For many non-New Zealanders, the haka is only known for its use by the All Blacks before a match. As a result it is often thought to be a war dance, but in Māori culture a haka is considerably more than this. Sobriety on the Rocks opens with a haka that involves a bottle of vodka. Is this haka a war dance – a challenge to the vodka? Or is it respect to that bottle as a distinguished guest?
Despite this being a one-woman show Renee Buckland plays four characters; father and alcoholic Richard, long-suffering mother Cherie, teenage son James and paramedic Kimberly. She moves between these roles at pace but with ease. Each of the four sounds very different which, along with changes to Buckland’s stance and body language, clearly conveys different people. Returning to the haka, Buckland also uses movements from it to emphasise scene and character transitions. This is really effective with good work from director Tadeas Moravec and technician Jasmine Kint.
Is Richard’s alcoholism a disease or is it his choice? We meet him as he is locked up in hospital under an involuntary detox after crippling a woman in a drunk-driving incident. This incident does not weigh on him; he is comfortable in his drinking and open about his habits. It is through Cherie and in particular Jamie that we learn the daily, ongoing impact drunkenness has on them. Kimberly is the paramedic who treats Richard at the side of the road, questioning her calling to help people like him, after her own brother was killed by a drunk driver many years earlier. Each character is vulnerable, and not just in the obvious ways. Sobriety on the Rocks poses many questions for each of its characters but does so without casting judgement and without providing answers: sometimes there just are no answers.
The character of Richard sounds Māori or Pasifika, so having a young white New Zealander playing this role certainly raises an eyebrow. I must admit that I am glad that I knew the story is based on a real family and interviews with that family, but it may be worth emphasising this further. It also helps avoid concerns of stereotyping which was a conversation with my Kiwi partner afterwards.
Sobriety on the Rocks addresses universal themes of alcoholism; the effect it has on oneself and one’s family alongside the at times tragic, unavoidable effect it can have on random bystanders. But it also announces itself as a distinctive piece of New Zealand art. Buckland’s script is occasionally stilted by what I assume are words directly from the interviews, but her performance is never awkward. She carries an energy and a presence from the moment she steps foot on stage. As the first production from A Tad Kiwi Productions, this is a good start and I look forward to seeing what more they come up with.
Written by: Renee Buckland
Directed by: Tadeas Moravec
Technician: Jasmine Kint
Sobriety on the Rocks plays at Bread and Roses Theatre until July 23 2022. Further information and bookings can be found here.