Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 9. 1ts May 1973
In their choice of Joe Musaphia's Victims Downstage seems to have discovered a local gold-mine. The play is comic melodrama, review-type theatre, moving by way of one-line gags, innuendos, and complication of plot. It's a very well-made play—technically proficient, if shallow and darting. In terms of what Musaphia wanted to acheive, in terms of what Downstage hoped to get out of it, and the audience's desire to be entertained, the play was a great success. And the reviewer thus has no right to impose her own demands that a play be more than a night out, or a series of weak jokes if it hopes to satisfy. The weak jokes send members of other sub-cultures into guffaws and chortles. As the author realises, he'll "never appeal to your generation", nor is he trying to. As an example of the 'light-comedy' genre, Victims is superb.
The production "was all this writer expected", but I am getting heartily sick of the Downstage ensemble's mannerisms. An ensemble of this size endangers itself by overexposure and stereotyping (particularly Craig Ashley) which badly hinders the necessary imaginative and intellectual growth of an actor. The same, worn set of inflexions and stances simply will not do, play in, play out, even it the characters are somewhat stereotyped, as in Victims, By contrast, Ian Watkins' handling of the role of an anti-pom crusader was sincere and compact, and thus he managed to invest an ambivalent character with dignity and reality. For me, most of the actors mirrored the play—professional, but humdrum.
Interview with Joe Musaphia
"I don't like this kind of interview. I find it very difficult to express myself impromptu. I prefer playscripts, where I can hone down exactly what I want to say."
Joe Musaphia is, as his statement shows, concerned primarily with technique, with " the best expressions"—i.e. the most professional. He wrote his first play in 1961, inspired by the reaction of his friends to an excruciating performance of Romeo and Juliet. Before this, his main interest in theatre was acting—"I've always been a right clown since I was old enough to walk"; vaudeville and jazz appealed more than Shakespeare, whom he admires now. The next ten years he spend writing and acting for radio and TV until the traumatic experience of acting on the NZ stand at Expo 70, when he felt like a 'sideshow'. On his return to NZ he bought a fish and chip shop for financial security, thus giving himself the chance to write plays for himself (always the most successful). Writing for radio was a good training, since he was working with the only professional actors in the country who gave him "a reasonable standard to measure my work by". In Joe's World on TV he was given a free hand almost to the point of self-indulgence, and learnt a lot about comedy by watching himself. He co-scripted In View of the Circumstances which was axed just as it was getting on its feet, and an Australian series which was edited out of recognition in deference to Aussie humour, which he describes as crude, flat and noisy. With Victims he feels he has found the form and the technique with and through which to express himself. He likes to use "very broad strokes, bright colours, then squeeze it down to a skeleton and let an actor flesh it out". He willingly admits that his characters arc stereotypes, cliches, but says they're walking round the streets anyway, adding somewhat in contradiction that reality is as "dull as dishwater". His characters are recognizable to himself, rather than attempts to reproduce the reality, the finer points. Thus it is easy to pinpoint the faults in conclusions he makes which are built up on his ideal types (e.g. in a yet unproduced play called Shoot). However he is interested to portray all sides of a question, to point out that although we all have our pet peeves, to think that others share them, or to force them on others is ridiculous—this is the basis of his comedy. The contradictions are between, rather than within, characters. However, his most recent play "tows a line ... a static picture rather than a plot-play". He maintains a book of ideas gleaned from divers sources, and used to keep a book of aphorisms, which he now dips into for lines. Passive, or 'heavy' playwrights, such as Pinter, bore him; theatre should move fast without verbosity - "should reach out and grip an audience". Here he quotes a German playwright, Friedrich Hebbel; 'Bad playwrights with good heads give us the scheme instead of characters, their system instead of passions'. Another quote from the same gentleman sums up his concern in writing plays 'Form is the highest content'. It is important for Joe Musaphia that he be a good craftsman, that he go over each play, as it were, with a fine tooth-comb. Technical competence means he can relax, and write commercially successful plays, rather than those which appeal to a small "coterie". He claims no moral messages in his humour—there by no means ideologically based. Ideally he would like to be rich enough "to be free to write plays", and preferably attached to a theatre company, like Shakespeare and Moliere. He thinks NZ theatre could be at a turning point, if the government lives up to it financial promises.
At heart Joe Musaphia is a very moral man, who finds the pace of life today too fast, life too bureaucratised ("I'd like just 10 rules, like the 10 commandments...."), too many people in a 'come and get me state of seigc'. In many ways he's the epitome of the littleman, the man who gets confused in the crosscurrents of opinion, and is yet fascinated by it, not academically, but as a kind of defence, accepts it by making it ridiculous. For him, comedy is basic, since everything can be sent up, and yet "humour pulls back and shows the pain underneath; humour is always at someone or something's expense". He enjoys Kiwi humour, which he says owes a lot to the Maori for its sense of the ridiculous and the ability to bring the pompous down to size in a few words. "No-one can give a bull-artist shorter shift than the Kiwi when he wants to." But Musaphia's humour is hardly rough; it's the outcome of a highly professional approach to his writing. Characteristically, he mentions that "I feel incompetent in comparison to Joel Grey", whom he esteems as a professional among professionals.
The Wellington premiere of Godspell, the long awaited (in some quarters) musical based on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, could not even raise a full house. And not surprisingly, for it is a superficial show not unlike the fur coated "one way" badge types liberally sprinkled around the theatre.
Much of the dialogue is ripped straight off the biblical parables. But it is all out of context, and with Christ as a clown among nine goons, it portrays a message quite different to that of the original.
The Jesus freaky message is a work-within the system, forgive and forget type message. It is a superimposition of Matthew's gospel on contemporary society, not the re-interpretation that is necessary. Godspell challenges nothing in the present order of society.
'If a man in authority makes you go one mile, go with him two'. Such a message condones blind acceptance of their oppressive situations by the oppressed. Several times the show portrays oppressive master/servant relationships. It not only fails to provide scope for restructuring these type of relationships, it actively condones keeping them in the structure of society.
Godspell is a good gymnastic display, not unlike the clown shows in many circuses. However, the acting was stilted and had little relation to the message intended.
The musical content of the show was its one redeeming feature—its variety encompassed the spectrum of musical tastes. However, musically the show would have impressed more had less been mimed.
Godspell is a show Bible Classes and C.U. cell groups will not doubt rave over. It is best left to them.