BLACK TIES Review – Sydney Festival


Review by Paris Pompor
Photos by Yaya Stempler

Black Ties is a collaboration between two First Nations theatre companies from New Zealand and Australia, which is the thing that got my bum on a seat for one of its first ever performances. Normally, the idea of a rom-com that begins with a marriage proposal would have me running a mile in the opposite direction, but if anything was going to get me to sit through another one, it was the idea that this might be more like watching the Breaker Upperers or ABC’s Black Comedy. Luckily my hunch paid off, because in the hands of co-writers John Harvey and Tainui Tukiwaho (the latter also co-directing alongside Rachael Maza), the much-mined plot of young lovers having to meet their future in-laws, becomes a less predictable, occasionally riotous and more consistently funny story than many of Black Ties‘ predecessors. More than a bonus is the fact that Black Ties also packs a few emotional punches while investigating ideas about race, culture, masculinity and family. Yes, there are the overbearing mothers, crazy extended family members and inappropriate best man familiar from just about every other rom-com you’ve ever endured, but as the sizeable ensemble cast unveil each of their characters to the audience one by one, there are also new people to meet, like a wisely chilled and ageing Uncle Mick (played by much-loved actor and Aboriginal elder, Jack Charles) or the sassy, swishy, It’s Raining Men-belting best friend, played by Brady Peeti (pictured below).

After a slightly stilted opening scene introducing our star-crossed lovers – young Maori woman Hera (Tuakoi Ohia) and Aboriginal urbanite Kane (Mark Coles Smith) – the cleverly named Black Ties quickly found its rhythm thanks to a number of natural comics in the cast. There wasn’t much chemistry detectable between Ohia and Coles Smith, whose passion is conveyed via dialogue rather than any convincing mutual body language. For a plot built on the premise of two people being madly in love, the pair seemed almost afraid to touch or be too close to each other for long on stage, even if their performances otherwise were enjoyable. In contrast, the remaining cast were constantly bumping up (and rubbing up) each other with ribald and rambunctious antics. Luckily the chemistry of the whole ensemble was palpable, with each member’s dialogue every bit as important to the story as anything the couple have to say to each other.

Midway through, the audience is asked to leave the makeshift theatre and have a drink on the Town Hall’s terrace so that the simple stage setting can be reset. Not wanting to spoil the second half for anyone yet to see it, after returning to completely new seats, what unfolds for part-two is one long and sprawling act in a radically new setting. It’s the transformation of the space for this extensive finale that is the stroke of genius in Black Ties. Suddenly, a la Wizard of Oz, the audience is transported from a monochrome world to one of blazing colour; from being a passive (though often laughing out loud) observer, to a participant. It’s an extraordinary theatrical manoeuvre that progresses the story perfectly and also has an immediate and marked effect on how you enjoy and engage with the rest of the story. If you’ve ever been to a shambolic, alcohol fuelled family reunion where – probably recoiling – you watched from the shadows as a full-scale biological meltdown unfolded, prepare to have flashbacks.

While the action in first half of the Black Ties is played out in an almost austere setting, a large backdrop/screen that spans the width of the stage is employed, which cleverly helps with location clues for the numerous punchy scenes that play out between Australia and New Zealand. I did wonder if someone in the crew had forgotten to iron the white backdrop pre-show or whether the large wrinkles were intentional, but whether it was projected with atmospheric fauna, geographically recognisable architecture or the characters’ mobile phone screens for gags involving texting and video-chatting, the backdrop is a smart theatrical device and used well.

Throughout Black Ties, live music and songs also work nicely, making perfect sense given the situations the characters find themselves in. In the end however its the spirited performances of the full cast, the humour drawn from both Maori and Aboriginal traditions, and the overriding messages of community, place and belonging that make this a winner. Alongside these are welcome, but sobering dialogue exchanges that dissect taboos like racial stereotyping and oppression’s own internalised pecking order, all of these timed so that they’re never too far from the next laugh. As Black Ties continues its run at the Sydney Festival this week, and then travels around Australia (already confirmed for Melbourne and Perth) it will no doubt continue to further fine-tune these interplays and become an even tighter and more gratifying piece of comic, but thought-provoking, theatre.

Black Ties plays nightly until January 18th at Sydney Festival

Sunday 12th of January, 2020

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