Sheep by Arthur Meek is nothing if not an ambitious production. Traversing seven different periods in New Zealand history, multiple characters, and bringing us performances by 16 members of The Actors’ Programme this is another exciting harbinger of good things to come from both the playwright and New Zealand theatre in general.
Sheep cleverly follows threads of connection via family ties and common themes as we begin in more or less in the present (the time of the Christchurch earthquakes), then we are transported back to pioneering times.
Each of the cast members embodies numerous characters as we are transported through wartime, the heyday of the Golden Shears competition, the sexual liberation movement of the late 60s, and the grungy nineties. While some of the actors appear a little stretched in their abilities to fully inhabit each character they play, (the use of various accents feels like a particular tripping point for several), others absolutely shine.
Brianna Cox as the mentally unstable amputee during wartime, Jared James as a soldier forced to make a terrible decision, and Chloe Elmore in each of her characters deserve a special mention as standout cast members in what is overall a very talented troupe.
Director Benjamin Henson and the production team have done an excellent job with what is an exceedingly complex and multi-faceted work from Meek. The diversity of characters and the range of emotions the script demands from them is a big ask and the young cast manage well for the most part. The use of video as a moving backdrop is well-executed, the musical soundtrack well-conceived, and the costumes used to show the passing of time are excellent.
There were some pitfalls for the production, undoubtedly. While engaging and beautifully crafted, the script could be pared back in some places, and the running time would benefit from being tighter. The cast absolutely warmed up into their roles and the production finished in what felt like a wholly more professional and composed place from where it started. Had that confidence emanated from the actors from the first note, it would have been an absolute knockout. The opening and closing scenes in the present day also felt weaker than the scenes they were supporting – had the relationship between these two characters felt more authentic, the entire play would have been stronger.
Sheep feels like an exciting piece of theatre that is just starting its life on the stage, it premiered in 2011 at BATS Theatre. There is a certain sense of diamond-in-the-rough to it, but this should serve to whet the appetites of New Zealand theatre-goers at the prospect of a fabulous new work that will only improve with time and polish.
Reviewed by Natalie Ridler