PERTINENT IMPERTINENCE WITH PANACHE
NO NAUGHTY BITS
By STEVE THOMPSON
Directed by ROSS JOLLY
The DOMINION POST season
at Circa One, Wellington
From 14 Sep 2013 to 12 Oct 2013
Reviewed by John Smythe, 16 Sep 2013
Do you have to have been there to get it? Is prior knowledge of the Monty Python phenomenon essential? Will it matter if the iconography of John Hodgkins' set and Johann Nortje's video projections, which pay splendid homage to Terry Gilliam's animations for the TV series, is not recognised as such?
If you don't instantly know who John, Eric, Graham and the other Terry are, let alone Bill Oddie, you may feel excluded from a “wink wink, say no more” in-group, so I recommend a quick cram of the brief primer in the programme (lifted without accreditation from Wikipedia, which in itself cites eight sources). Not that Bill Oddie is mentioned (see his Wiki link here).
That said, there is plenty to relish beyond the esoterica. A bigger ‘culture clash' story emerges, the nature of humour is interrogated along with the dangers of over-analysing it, and a crucial question is raised about the role of television in a ‘free world'. These timeless and universal themes transcend the 1975 setting, beautifully evoked in the array of costumes designed by Sheila Horton.
Cancel any expectation that No Naughty Bits will be a surreal, absurdist, Pythonesque romp from start to finish. The prologue does feature a couple of bow-tied, tail-coated and satin-knickered functionaries (Stephen Papps and Stephen Gledhill) affably declaiming the disclaimer – “It's a work of fiction inspired by a true story” – and the show proper opens with the signature tune of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Then there is a change of gear to serviceable docudrama.
Because absurdity is relative, however, it is essential that we believe in the real (if fictionalised) characters, their situations and concerns. And this way, when we get to the court case – which is based on actual transcripts – the absurdities of American network television politics and moral rectitude have the required dramatic impact.
Playwright Steve Thompson – who wrote No Naughty Bits on commission in 2005 while writer-in-residence with the Bush Theatre (nice for some) – cleverly stitches the essential exposition into a series of deceptively simple scenes which engage our empathy and introduce the themes mentioned above.
Michael Palin (Andrew Foster) is riddled with insecurities and defensiveness when the Pythons' US promoter, Nancy (Carrie Green), comes all the way from New York to reveal the ABC network has savagely edited the first 3 episodes of Monty Python's third series (of six episodes only), ostensibly to make room for the commercials which will earn them $80k against their $56k outlay. First aired on the BBC then on subscription TV (PBS, I think) – both commercial-free – this is new territory for the show and its makers.
Palin is reluctant to pick a fight – can't they just sort it out like gentlemen over a nice cup of tea? – but self-exiled American Terry Gilliam (Gavin Rutherford) is eager to mount a crusade against his reviled home country. And once they view the tape and see how badly their comedy has been bowdlerised by cutting out all the ‘naughty bits', it's ‘game on'.
Foster draws us in to Palin's complexities with a finely modulated performance. It seems Rutherford has less opportunity to reveal the exact nature of Gilliam's inner turmoil but we're aware of it all the same. Neither attempt to impersonate the real people – indeed Rutherford looks more like Meat Loaf than Gilliam – but Foster does capture an essence of the better-known Palin.
Carrie Green intrigues with a Nancy whose background as a rock band promoter may or may not belie hidden depths. We may not know why she cares but it's clear she does, so we do too.
Punctuating and bridging the scene changes with Pythonesque graphics and the well-known music-stabs works a treat to relocate us, but the appearance within the JFK Airport scene of trouserless pilots (Papps and Gledhill again), ‘for the goosing of', is out of place. It's a convention that is not carried through, there is no need for it, it is stylistically counter-productive and it contradicts a key point made later (in the court scene) that comedy needs its own inner logic.
Jason Whyte's US Attorney Osterberg is winningly humourless and impressively rigorous in preparing and arguing the case. As Franklin, the supremely righteous network executive, bewildered that anyone should question their right to alter the content of a programme they've bought, let alone act as a nation's moral watchdog, Emma Kinane hits all the right notes. (It should be noted that the default position of ‘moral right', whereby you may own the Mona Lisa but you may not paint a moustache on it, had not been established in 1975.)
I can't help feeling there is more to be gleaned from Stephen Gledhill's comedy writer-turned-network yes-man, Howard Myers. The script makes it clear that he's the meat in a would-be bland sandwich, identifying with Palin and Gilliam as artists but knowing which side his bread is buttered, but I don't perceive the inner conflict his compromise has wrought. The network's attorney, intriguingly named Fried, has no dimension outside his in-court role, which Alex Greig delivers well.
I have no idea whether the whimsical personality of Judge Lasker is taken from the court transcript or created by Thompson but I've seen the syndrome in more than one courtroom drama series from the USA, and Stephen Papps captures the tone with alacrity.
As director, Ross Jolly presides over good pacing and a lightness of touch that ensures while we get the satire, we are not confronted or challenged by it, which Circa may feel is what their audience prefers. For my liking there is a bit too much meaningless pacing and playing to the front rather than eyeballing the person being spoken too, which tends to dissipate dramatic tension.
Swift transitions – e.g. into the lift – keep the pace up, even when a long silence follows Palin's memorable ‘meltdown', and Marcus McShane's lighting design serves such requirements well.
Overall this No Naughty Bits blows a healthy raspberry at moral watchdogs by delivering two hours of pertinent impertinence with panache.
By way of a postscript I should reveal I saw this production twice, having been advised that on opening night, “due to opening night nerves, there was an important plot point inadvertently dropped from the Subway scene, which may have compromised the purpose of the scene and made the ending seem a little abrupt.” Whether it was an actor, operator or cueing error is immaterial now but it is interesting to note that the missing beat – which literally turns on a dime (you have to be there) – adds immeasurably, once reinstated, to the shape and quality of the denouement. This happily proves that the point Palin makes about the chemistry of a joke also applies to a play as a whole.
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