Simple, powerful, provocative.
Reviewed by Trish Sullivan
Directed by Giles Burton
Presented by Northpark Productions
Written by Justin Eade
Suter Theatre as part of the Nelson Arts Festival 2017
Justin Eade’s ‘Maungatapu’ delivered not only in the historical re-telling of one of Nelson, and New Zealand’s most intriguing stories, but also in bringing the four characters to life.
Set in an era when Picton had more opportunities than Nelson, ‘Maungatapu’ is the story of the notorious Burgess Gang murders, which caused a sensation back in 1866 when five men were killed on the Maungatapu track.
The trial that followed the murders gripped the tiny nation but the infamy of Richard Burgess, Joseph Sullivan, Philip Levy and Thomas Kelly lives on today thanks to Burgess’s remarkable death row confession. Three were eventually hanged and Sullivan was pardoned after turning on his fellow gang members.
Promising murder and mayhem, ‘Maungatapu’ delves into the relationships between gang members Burgess, Kelly, Levy and Sullivan as they plot and carry out the murders, are arrested, tried, and then executed.
Moving back and forward in time provided context and insight into the lives of the key characters with the play narrated by Levy, his naivety as an unwitting accomplice skilfully portrayed by Pete Coates. Cameron West delivered a strong and controlled Burgess, capable of murder, but weathered by a life of crime.
Daniel Allan brought the hot-headed, emotional Kelly to life, breaking down the “tough man” stereotype. The stand out was Nick Kemplen, embodying the menacing and sinister Sullivan. Kemplen gave a powerful performance as the calculating “ladies man”, who ultimately, cared for no one and nothing. For the man with a wife, girlfriend and children, he was the only one who neither valued nor craved love.
There was a minimalism about the show that added to the overall intensity. The set was simple, but used to great effect, with little more than four bleachers and some bedrolls artfully providing the backdrop for the jail, the murder site and the town. With the absence of a backdrop, the costumes took on the key role of taking us back in time. Similarly, the lighting and music was subtle, yet powerful.