On the 27th October Astroman will be making its world premiere on The Court Theatre’s stage, just two hours before opening across the Tasman at the Melbourne Theatre Company.
Astroman is a family comedy set in the 1980s written by Kiwi playwright Albert Belz, following a young Māori boy in Whakatāne finding his place – and potential – in small-town New Zealand.
Director Nancy Brunning (He Kura E Huna Ana) describes the play as being “about a young Māori boy genius whose coming of age is influenced by the ‘80s promise of bigger, bolder and louder; science fiction and technology. He has a vision of the world that is streaks ahead of Whakatāne and tries to manage his boredom with getting into trouble.”
That trouble – mainly found through tiffs with local bully and ‘wannabe Michael Jackson’ Mick Jones - lands Jimmy working for grumpy Scotsman Mr Macrae in Jimmy’s favourite place in the world, the Astrocade Amusement Parlour. Here, he gets an education of a different sort, with Macrae soon realizing how smart Jimmy truly is.
The play is bringing the world of the 1980s back to life at The Court Theatre, complete with a few video game machines waiting for gamers in the foyer that are sure to transport audience members back in time!
For Brunning, Astroman is, “full of energy, Māori humour, honesty and the chance to pay homage to the ‘70s and ‘80s Kiwi ‘give it a go’ attitude. Like all of Albert’s plays, on the surface there is fun and cheek, but there’s always a deeper current running underneath. Astroman has a Kiwi identity driven by a distinctly Māori experience.”
Speaking about where the story came from, Belz says, “I wanted to write a love-letter to the 1980s and Astroman was the result. There was a real sense of optimism and confidence that anything was possible in the ‘80s: communism and apartheid were crumbling, the colours were getting brighter, the music bouncier, the action movies more explosive...”
Belz’s play was always intended to be a New Zealand story, but after moving to Australia, he started working on a Australian version of Astroman, with the script presented at the Australian Playwright’s Festival. The story, following an indigenous Australian boy, Jimmy Djalu, garnered interest but wasn’t picked up for a full season. Back in New Zealand, Belz finished the original, Kiwi script, which was then presented at The Court’s 2017 Fresh Ink readings - before being picked up for The Court’s Meridian Energy 18/19 season. Soon after, the Melbourne Theatre Company followed suit with the Australian rendition, leading to the simultaneous debut dates.
Talking about how one play can be translated across two cultures, Belz says, “there are some obvious differences in the ethnicity and related dialogue, but the themes it covers are the same. It's very much a family story and whānau is universal.”
The whānau in the play are being brought to life by a group of Māori actors coming to The Court from across Aotearoa.
Tola Newbery (Macbeth & Waiora) is playing Jimmy, joined by Scotty Cotter (He Kura E Huna Ana) as his twin brother, Sonny.
“I’m a bit worried about that combination – those two together will make me want to turn into my Kuia and chase them around the rehearsal room with my slipper, I’m sure!” Brunning says.
Their sister, Natalie, will be played by Court Youth Company member Ocean Jones, who recently performed in the Youth Company’s sold-out production of Vernon God Little. Tanea Heke (Waru) will be attempting to control the teenagers onstage as mum Michelle.
Outside of the family, Two Productions’ Tom Eason will be playing antagonist Mick; Matt Chamberlain (Shortland Street) as grumpy Scotsman Mr Macrae with Juanita Hepi (The Biggest) returning to The Court as Jimmy’s teacher, Mrs Mahara.
“Kāi Tahu will be represented during this production with Juanita Hepi (of Kāi Tahu descent) joined by Amy Macaskill (costume designer), Sheree Waitoa and Maarire Brunning-Kouka (co-sound designers),” Brunning says.
Rounding out the creative team are Nigel Kerr as set designer; Stuart Lloyd-Harris as AV designer and Giles Tanner as lighting designer.
Brunning is thrilled to be bringing this fresh piece of Kiwi theatre to life for the first time at The Court Theatre.
“Theatre is a reflection of our courage, our fears and our hopes and desires. We choose to leave our homes to watch theatre because we feel strong enough to be vulnerable with a whole bunch of strangers – in a safe environment. Astroman is all about vulnerability, fear, courage and desires. It’s the perfect story for anyone unfamiliar with Māori storytelling, video arcades, the ‘80s… you will learn a lot. Especially about how to play Pac Man, Defender and Donkey Kong!”