakeha misinterpret each other, as relevant today as it was for Goldie. Just as the foreshore debate heats up, Goldie sheds light on how Pakeha and Maori craft their myths.

Michael Hurst as Goldie with Sophia Hawthorne as his wife Olive

The young Goldie was an ambitious prodigy anxious to make his name. Eventually he would be judged the country's finest painter, only to suffer from the whims of fashion before succumbing to an alcohol-fuelled madness that reduces the artist to poignant, endless renditions of his own signature.

Michael Hurst, on whose shoulders the production rests, was made for this role. His Goldie is all cocky intelligence, an artist who knows how good he is, so when events turn, despair bites harder. The narrative could fit many artists, but the play tunnels deeper, questioning the nature of art and casting a wry eye over Goldie's relationships with Maori. Goldie's encounters with his subject Patara Te Tuhi (a delightful George Henare), become a clever duel of world views that in a testament to Goldie's strengths are as pertinent today as they must have been when the play was first produced 17 years ago.

After the life-filled first act, the second, which charts Goldie's decline, is sombre. The change of gear is too abrupt, from quips and ribald comedy to mad despair while Hawes is perhaps too mindful of his research at the expense of dramatic pace. So many reasons are telegraphed for Goldie's decline that the production loses energy, robbing the climax of the impact it should have made.

Elsewhere the cast is consistently sharp, no better than Cherie James as stroppy housekeeper Hanah. John Verryt's set is succinct elegance, featuring a series of diaphanous panels hung from the fly, outlining Goldie's studio and suggesting the blank canvasses that challenge and mock the artist, who thanks to Hawes and Hurst finally comes into sharp relief in a production that matches delight with insight.

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