Playwright and director Catherine Downes has done a lot in a lauded theatre career spanning more than four decades. But she knows that one play continues to stand out above all others – The Case of Katherine Mansfield.
Downes got the idea for the play in the 1970s after being cast as the New Zealand writer in a production called The Two Tigers. She went on to perform The Case of Katherine Mansfield in New Zealand and overseas more than 1000 times. It was also performed by others, including Danielle Cormack at Downstage in 2007.
Downes even took the play to schools. "I did a lot and one that stayed in mind was performing in a boys' gym in a South Auckland school. There were these great big kind of props and locks in short pants and I thought 'my goodness, how are these guys going to relate to this?'. And you could have heard a pin drop."
But tonight it's something new with In Talking of Katherine Mansfield. It isn't a sequel, but Downes coming back to the writer to offer new insights. One reason is that as Downes' knowledge of Mansfield has deepened, her views on Mansfield have changed.
"It's not about revisiting the [first] play at all. It's actually about having a new look at those vital things that Mansfield was expressing so acutely and so expressively. It's having a look from my perspective now, as a middle-aged woman rather than a young woman."
Downes first performed In Talking on Waiheke Island last year and was then invited to perform it at the Ubid Writer's Festival in Bali.
Downes says the reaction on Bali showed that one of Mansfield's strengths is that she can appeal across cultures. Because of her Bali appearance, Downes has been invited to perform In Talking in Singapore in July.
Mansfield's growing popularity is partly because of her universality, Downes says. She points to The Doll's House, one of Mansfield's best known stories, which she has read more than 1300 times. "The Doll's House is not about children; it's about suffering and the illumination of unexpected rewards that can come through that. She is dealing with hugely impressive themes, particularly when you consider the woman wrote most of this in her twenties and early thirties."
With this year the 90th anniversary of Mansfield's death from tuberculosis in 1923, there is renewed emphasis on her life and works. A previously unknown short story was unveiled at the Alexander Turnbull Library this month and a graphic novel is being produced about her life.
Downes says it is a coincidence that she is staging the play in Wellington this year and then taking it around New Zealand on a 14-centre tour that ranges from Hamilton to Fox Glacier.
"It's a play about Katherine Mansfield. But it's more a play about life, death and what we want to achieve in between."
In Talking of Katherine Mansfield, Circa Theatre, tonight until March 16.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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