Edinburgh Fringe 2019
A penetrating examination of the impact of rugby on the lives of New Zealanders.
Rugby is not a sport in New Zealand. It’s a religion. Just ask any of the million or so alpha-males that seem to live and breathe the game over there. As a regular visitor down under, you can’t help but be aware of how this religion defines and drives many aspects of life on the other side of the world.
So, let’s take a trip back to the mid-1990’s and meet five-year old Sam, whose Dad coaches the local Under 7’s with an intensity that wouldn’t be out of place in the Super 14’s or even an All Blacks’ session. Sam, like many boys at that time, gets a swift introduction to the rigours of the game (and a man’s life in NZ) when he gets steamrollered the first time he’s tackled.
Bleating to his father brings the typical response of “get up and keep chasing the ball”, swiftly followed by “stop playing or harden up”. Sam opts to harden up, a decision that he repeats throughout his life as he progresses through school, work, and, having quit playing, watching professional rugby.
Written, performed and produced by the charismatic Christopher Watts, Bleeding Black is a dark, rich comedy that explores how the hyper-masculinity associated with the stereotypical alpha-male leaks into everyday life, affecting those close to you in ways that are often ignored or overlooked.
This fifty-minute monologue is excellently staged and paced with Watts holding the attention of the packed audience at Greenside’s Nicolson Square throughout, a tribute to his skills as a writer and performer as many in the audience appeared either to have no experience/understanding of rugby or New Zealand’s culture or both.
Full disclosure here, I do enjoy watching rugby and have seen many games in New Zealand so could fully identify with the picture Watts painted, of how the game grabs you and won’t let you go, of how it has, in many ways, come to define New Zealand. This was brought home to the audience through the physical intensity of his performance, which was impressive – he practically got through a full gym workout as well as managing to illustrate several aspects of a typical match on a stage little bigger than a postage stamp.
Watts is an engaging narrator, established an excellent relationship with his audience, knew when to turn up the pace and passion and when to pause for reflection, to let the issues he’d floated sink in, to give the audience a small break. And there was a poignancy and pathos in the chilling denouement that caused us all to pause and think – “is there a better way”, before Watts articulated that question himself.
And there is a better way. New Zealand is changing, and not just in the way that young children are introduced to the national obsession. Society is softening, led from the top by their impressive Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. People are becoming more open in terms of expressing their feelings. People see that there is an alternative to hardening up. And Bleeding Black cleverly points us in that direction. An impressive show in all respects. Highly recommended, whether or not you like rugby and New Zealand