Spirit House – Herald Theatre February 18, 2017

Herald Theatre
18 February 2017
Theatre Stampede & Nightsong Productions

Spirit House is a play set in Nong Khai, a town in North-East Thailand. It follows four main characters and switches between 1932 and 2017, weaving the two storylines together. It is a theatrical riddle that keeps you guessing til the end.

There were lots of things I liked about this play – but there’s much I need to edit to avoid giving the game away. Along with intriguing props and a few special effects, there were also surprise extra characters who add to the overriding requirement to expect the unexpected in this Carl Bland play. When I saw the credit for ‘Animal Operator’ on the programme, I certainly questioned the origins of the animals. And a note to any feline lovers: you will appreciate Claude the cat!

The initial entrance of Claude (Min Kim) is backed by a Thai song performed by musician Pongsaporn Upani. His plaintive singing casts a spell of instant calm over the room, transporting us to another land. Claude is striking – lean and toned, and with a large Siamese cat’s head. Disbelief gives way to fascination with those huge cat’s eyes which stare silently at the audience. He carries his indifferent nonchalance, so redolent of a cat, as he stalks silently across the stage, lights a cigar, and reclines on a chair in the corner.

The set is a busy one – two glassy ponds flank the stage, while to one side Upani sits surrounded by various instruments including a lute and various sets of pipes. These add not only colour to the background but also a richly diverse soundtrack to the story. There’s a watercolour backdrop of mountains and a lake, with the artist’s studio in the foreground replete with a transparent easel and paints, and several hanging paintings.

We begin in 1932, when Charles Dixon (Ian Mune) enters and is tripped up by the cat. Sonia (Mia Blake) walks in and they discuss how they met on the street and why he asked if he could paint her. A sharp tap of the paintbrushes signals a change of scene, the light changes from warm orange to bright white, bringing us swiftly into 2017. Steven (Tim Carlsen) is talking to Sonia in a thick German accent, which he apparently picked up from a short trip to Berlin, but which he later abandons in favour of other quirky behaviours.

The cat is fast establishing its presence as it trips up and confuses the various protagonists on stage. Steven admits he’s been spending too much time indoors with that cat and he also has a burgeoning obsession with the artist Charles Dixon. Sonia pleads with him to leave the studio and get out more, but he consistently refuses and seems to grow more anxious with every scene. When his character starts to fray at the edges, Tim Carlsen pushes his performance to the extreme. Mia Blake inhabits the fear Sonia feels around Steven, and looks genuinely frightened as she shrinks into the corner. I would hazard a guess that there were others, in the darkened audience space, equally cowering under the powerful force of Carlen’s passionately emotive performance. Clearly an actor whose commitment to his role is total.

There are many clues as the tension builds and the storylines grow between Charles in 1932, and Steven in 2017. The only two constants are Sonia and Claude. We might see Min Kim’s Claude lying in his favourite spot by the heater, legs akimbo, but when called upon, Claude is quite able to execute kung-fu with conviction.

The play moves seamlessly between the two time periods, even at times so swiftly that I felt as if there was a light switch flicking between conversations, between generations, between eras. The performances of the four actors gel perfectly as their stories dovetail in and out of the two overlapping worlds. Bland’s clever writing uses recurring lines of dialogue, and we hear this with increasing frequency as the play progresses. Listening to Sonia speaking the same words to Charles and Steven in different scenes, serves to strengthen this pervasive sense of overlap and dovetailing. I found myself lost in reverie and riddles – is the cat a reincarnation? Has it returned years later to the house to serve as a link between Steven and Charles? Why is Charles increasingly agitated that Sonia won’t tell him who she is? How does he know her? When you finally glean the answers, they may not be the ones you were expecting.

Perhaps the most unexpected treat of the night is seeing the masterful work of one of New Zealand’s acting doyens, Ian Mune in his first return to the stage after a 17 year absence. He has a mesmerising hold on stage- not only from his eclipsing presence but also from a lifetime of acting experience that guides his seamless performance. He was especially compelling to watch at the end, where he transfixed the audience with his gaze.

I wish I could divulge more detail but that would ruin for you the wonderful spirit inhabiting this production, were you to see this memorable play yourself. Certainly if you like curly, mysterious riddles and powerhouse acting, you will savour Spirit House.

Dedee W

Carl Bland’s SPIRIT HOUSE plays at the Herald Theatre Thursday 16 February – Sunday 5 March as part of Auckland Fringe 21st February – 12th March 2017.
Book  at www.ticketmaster.co.nz