25 February 2013

Catherine and Katherine

Performer Catherine Downes tells drama on the waterfront about her interest in Katherine Mansfield and why she has devoted a second solo show to one of New Zealand's most prolific short story writers.

"The interest goes back to playing Katherine in Brian McNeil’s The Two Tigers; a play about the often tempestuous relationship between Katherine Mansfield and her publisher husband John Middleton Murry at Four Seasons Theatre in Whanganui when I was 26. While I was researching the role, I became interested in her journals and diaries; her intimate writing about her own feelings and where she wanted to go. They were very personal, candid, and private. She probably didn’t expect they would ever be published.

It was the quality and perception of this personal writing that inspired me to develop a solo show based on Mansfields journals called The Case of Katherine MansfieldI think I’ve  performed that play more than 1000 times over 20 years in six countries - Australia, Holland, England, Scotland and America; and in New Zealand of course. I did a lot of school performances around the country. And actually it was in the schools that I realised how little I needed around me in the way of props to make it work.

I remember a particular performance at a boys school in South Auckland in a brightly lit gym - the audience were a big bunch of beefy footballer types. But while the play was on you could have heard a pin drop and afterwards the comments were so perceptive and intelligent.

There are so many layers beneath the surface in Mansfield’s work; like a spiders web where everything is interconnected and every word counts. And on a deceptively small canvas she explored huge universal themes.

KM was a prolific journalist, she kept a journal from the age of 18 to her death at 34. All the material in both my KM plays is from journals and letters, interwoven with several of the short stories. With The Case of Katherine Mansfield I initially started off with about nine hours of material. But once I’d discarded the more public material and gossip I realised what I had left was a story about personal growth.

I guess that theme is the essential provocation for Talking of Katherine Mansfield.
Talking of Katherine Mansfield hangs on three themes: love, personal development and death, all in her own words. As Mansfield became more and more ill, she focused on what really mattered. Those themes are universal and her articulation of them is so acute and precise.

When I was in my 20s I related to and was inspired by Mansfield’s outrageous determination to carve her own path and ultimate fight to ‘be all I am capable of becoming’. Now in my 60s, these themes are no less compelling - perhaps as my mortality  becomes more of a reality I relate more keenly to Mansfield’s quest to achieve one’s potential."

Talking of Katherine Mansfield opens in Circa Two on 27 February and runs until 16 March. $25 ticket specials on Tuesday, 26 February and Thursday, 28 February. To book, call the Circa Box Office on 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz.

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