Pander 9 (November 1999)
Foreskin’s Lament, by Greg McGee, directed by Paul Minifie, designed by John Verryt – with Karl Urban, Roy Billing, Michael Lawrence, Nicola Murphy – Auckland Theatre Company, Sky City Theatre, 29 July-21 August.
Greg McGee: Foreskin's Lament (1981)
It hasn’t aged very well, this play. Perhaps it’s all those years of earnest classroom debates, of precociously conferred “classic status.” I must confess I felt a great desire to see it, though, having unaccountably missed the original and subsequent productions.
That’s surprising, really, as I still remember Mervyn Thompson exhorting all us first year English students to go along to a wonderful new play he’d just been workshopping. The play was called Foreskin’s Lament, and it was clearly going to change the world. And so it did, I suppose: “Whaddarya?” on the protesters’ placards during the ‘81 Springbok tour.
The Auckland Theatre Company has chosen to present it as a museum piece. Every detail in the changing room is exact, down to the late seventies pin-ups. The fart jokes, the bare bums seem now as strange and distant as Welsh “leek” patter in Henry V (I suspect, in fact, that some irreverent members of the audience had actually come to perv at a naked Karl Urban – there were certainly a few gasps as his cunningly delayed striptease finally took place).
And yet, what else could they do? It’s hard to update so relentlessly static and talky a “think-piece” as this. It’s a morality play, really – about the decline of traditional New Zealand values (as exemplified by provincial, small-town club rugby) by contrast with the trendy new ways of the city (seen mainly in terms of flares, free love, and feminism). Twenty years on, the only one who really makes sense is Clean. He may be a brutal thug, but he’s no fool, and he wants to get ahead. Both the tedious Foreskin and the compromised coach Tupper seem refugees from the dustbin of history.
Does it matter that Foreskin’s final monologue now sounds like an embarrassing rollcall of exploded intellectual fashions (Vonnegut, Barth, Ivan Illich – not even the next generation’s now-almost-equally-shopsoiled Kundera, Barthes and Derrida)? Does it matter that Moira sounds like a snotty, spoilt prig, rather than a breath of fresh air? Does it matter that we can’t really believe in either side’s values from the outset?
Well, it’s hard for that not to matter, given the lack of action in the play. It’s fascinating to see, but also rather creepy – rather like the lovingly recreated “traditional Kiwi bach” exhibit in the Auckland Maritime museum. One remembers only too well when such interiors were a living commonplace, and it seems to diminish rather than aggrandise them to be put on such premature display.
Life is no museum, and there really was a time when who-kicked-who-in-the-scrum, and whether your hair was long or short seemed like the real issue. It’s a measure of the horrors we’ve endured since that the turn of the seventies now seems like a distant promised land. Beggary and starvation stalk those streets which once hospitably housed pavlovas and cheerios.