In honour of 'a magical person'

Dudley Benson (left) says Warwick Broadhhead (right) was a maverick performance artist. Photo...
Dudley Benson (left) says Warwick Broadhhead (right) was a maverick performance artist. Photo supplied.

New Zealand theatre personality Warwick Broadhead, brought to life in film-maker Florian Habicht's Rubbings From a Live Man, was a ''leader of his own cottage industry of expression'', Dudley Benson tells Shane Gilchrist.

Dunedin musician Dudley Benson clearly recalls the first time he sat down for a chat with Warwick Broadhead, the performing artist who died at his Waiheke Island home in January and is the subject of a Dunedin Fringe Festival film screening.

Having watched Florian Habicht's 2008 film, Rubbings From a Live Man, a semi-dramatised biography in which Broadhead recounts his dramatic life story through vignettes featuring a range of characters, Benson was inspired to contact the actor.

''Looking back, I can't believe we hadn't crossed paths before then, but that's something about Warwick and his work - he hasn't been formally recognised, or perhaps understood, by the gatekeepers of the theatre or art worlds in New Zealand,'' Benson says.

''I found Warwick's address in the phone book, and wrote him a letter and sent him my CD, The Awakening. He replied shortly after, with his enormous angled handwriting which is very difficult to read, and we arranged morning tea at my flat in Grey Lynn.

''I was really obsessed with juicing at that point so I'd prepared all these different flavours, but Warwick wasn't eating sugar. He was very aware of his health after having four heart attacks in recent years.

''Anyway, aside from the jugs of wasted juice, that meeting was memorable.

''He wore a shabby chic tweed suit with a hat, and I was surprised at how tall he was. He was a little nervous, I think maybe because I had come across like a fan in my letter.

''But we chatted and talked about each other's work and lives, and when he left he held me by the shoulders and stared at my face for an uncomfortably long time, and when I gently asked what he was doing, he simply said, 'Taking you in, dear'.''

Now, Dunedin audiences get a chance to take in Broadhead.

Rubbings From a Live Man will be screened at the Regent Theatre on Monday, March 16, as part of the 2015 Dunedin Fringe Festival.

The event, organised by Benson, will feature an introduction from Habicht, who is also taking part in the Fringe's pecha kucha event at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery the following night.

For decades, Broadhead presented both grand-scale outdoor epics featuring casts of dozens and elaborate costumes, as well as intimate one-man shows in living rooms across the country and around the globe (his rendition of Lewis Carroll's Hunting of the Snark was performed more than 500 times).

Broadhead had forbidden his work to be photographed or filmed, until film-maker Habicht (whose credits include Kaikohe Demolition, Love Story and Pulp) approached him in 2007, and they set out to make a documentary, the result of which portrays Broadhead as both performer and man.

Telling the story of his family, work and sexuality, Broadhead worked with Habicht to create performance pieces complete with signature costumes, each of which illustrate chapters or aspects of the life of Broadhead, who died at the age of 70.

In a 2011 interview (with this writer), prior to a series of Snark performances in Dunedin, Broadhead conveyed a deep pursuit of happiness, despite referring to four heart attacks several years earlier - and a subsequent triple bypass - as a ''dramatic turn of events, a show-stopper''.

''The heart attacks, while terrible, have been one of those blessings in disguise. I certainly am very glad I'm here. I'll be 67 shortly and I feel like I'm entering my contemplative years,'' Broadhead said at the time.

''Waiheke serves me well. I'm in a spinners and weavers group, a choir and several meditation groups. I'm now on the pension so I don't have to rush off anywhere. I love this time of my life. I feel many things are so much more exquisite.''

Benson struggles to define Broadhead. Yet that's not a bad thing, he insists.

''His approach to performance, really, was completely his own. He would improvise a lot, utilised beautiful and inventive costumes, understood colour and space so well. He was also hilarious, tall, magnetic, and very happy to offer licentious details to an always-willing audience.

''I don't know whether he'd agree, but I think of and describe Warwick as a performance artist. 'Actor' isn't right, because he was not acting: when he is on stage, it is Warwick Broadhead you had with you.

''Warwick wasn't part of a scene, and I don't think he belonged to an identifiable performance style or group, at least not in his later years. He was his own performer, a maverick, a leader of his own cottage industry of expression,'' Benson says.

''I felt a terrible mix of things when I found out that Warwick had died. I was obviously shocked, and upset that a magical person has left the Earth, the kind of person that makes life interesting and unpredictable.

''Warwick died a fulfilled man, I think, at his home, with the book In the Company of Angels, by Thomas Kennedy, on his chest.

''He had just embarked on a two-and-a-half-year performance project which would see him present one chapter of the Chinese legend of Monkey, on the first Saturday of every month in his home on Waiheke Island. He was at a creative high.''

Benson says Broadhead's funeral was unlike any he'd attended before.

''Warwick left instructions that specifically stated there was to be no preservation of his body, and no coffin. At his ceremony he wanted only live music, no photographs, and a professional wailer or keener.

"And he would be buried no more than three feet underground, with no stone, and a kauri tree planted above him. Most of his wishes were followed through with.

''I was honoured to sing to him, wrapped in a white shroud, on a bier, one more time.

''Warwick's service was one of the most honest experiences of death I have been a part of. Through it, Warwick gave us one more performance.''



See it

• As part of the 2015 Dunedin Fringe Festival, Rubbings From a Live Man, a documentary film performed by performance artist Warwick Broadhead (1944-2015), will screen at the Regent Theatre, Dunedin, on Monday, March 16, at 7pm. Director Florian Habicht (Kaikohe Demolition, Love Story, Pulp) will introduce the film. 


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