We have a hunger for being told our own stories,
according to theatre director Conrad Newport. He tells Charmian
Smith about Gifted, a play about two of New Zealand's
leading literary figures that reimagines a famous literary
Andrew Laing as Frank Sargeson in the Conrad
Newport-directed Gifted, which opens at the Fortune Theatre
on September 14. Photo by Jake Metzger.
Frank Sergeson was a pioneer in telling New Zealand stories
to New Zealanders, Conrad Newport says. He has directed the
Fortune Theatre's world premiere of Gifted, which
opened at the Christchurch arts festival, then played at the
Taranaki arts festival and comes home to open at the Fortune
on September 14, before touring Otago and Southland.
Rewritten for the stage by Patrick Evans from his 2010 novel
Gifted, the play is presented as a Frank Sargeson yarn
about 16 months in 1955 and 1956 when Janet Frame stayed in
the army hut in his garden.
''The idea is he's the father of the nation's fiction and
here's a young writer arriving and he's trying to teach her
how to write in his way and she resists in very odd ways,''
''It's a paean to her, a love song on Frank's behalf. Indeed,
she ends up being a magical mystery woman whose whole world
evolves round language, which is what her novels were like.
''It's a clever mingling of Janet's style and Frank's style
of writing in the characterisation.
"It's all about the magic of language and the power of words
- that's Frank's journey in the novel and the play - will he
or won't he work out what Janet's trying to tell him?''
Newport first came across the playscript while he was working
on Rita and Douglas, about painter Rita Angus and her
relationship with composer Douglas Lilburn, which, even after
three years, is still revived for festivals. Not that it was
a similar piece, but it was similar territory, working with
New Zealand cultural pioneers, he said.
He read the script, loved it and contacted the playwright, Dr
Evans, of the English department at Canterbury University,
author of The Penguin History of New Zealand
Literature among other books, novels and plays, and an
expert on Frame and Sargeson. With Evans' approval he
reworked the script to make it more stage-friendly, Newport
''There's something really beautiful about the characters and
they just came off the page into my head and I could
visualise it straight away. I had instant rapport with it and
the magic was so wonderful - those moments don't happen often
"This is about something really important and beautiful,
about big subjects but the characters are so human, it
While the book has many characters, the play has three:
Sargeson the narrator, Frame, and Harry Doyle, an old friend
of Sargeson's who turns up and disappears as the whim takes
''I call it a literary love triangle - not a sexual love
triangle. There are three strong personalities and an age-old
love triangle set-up filtered through a literary lens.''
The set encompasses Frank's small house and garden behind his
famous hedge in Esmonde Rd, in Takapuna, Auckland.
''We have a magical hedge which is integral to the plot. It's
magical realism in lots of ways. We play it naturalistically
but all these magical things happen that are inexplicable and
it's all to do with Janet Frame.
"She keeps saying the words make the things, which is really
important in the novel and the play. In the play people say
things and they all happen, good and bad - it's all about the
magic power of language.''
While based on a real incident - Frame spent 16 months
staying and working in the army hut in Sargeson's garden in
the mid-1950s - the book and the play are fiction, and the
truth is bent for dramatic purposes, he says.
''The theatre public really want to hear our stories and it's
wonderful because they belong to us. People should have many
versions of these people.''
Although it states clearly in the novel that it is a work of
fiction, there was some controversy when it was published,
particularly objections from the Janet Frame Literary Trust,
which also objected to the play.
Lara Macgregor, artistic director of the Fortune Theatre,
says the theatre is not engaging with the controversy.
''You know in theatre we are always depicting people from
history. Only a couple of years ago I directed a play On the
Rocks by Amy Rosenthal, with Katherine Mansfield, Middleton
Murry, D. H. Lawrence and Frieda Lawrence, and there was not
one ounce of controversy. Again it was a reimagined moment of
what it might have been like when the four of them lived in
Cornwall together at the time.
''This is very similar. The beauty of this piece is it's such
a celebration of two of our iconic writers and it only shines
light on these two people. There's nothing but beauty and
poetry and a huge love, an amazing use of language. What's
imagined and what's not is so blurred and melded in
She is fascinated by the power relationships in the play.
''Frank starts out as the authority figure. He's been deemed
the literary father of the nation and it's a big title to
"As their time together begins, he loses his footing
somewhat, and loses his power and Janet has the power in the
"It's her mystery, it's her sense, the way she looks at the
world, this woman who is 30 years old - actually she's a
girl, the way she comes across. There's such a sense of
mystery and wonder about her.''
Sargeson starts to become afraid of her when someone mentions
her supposed schizophrenia. Then he realises she is not mad
or crazy but a writer and needs to write, she said.
Before the cast and director left for the Christchurch arts
festival, Macgregor watched a run-through.
''The moment, particularly for me, that Sophie [Hambleton]
walked out of that hut and stood there I was very moved
because I felt it was Janet Frame and I never knew Janet.
"And you interpret that through the things you have read of
her and by her and the iconic images we've seen of her on her
dust-covers but also in An Angel at my Table: the icon has
become her over the years.''
It was a challenge for actors who play people who were once
alive, as opposed to characters drawn out of thin air. Andrew
Laing, who plays Sargeson, and Sophie Hambleton, who plays
Frame, had studied videos of their characters to be more
truthful in their portrayals, she said.
Gifted by Patrick Evans, directed by Conrad Newport and
featuring Andrew Laing, Sophie Hambleton and Simon O'Connor,
opens at the Fortune Theatre on September 14 for a three-week
season. Then it tours to Invercargill (October 8), Tapanui
(October 10), Queenstown (October 12), Wanaka (October 14),
Cromwell (October 15), Alexandra (October 16), Oamaru
(October 18) the Nelson Arts Festival (October 23) and the
Tauranga Arts Festival (October 27).