CRUCIAL QUESTIONS PROVOKED
THE TIGERS OF WRATH
By Dean Parker
Directed by Jane Waddell
at Circa Two, Wellington
From 3 Nov 2012 to 1 Dec 2012
Reviewed by Paul Maunder, 21 Nov 2012
The three act naturalistic play remains the stuff of mainstream professional theatre. It involves people talking in the situations where people talk in real life: houses, cafes, cars etc. It requires, like the dinner party, a structure for the talk. There are characters and a plot to unfold, the latter often involving the revealing of a skeleton in the closet.
The form requires of the actors what is required in real life: to talk, drink, walk, make phone calls and so on. Except you have to be heard in the back row, you need to know the lines, a certain charm is necessary, character embodied and feelings have to be indicated.
It is the theatre form that arose from the 19th century middle class, a new ruling class who had to discover their identity and their culture. But the middle class has always been accompanied by the working class and that threatening companionship has become a key factor in politics, giving rise to the Communist movement, the Labour Party, to social democracy and occasionally, to revolution.
In theatre this led to the challenging of the three act form by the avant-garde and by Brecht and Boal. With the avant-garde, the talk either became absurd, or a nihilistic monologue (Becket) or in the case of Artaud and Grotowski, theatre should search behind the mask of the talk. Brecht wanted to show the economic system behind the talk and Boal requires the working class audience to take over the stage.
Walter Benjamin made the point that theatre which promoted the working class not only had to say the right things, but had to revolutionise the mode of production itself, to put in place new modes of production, so that the theatre would be owned and controlled by the working class. This led to factory performances, or performances on the street or in working men's clubs and so on, and to a different kind of talk; cabaret or review or folk art forms – more liked by working people. John McGrath and Dario Fo investigated the latter.
This is a long prologue to a review of Dean Parker's new play, The Tigers of Wrath, currently playing at Circa, but reviews occasionally require a theoretical framework. As a professional writer for the mainstream theatre, Parker has been prolific, and for some years many of his scripts went unproduced, or were left at the workshop stage. But he kept on working and I never ceased to admire his tenacity. And now his work is beginning to be produced more frequently. Alleluia. For Parker is a leftie and he knows his politics. And he writes about what he knows. This of course has not helped his cause, but he has persevered and latterly, the middle class audiences are more open to the talk that takes place amongst lefties, to their world view and to their issues.
There is an interesting parallelism here. In the same way that Parker has been faced with the task of getting the left onto the mainstream stage, the Labour Party has been faced with getting themselves into parliament, for their talk to take centre stage. And the dilemmas can be similar. The three act form is both required yet limiting. Parliamentary democracy (if it can be called that) is both required and limiting. And to further add to the tension by picking up on Benjamin's point, mainstream theatre is attended by mainly white middle class people in the 40-60 age group who can afford $40-60 a ticket. Ditto, the Labour Party has to have business on side. But let us also admit that we need this tension. We can't just have a passing piece of agit prop on the street corner or the Socialist Workers Party (which anyway, has ceased to exist).
Parker, like any longstanding politician of the left, has learnt his craft. His dialogue is witty and complex. The Tigers of Wrath is a story of disillusionment: we follow the three main characters from young student Maoists on a visit to China (early 1980s), to a future cabinet minister in Helen Clarke's Labour government and a future investment broker plotting their paths in the early 1990s, to the losers of the current decade. There is a sort of hero (the opportunist who knows when to move), a sort of villain (the smooth talking lawyer who gets his just desserts) and a youthful spirit who wanders from Cultural Revolution to Unite organising. And there are moments of brilliance which, interestingly enough, stretch the three act form (which is already stretched by shifting through 4 decades): a long telephone monologue focused on the overthrow of Mike Moore, and a young girl's monologue as she yearns for an equestrian experience. There is no skeleton in the closet. Parker is, in fact, heading toward some other form.
Yet despite this brilliance and this stretching, the audience left feeling a little flat. A story of disillusionment – from Mao to John Key and the tenacity of neo-liberalism – perhaps inevitably does this, and it is the story of this country. But for me, there was more to it than this, and it lay in the dilemma posed by the working class character of Pauline.
[Spoiler warning… although most of the surprises remain unrevealed - ed]
From angry, almost black-shirted anarchist lesbian who loses her girl to the future lawyer, she disappears to resurface as a down at heel cleaner in a Mangere Bridge pub. In the interim, she has tattooed love and hate on her fingers, and lost another lover, this time Maori, to the tribal capitalist resurgence. Is this symbolic of the trajectory of the activist working class?
Pauline is central to this story and crucial politically. Are working people this stuffed? Is their culture (as represented by the pub) that empty and desolate? If so, we are truly lost and heading toward Waiting for Godot, even though the Unite organiser gives us a ray of hope.
Or is this rather, the story of a generation of middle class? And where lies commitment? Is the form the trap? Is opportunism within the form the trap? True of left politics in the mainstream? Big questions, not altogether presented in the play, but provoked by the play – shall I say, discovered by the play. What would happen if Parker began from that consciousness? And of course the accompanying question: would he then get performed?
We can be grateful that Dean Parker is provoking these questions. And my point here and why I am writing this, is that they are crucial questions that need discussion in theatre circles, and, as the parallelism continues, crucial questions that the Labour Party should be discussing – overtly, in full consciousness. This is the real talk required – and on the main stage.
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