Martine Baanvinger plays Annie Chaffey in Solitude

Solitude

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13 August 2019 / 
Waipawa Municipal Theatre / 
By Jess Soutar Barron

To the wop-wops we go. To the lean-to on the town hall, in a mounting wind, in the dark. It feels intrepid, an adventure. Fitting as we’re here to hear the story of Annie who went bush and lived in the backend of Nowhere for forty years, with nothing but her mountain man and her loneliness for company. Forty years in 24 square metres, ten hours walk from the nearest general store.

A blast down to Waipawa is a picnic in comparison.

Annie Chaffey moves from Timaru in 1913 to follow love and find freedom. And in 1953 she moves back to Timaru, to “Grey streets that all look the same”. In the decades between life happens, full up with a homebrew concocted from laughter and loneliness. Time is measured by signposts familiar in our cultural landscape: the Murchison Earthquake, Queen Victoria, Aunt Daisy, both World Wars.

Solo performance is hot right now. It requires everything from the auteur. There’s no back-stop, no support. Eyes, body, hands, mouth, tone, breath, silence. That’s what’s on offer. A simple set. Stripped back tech. A script for one.

What works with Solitude is its fine detail in each element of this. There’s an architecture to the staging that holds the actor and gives shape for her to move within, to counter and balance, to play in and against. Solo but not alone, Martine Baanvinger is accompanied throughout by a melodious and moving soundscape from Mark Manson.

The physicality brought to the work is eye-popping, especially the scenes that really grab reality by the short and curlies – domestic violence, hard drinking, taking dynamite to bed – and the sex scene is hilarious.

The strength and conditioning required to bring about this piece are immense but essential to deliver the sensitive, multifaceted portrayal required to breathe life into Annie. Drunkenness is brought through control, madness through an attempt to grasp logic, honest emotion and real tears through the act of holding it all in. The strenuous workout rendition of daily chores deserved a standing ovation.

Solitude is not 100% convincing all the time. There are moments that move language and countenance into a more modern era that don’t ring true for the Annie Chaffey the actor has worked so hard to establish. The script needs tightening, perhaps a hard edit. The rhythm and repetition that scaffold the piece work well but are potentially overdone.

As the writer of the work, Baanvinger knows Annie. Grasping Henry though takes some effort, he’s not quite there, ephemeral, romanticised, there’s a struggle to bring him into focus. Perhaps this is most fitting. His absences were often and sometimes long. It’s the idea of Henry that’s alluring rather than the reality of him. There’s a wonderful reveal when the audience are led to the realisation of who they are, when spoken to directly: “You, Loneliness, you’ve come around for tea and scones an awful lot recently”.

Solitude is a gift to the back-waters from Arts on Tour and it pays a great honour to the subject matter, bringing the real Annie Chaffey to life in three-dimensions, if not in bright technicolour then certainly in a satisfying sepia.

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