I am not Margaret Mahy by Jane Waddell, based on Notes of a Bag Lady by Margaret Mahy, BATS Theatre Wellington, Director Stella Reid

Margaret Mahy (1936-2012) was one of New Zealand’s most loved authors of children’s and young adult fiction. Her awards included the Order of New Zealand, the Carnegie Medal and the Hans Christian Andersen Award, and her novel The Changeover was made into a feature film in 2017 by Stuart McKenzie and Miranda Harcourt. In an era when the phrase “New Zealand artist” seemed like an oxymoron, Mahy’s exuberant personality defied notions of New Zealanders as boring and conformist. Her stories were first published internationally in the 1960s, yet in the 1970s New Zealanders were famously described by journalist Gordon McLauchlan as “the passionless people” in his book of the same name (1976), and the eminent theatre director Raymond Hawthorne told an interviewer that New Zealanders were “dull as bloody ditchwater” (Act: Theatre in New Zealand Vol. 3 No. 8, October 1978). Mahy was living proof of the failure of these stereotypes, as New Zealanders (and readers worldwide) embraced her vividly original storytelling. She was often photographed wearing multi-colored wigs and jumpers, presenting herself as a dramatic character when reading her stories to children. This theatrical persona makes her life story ideally suited to being adapted for the stage. Using Mahy’s autobiographical essay Notes of a Bag Lady as source material, writer/performer Jane Waddell brought her life story to theatrical life in I am Not Margaret Mahy, a solo show premiered at BATS Theatre in May 2018.

It is clear from the title of the play and from the opening moments of the show, where Waddell chats to the audience and adapts some of the stage directions in her own script to suit herself, that she does not attempt to impersonate Mahy. Rather, with an impish self-reflexivity, she becomes a conduit for Mahy’s remarkable imagination and creativity. As a child in small-town Whakatane, Margaret longs for transformation and imagines many glamorous careers for herself before discovering a vocation as a children’s librarian. A vein of anti-authoritarianism runs through the play. Margaret bemoans the social restrictions of the time and the limited career possibilities open to women. Waddell’s performance reveals the vulnerability of a woman who realizes she is slow and clumsy and has little aptitude for physical work, but who is redeemed by her wit and self-deprecating humor. Reality is always trumped by the imagination. When Margaret considers becoming a policewoman, for example, it is because she imagines herself as a detective in a Ngaio Marsh thriller. On the surface, she seems to be a very ordinary person, but in her imaginative world, she is anything but.

There is often a dark twist to Mahy’s humor. A used condom carelessly hanging on a pussy willow ignites her imagination. She wittily deconstructs the stereotypes of librarians as repressive, humorless and sexless. She muses on the connection between alcoholism and artistic endeavor, and a one-liner about her binge drinking provokes a roar of laughter from the audience. Her fascination with complex words, scientific language, and eccentric behavior opens up realms of possibilities. She can see the wonder in anything from gazing at the moon through a telescope to fleeing with her children from a burning car. She can turn a chance encounter with a pair of young lovers in a motel swimming pool into a vivid children’s story. Margaret variously imagines herself as a bag lady, pirate, and explorer. Most tellingly, when encouraged by her mother to attend a school ball as a witch rather than a fairy, she identifies with her “witch life” and embraces this subversive identity in her aim to pursue an artistic career.

Jane Waddell in I am not Margaret Mahy. BATS Theatre, Wellington 2018. Director Stella Reid. Photo credit Emma Robinson.

The production benefits from an inter-generational collaboration between its writer/performer and youthful production team. Jane Waddell is a highly respected actor, director, and playwright with a high-profile career in theatre, radio and television developed over 40 years since she graduated from the New Zealand Drama School (now Toi Whakaari) in 1975.   In the programme she comments, “I’ve been fortunate at this stage of my career, to work with a refreshing bunch of millennials.” The creative team behind this solo show is led by Stella Reid, one of the most dynamic and original young directors working in New Zealand at present. Reid won the Most Promising New Director at the 2016 Wellington Theatre Awards for directing Lyle Kessler’s Orphans and her solo show The Basement Tapes (2017) has won several awards. In the programme, producer Claire O’Loughlin writes, “Margaret Mahy was part of the fabric of my childhood,” while Reid comments, “Margaret was a character who delighted kids while throwing adults off balance.” Set designer Lucas Neal (winner of Most Promising Newcomer at the 2017 Wellington Theatre Awards) has created an artfully jumbled set that seems to represent Mahy’s imaginative world as well as her collector’s impulse and the detritus of her daily existence. Piles of books and clutter spread out over a magic carpet disguise strategically placed props which are animated to assist the storytelling.  Clusters of pine cones collected by the author surround a table on which a strategically placed overhead projector is used in a myriad of ways to suggest the imagery of Mahy’s life. In these days of high-tech digital projection, the old-school technology of the OHP is a welcome return to the joy of poor theatre aesthetics. Marcus McShane’s lighting design begins with the audience fully lit so that Waddell can chat and engage with us, then subtly and stylishly evolves into moodier states evoking the shadowy world of the imagination. Too often I hear a kind of negative ageism in the theatre where millennials, Gen-Xers and baby boomers compete for relevance. The freshness of I am not Margaret Mahy suggests that there is much potential for more baby-boomer/millennial artistic collaborations to reveal more nuanced and complex theatrical ways of telling stories from the present and past. The collaboration between Waddell and these young artists creates a kind of inter-generational magic that’s beautifully appropriate for a tale of an elderly writer whose fame rested on her creative connection with children and young adults.

I am not Margaret Mahy was due to be re-staged at Circa Theatre, Wellington in February 2019. Sadly, this season was canceled, but I do hope that it can be re-visited at some point in the future. Like the essay from which it was adapted, this is a deft, impressionistic sketch of life rather than an in-depth biography. Through Waddell’s engagingly playful performance and Reid’s intelligent direction, I am Not Margaret Mahy becomes a creative adventure in the spirit of Mahy’s restless invention and a celebration of the role of the artist in a country that has not always been sympathetic to creative pursuits.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.