Theatre was a popular Otago student pursuit in the mid-twentieth century and the dramatic society was one of the biggest societies on campus. During the 1940s it shifted focus from light popular drama to more serious works, and even some original plays. Meanwhile, the capping concert provided an opportunity to present shorter comic material. The capping show was always somewhat subversive, but in 1963 a student group put on a revue which took this to a new level.
Yes or No as the Mood Takes Us: The Revue with the Knife in it made numerous hits on bourgeois society and reflected the emerging youth culture of the 1960s. This was a period when some young people – many of them students – were unhappy with the conservative and conformist mores of New Zealand society. But any serious social criticism in the revue was overlaid with wit (the performers were fans of the great British radio comedy, The Goon Show). Targets of their satire included royalty, the clergy, politicians, radio, television and the press. The knife, reported the Otago Daily Times, was “wielded with varying degrees of deadliness”.
The cast/writers were a brilliant group. Jocelyn Harris recalls writer Bill Manhire recounting that he attended the revue as a high school student and was very impressed; he was rather disappointed when he arrived at university to discover the campus wasn’t as filled with witty people as he had hoped. Several of those involved went on to impressive academic careers. Some were in science: Ann Justice (later Ann Wirz-Justice) in organic chemistry and John Harris in physiology. Michael Neill continued his interest in drama during a distinguished career in English at the University of Auckland, while Jocelyn Harris was Professor of English at Otago. After completing an MA, Graham Mitchell became an Anglican vicar. Michael Noonan and Alexander Guyan made their careers in drama. Guyan, who died in 1991, was a playwright and actor. Noonan is a highly acclaimed writer for television, whose credits include the innovative New Zealand dramas Pukemanu, The Governor and Close to Home. Bill Southgate, who arranged and played the music for the revue, became a distinguished conductor and composer. Among others involved were Rodney Kennedy, drama tutor and art collector (director); Colin James, now a political commentator (stage manager); and Philip Woollaston, a future politician (business manager).
Some clever publicity helped bring people to the show. Weeks before their performance the cast appeared, stylishly dressed and posed beneath Queen Victoria’s statue, in photographs in the ODT and Critic; they also posed in a George Street shop window to attract the attention of passersby. Their invitations to various celebrities, including Prime Minister Keith Holyoake, philosopher Bertrand Russell and cartoonist Chas Addams, brought replies they used for further publicity.
The 1963 capping concert was something of a disaster, apart from the accomplished performance of the traditional sextet. “Concert failed: lewd, stewed, booed” read the headline in Critic. In contrast with the scathing review of the capping show, the student paper found quite a bit to praise in Yes or No. In all, it was “a refreshingly novel entertainment after the ordeal of Capping Concert, and much appreciated by the audience.” The Evening Star noted the revue’s connection to the popular Beyond the Fringe Oxford University production, but approved of the manner in which its satire focussed “on the New Zealand way of life.” A parody of Bruce Mason’s End of the Golden Weather received particular critical approval, as did the acting of Noonan, Mitchell and Neill, “who delivered the attack with vigour.” Guyan’s turn as Kennedy holding a telephone conversation with Khrushchev also pleased a press reviewer.
Getting the tone of a comic production right is tricky, but the Yes or No revue met the challenge where the capping show of that year failed. Dunedin residents were, it seems, ready to see their idols satirised. Do you have any memories to share of this radical revue or other student productions of the era?