The Hooligan and the Lady

28 September 2017, Woodford Hall, Havelock North
Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival

There’s a collegial atmosphere in Woodford Hall tonight. The house is full to its beautifully vaulted rafters as the crowd turns out in force to support local talent. Written, produced and directed by our own Pauline Ellen Hayes, The Hooligan and the Lady premiered at the 2011 Wellington Fringe to critical acclaim. Now it’s here for one night only with a cast and crew of Hawke’s Bay’s finest.

Aesthetically it is perfection: the old timey, plush-curtained stage, the ruched, gilded back drops, the sepia-toned lighting. The use of curlicued intertitles to elicit boos and cheers from the audience as well as to give context to the scenes, add to the feeling of time and place, as do the strobe lighting and melodramatic choreography. The costumes, for which Pauline picks up another credit as wardrobe mistress (is there nothing this woman can’t do?), are divine – sumptuous fabrics thoughtfully rendered in mute neutrals, black and white, that make all the more effective the occasional pop of red.

It tells the true story of New Zealander Florence Warren, who, together with her prize fighter husband, Joseph Gardiner, set out to educate and entertain, on stage and on paper, via the noble art of Ju-Jitsu. The bombastic Quintus Penumbra, played as if born to it by Jamie Macphail, is ringmaster, chauvinist, letch and the principle agonist. He derides Flossie’s ambitions, bemoans Gardiner’s emasculation, despairs in their triumphs, and triumphs in their despair. They are supported by the rest of the vaudeville side acts, who give voice to the social mores of the day with their caring critiques; and are observed by the wonderfully comic, near omnipresent, Hooligan Band. Acting as foil to Flossie is the deliciously named burlesque performer, Fanciforia Mooncake. Both played by leading lady and local legend, Champa Maciel, Flossie is all strength, self-determination and grit, where Fanci is softness, dependence and capitulation.

Florence’s journey to Fanciforia’s empowerment spans the play, and facilitates its exploration of gender roles. Though set a century ago, the obstacles our heroines face – sexual coercion as a condition of career advancement, dismissal as being weak in body and mind, shoehorning into strictly prescribed social norms, despair in the face of the male gaze, derision of ambition, not only from men but from other women – are depressingly familiar. Indeed, for a moment I felt whiplash, as though whisked back in time to last night’s talk. In a metacontextual twist, Penumbra’s on-stage contempt for Florence’s proselytising on the rights of women coincided with what I felt was the weakest part of the otherwise lively, humorous and cleverly written script. I found that the dialogue in the latter part of the third act degenerated somewhat into feminist soapboxing chopped up into lines. I could see where she was coming from, the passion with which her voice shone through her characters, and for what it’s worth, I’m right there with her. Luckily, it was saved by a few witty ripostes from the supporting cast that served to break the tension.

At its heart the play achieves something rare and marvellous. It breathes life into an otherwise forgotten pioneering New Zealand heroine with an authenticity that comes from the author’s nigh on decade of dedicated research, and brings her into relationship with the world that we live in today. In doing so we are both informed and thoroughly entertained in a manner of which Florence le Mar, the World Famous Ju-Jitsu Girl, would be proud.

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