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AN EXEMPLARY PIECE OF POLITICAL THEATRE IN THE POPULIST MODE

Print Version

ONCE WE BUILT A TOWER
By Dean Parker
Directed by David Lawrence
Presented by The Bacchanals

at BATS Theatre (Out Of Site), Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington
From 11 Mar 2014 to 15 Mar 2014

Reviewed by John Smythe, 12 Mar 2014


It's only on until Saturday, it may or may not tour suburban halls, so book now. 

The prolific Dean Parker has here penned a salutary reminder of the values the New Zealand Labour Party was built on. It is full of surprises and The Bacchanals have done him proud with a dynamically committed and highly entertaining production.

Think ‘The Welfare State' and most of us credit Michael Joseph Savage with its implementation. Think Arnold Nordmeyer and most of us (who even know the name) think of his ‘Black Budget' of 1958.

Who knew the true architects of what grew into ‘The Welfare State' hailed from Kurow; that it began there in The Depression with a doctor, Presbyterian minister (and a school headmaster, by the way) envisioning a free health system for all, based on what was happening with the Waitaki Hydro Scheme dam-builders (see, for example, artist Bob Kerr's online exhibition: The Three Wise Men of Kurow).

It was Dr Gervan McMillan who got the Labour Party conference to adopt their plan as policy in 1934, and in 1935 he and the Presbyterian minister, Arnold Nordmeyer, were elected as members of parliament when the Michael Joseph Savage-led Labour Party swept into power. (I expect headmaster Andrew Davidson's role in creating the Waitaki medical scheme – the seed from which the nation-wide scheme grew – is left out of this play because he didn't stand for parliament). 

Popular Depression era songs – ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime', ‘Paper Moon', ‘Pennies From Heaven' – plus a rousing rendition of ‘Jerusalem' are well integrated and beautifully sung by the ensemble; indeed director David Lawrence (guitar, banjo, clarinet) and violinist Ellie Stewart back much of the action with an excellent live musical soundscape. The whole cast provides a portentous heart-beat effect too, which is mostly effective but could be better modulated in some parts. 

Old suitcases - a rather hackneyed prop in theatre and dance, sometimes – are given a new lease of life with some very inventive utilisation, from humble huts to church doors, and would better represent the dam itself, I feel, rather than the junk assemblage currently used (no set design credits so I guess it's a group effort).

While the workers are settling in to their Awakino camp, refusing to live in tents but having to put up with freezing huts all the same, Dr Gervan McMillan is flirting outrageously with his patient Ethel, History Mistress at Nelson Girls College. Of course she gives up her career for his, and will go on to become a member of parliament herself in his wake, which provides the play with its epilogue. Alex Greig and Kirsty Bruce make a splendid couple, anchoring the play in the McMillan's essentially real relationship.

The workers' wariness – to the tune of a sting from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, which becomes a wittily recurring motif – at the arrival of this couple is one of a number of effectively-staged non-verbal sequences. Very rarely does the play lapse into dramatised lecture but when social and historical information is imparted, the audience ‘need to know' renders it welcome. 

The Nordmeyers are also splendidly played by Michael Trigg and Brianne Kerr, and the evolving Frances Nordmeyer / Ethel McMillan relationship is another important anchor point in the production. While Kerr's rather dotty Frances is the comic highlight of the show, her rather eerie insights into the Māori history of the region add an enriching dimension to the whole.

Michael Joseph Ness brings a charismatic ebullience to his Savage namesake, initially, then when the economic chips are down, he comes through with a hard-edged pragmatism we will all recognise from contemporary politics: it was ever thus. A great deal of this story is very relevant to current political debate.  

I do find myself puzzling over the intransigent insistence of McMillan and Normeyer that the Consolidated Fund must pay for their proposed increase in the Old Age Pension, en route to establishing Universal Superannuation, when the Waitaki medical scheme was set up by the workers themselves and paid for by a levy from their wages. But such battles have always centred around “Where will the money come from?” – especially where collective responsibility for each other's wellbeing is concerned.

The cabinet scenes make for powerful theatre. So too do the confrontations between McMillan and the Medical Association, personified by Jean Sergent with a no-nonsense Scots accent. Their final and major debate, however, could do with some modulation so that we see beyond the performances to the guts of their arguments more effectively. But such issues will doubtless be resolved as the premiere season progresses. (Again I feel the need to note that elsewhere in the world such ‘epic' theatre would be run in over a series of previews.)  

Joe Dekkers-Reihana also goes Scottish as Peter Fraser; Aidan Weekes comes into focus as Walter Nash; Hilary Penwarden does good service as an Engineering narrator when needed; Charlotte Pleasants has some excellent moments representing the ordinary worker; Alice May Connolly offers an unlikely and rather bizarrely interpolated Robin Hood.

As an ensemble the company delivers an exemplary piece of political theatre in the populist mode, utilising comedy with great proficiency while ensuring the key points get made and provoking us to have a good think – in this election year – about the values and visions we want our politicians to stand for. “Without a vision,” as McMillan keeps saying, “the people perish.”

Some of the Bacchanals actors bring the same performance persona to whatever they do while others have the skill to honour the playwrights' vision of specific characters with appropriate physical and vocal characteristics. This latter approach – for my money – better serves the work, our understanding and our interest in it.  

This is the third Bacchanals world premiere of a Dean Parker play, the previous ones being Slouching Toward Bethlehem (about Robert Muldoon) in 2011, and his adaptation of Nicky Hager's Other People's Wars in 2012. We can only be grateful such a strong and fruitful relationship exists.

“We hope this won't be its only season & we'll be able to take it to some church halls & community centres as the year continues (got $40k you don't need? give it to us!!),” writes David Lawrence in his programme note. Let's hope that happens. A season at the too-often dark Hannah Playhouse would be good to see too.
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See also reviews by:
 Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);
 Alison Embleton