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New Zealand Herald Preview 15 July 2002




Raymond Hawthorne tells Tim Wilson Travesties is the first Tom Stoppard play he has directed in his long career in the theatre.

The most striking feature theatre director Raymond Hawthorne possesses--the howitzer, if you like, in the armoury of his personality--is his voice.  It makes vowels naicely, it offers a variety of tones, it tortures certain words, drawing out the syllables as if they are on a medieval rack.  It is the voice of a larger man, not only dominating but also decorating a room.  Through it, through its worries and circumlocutions, one may imagine the values Hawthorne will bring to the Tom Stoppard play Travesties he is directing for the Auckland Theatre Company.  Theatricality will be primary, but with modulation:  movement will be important, for Hawthorne is a restless speaker, questioning himself, supplying answers, then growing impatient with them.

The director falls silent momentarily when coffee arrives.  The man, of course, is more than compressed air or coffee--he's his accessories, too.  Hawthorne's neck supports a mustard scarf; he has a pair of glasses, and a pencil case he bought at The Warehouse, a lurid green abomination that contains three different types of pen.  Hawthorne makes a joke on the pencil case's brand:  Prostat, "not prostate", before hauling out what is inside.  There are magic markers for marking up scripts.  He has what he calls propelling pencils, again, to make notes on scripts, and to erase them also.  There is also a clutch of ballpoint pens--"I use these a lot," he says.

Are the pens tools of the trade?  The voice changes, and becomes mock shy and mock offended.

"Well," says Hawthorne, smirking remonstratively, "I'd like to think the tools of my trade extend a little beyond pens."

They do!  Of course they do!  Hawthorne is, to use a quaint expression, a pillar of Auckland theatre.  He is able to say things such as, "I saw Travesties at the Mercury in 1974.  I remember George Henare as Lenin."

He has directed numerous productions:  both his daughters, whom he praises effusively, are actors.  His former wife, Elizabeth, acts.  Everyone around him seems to act.  You get the feeling the mustard scarf, given long enough around him, would be able to stagger credibly through the role of Lady Macbeth.  And as seems to be common these days, he also teaches:  a directing and writing major at Unitec.

You'd think that during this career, he'd have done Stoppard at least once.  He hasn't, and the play wasn't his first choice.  The Auckland Theatre Company approached him to direct something else which he won't specify.  He didn't like it, so the company suggested Travesties.  Hawthorne decided he'd like to try.

Why hadn't he done Stoppard up until then?

"Well, sometimes things don't arise.  But then, when I was running theatres I had the choice of programming Stoppard, but I never did.  I never did.  I went to them all and while I sort of admired them, I used to feel a sense of frustration . . . instead of the anarchistic quality [of Stoppard's work] being the thing that appealed to me, I guess I found it confusing."

Stoppard is not a facile writer.  His plays are densely allusive, and they require intellectual background to allow the humour to resound.  They're not just for people who read books rather than magazines--a grasp of history and aesthetics is necessary.  Take Travesties.  It asks questions about the nature of artistic and political revolution, and features James Joyce, Dadaist Tristan Tzara and Vladimir Lenin, all of whom were, history says, in Zurich during World War I.  The events in the play are, as Hawthorne's notes point out, "the erratic, unreliable and fevered projection of one Henry Carr".

Carr was a consular official in Zurich, having been invalided out of the army.  His moment of personal--if not dramatic--triumph occurred when he was cast in the crucial role of Algernon in James Joyce's production of The Importance of Being Earnest.  Eventually Carr and Joyce, despite a shared interest in fabrics (truly, I'm not making this up), fell out to the extent that they brought lawsuits against each other.

The anarchistic quality of Stoppard's writing that Hawthorne referred to emerges in the way Travesties mixes these historic elements with fantastic ones, while also employing plot devices from The Importance of Being Earnest.

"He uses so many different styles in one play," comments Hawthorne, "that if those styles are not com-plele-ly fulfilled, then I think it adds confusion rather than clarification."

The rub here, insists Hawthorne, is that if the audience doesn't "get" a particular scene, they will blame themselves.  Will they?  "Oh yes they will.  They need to be given it clearly to disseminate . . . "  He gives a little clap " . . . the journey."

You won't be surprised to be told Hawthorne also has very expressive hands.  They roll.  They swat unacceptable ideas, like blowflies, from mid-air.  They open in a gesture of extreme candour.

The way he will give the audience the correct cues for the journey is to emphsise the drama scene by scene.  Hawthorne offers a hypothetical example wherein "the real thing that's going is that the man wants to [have sex with] the woman".  Well, things don't get much more direct than that.  For Hawthorne, there seems to be no moment that would not contain at least some morsel of performance, and dramatic frisson.

Hawthorne gives a good explanation of what directing entails ("to tap the offerings of the actors"); he does not so much clam up as assume a forbearing expression when asked what he likes to do to relax.  He loves classical music, both the New Zealand Symphony and the Auckland Philharmonic.  His tastes generally are for Strauss and Mahler, but he's been enjoying Scriabin and Bruckner lately.

He reads.  A recent favourite was gay writer Peter Wells' memoir, The Long Loop Home.  "It stayed with me like a wonderful historical document," says Hawthorne.  "It typified a lot of anxieties people had growing up unique in a society that didn't want them."

Hawthorne relaxes also by cooking; less red meat than he used to.  A diet proscribes ice cream, but, he adds puckishly, "I haven't cut back on wine."  He walks rather than frequent a gym.

As you might expect from a man with a play to sell, Hawthorne believes Travesties has something to offer contemporary audiences.  For one thing, time has passed since it was written in 1974, and what was once difficult in Stoppard--the mixing of types, of identities being folded into one another, the fantastic aspect--is easier to swallow.

"If I can understand it," says Hawthorne, "anybody can."

What he means is that if you could handle the film Shakespeare in Love, for which Stoppard wrote the script, Travesties won't be particularly forbidding.

What then does the play mean?  The director's voice opens up.  "It means you must remember what has been gone through in the past to arrive at the point where we are at, so you have the choices you have now."

With this, the interview ends, and Hawthorne picks up the two empty coffee cups, takes them into the kitchen area at the ATC, and deposits them in the sink.

Travesties features Michael Edward as Henry Carr, Ross Girven as Tristan Tzara, Michael Hurst as James Joyce and Paul Gittins as Lenin; and runs at the Maidment from Thursday until August 17.

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