A Bright Room Called Day

BATS Theatre, Wellington

26/04/2007 - 05/05/2007

Production Details

By Tony Kushner
Directed by Rachel Lenart


“During times of reactionary backlash, the only people sleeping soundly are the guys who’re giving the rest of us bad dreams. “

If you happened to have a loaded gun and a clear close range view of the back of Hitler´s head, would you shoot?

Berlin 1932 – In the home of celebrated actress Agnes Eggling a delightful ensemble of comrades gather to discuss, dispute and deride the events surrounding the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. But does the rhetoric of the enlightened have any effect? Should they stay and fight or leave and be free. What kind of political power do ordinary people possess?

Selfish Paulinka and selfless Annabella, Husz a one eyed Hungarian Cinematographer, Baz a ‘Homosexual Sunday anarchist,’ the enigmatic and diabolical Herr Swetts and an American ‘political refugee’ from the 1980s, this vibrant cast of characters promises to confront, confound and contradict itself in a truly rich and poignant exploration of psyche.

From the team who brought you Bouncing With Billie and Theatre Militia’s Symposium, comes the New Zealand première of internationally acclaimed playwright Tony Kushner’s first stage production. Kushner (Angels in America) is renowned for his uncompromising politics, compassionate humanity and potent poetics, Theatre Militia are proud to present this powerful and controversial play.

A Bright Room Called Day marks a new phase in Theatre Militia’s exploration as a company – normally known for its original and devised work this is the first time they have worked with a found text.

Director Rachel Lenart first read the play while staying in Berlin and felt it was made for Militia as it investigates a much loved Theatre Militia thematic, the responsibility of the artist to its society. Under the direction of Lenart, this show will utilise a combination of theatrical styles, from melodrama to intense naturalism, some classic German expressionism and a healthy dose of Brechtian verfremdung.

For A Bright Room Called Day, our AV team of Hamish Guthrie and Ryan McArthur, two highly experienced media designers, have developed an exciting and ambitious concept for the show to compliment Theatre Militia’s interpretation of the play as an exploration of visual history.  With three of the play’s characters being part of the film industry, the use of three AV screens and a live feed element highlights the importance of the medium – both to the characters themselves and as a reflection on its propagandist role in the past.

With a strong design focus and provocative performances by eight of Wellington’s best loved and finest young talent, A Bright Room Called Day promises to maintain that Theatre Militia magic.

Rosa Malek / Die Alte  . . . . . . . . . . . .Hannah Clarke
Baz . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Richard Dey
Annabella Gotchling . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Kate Fitzroy
Paulinka Erdnuss . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Bex Joyce
Agnes Eggling   . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Liz Kirkman
Vealtninc Husz . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Felix Preval
Emil Traum / Gottfried Swetts . . . . . . Chris Reed
Zillah . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Jean Sergent

Director . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Rachel Lenart
Producer . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Aimee Froud
Set Designers & Construction . . .  . Rob Larsen
                                                       Kate Logan
Stage Managers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .L'hibou Hornung
                                                       Dawa Devereux
Video Designers & Operators . . .  .Hamish Guthrey
                                                       Ryan McArthur
Sound Design, Composer
& Audio Engineer . . . . . . . . . . . . Emile De La Rey
Costume Designer . . . . . . . . . . . . Kathryn Tyree
Costume Assistant . . . . . . . . . . . . Genevieve Mersi
Lighting Designer . . . . . . . . . . . . .Marcus McShane
Lighting Operator . . . . . . . . . . . . .Juliette Howard
Publicist . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Brianne Kerr
Fight Captain . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Richard Dey
Dramaturg . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Bronwyn Tweddle
German Consultant . . . . . . . . . . . .Tanja Schubert-McArthur
Graphic Designer . . . . . . . . . . . . . Dylan Mercer

Theatre ,

2 hrs 30 mins, incl. interval

Would you have killed Hitler?

Review by Lynn Freeman 03rd May 2007

Back in the 90s a movie came out which posed this question – if you could travel back in time to meet a young Adolf Hitler when he was still an art student, would you kill him?  No, replied the man asked, I’d talk to him, when his mind is open to new ideas, and encourage him to look at life differently hoping that would see him take a different path as a grown man.

One of the characters in this play by Angels of America playwright, Tony Kushner, is put in a not dissimilar position.  The play is set mainly in the 1930s during the Nazi’s speedily and relentlessly to power, but it’s firmly focussed on a group of working class Germans given to ‘elegant despair’ and intellectual rhetoric while the country they love, and their friends, embrace Fascism.  What other choice did they have when informers were everywhere and dissent was harshly dealt with?

That issue of choice is probed more deeply as this long and dense play continues.  The Devil (a disconcertingly scary Chris Reed) drops by for a genuinely chilling visit to the apartment of actress Agnes Eggling, along with an assortment of friends struggling to make sense of what’s happening, but most of them feel powerless to strike back.  They are, declares the one-eyed Hungarian Vealtninc, "unfit to take up the burden of the times".

Also in the mix is homosexual Sunday anarchist Baz (Richard Dey), selfish starlet Paulinka (Bex Joyce), activists Rosa and Emil, artist and stirrer Annabella (Kate Fitzroy) and the never fully convincing apartment ghost of Die Alte (no fault of the actor, the very good Hannah Clarke).   Less convincing still though was the part of Zillah, a New York activist living in Berlin and somehow channelling the ghosts of all the aforementioned characters.  It’s not Jean Sergent’s performance that’s the problem, but the part itself, as Kushner uses it to compare the evil of Hitler to the menace of Ronald Reagan.  There’s more than enough meat and relevance in the story for the audience to join its own dots.

Rachel Lenart is one of the more adventurous directors in the city and this production, their first that’s not devised but based on someone else’s script (though with terrific audiovisual additions to the text), is just as energetic and exciting as their previous ones


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A stimulating mix

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 01st May 2007

With A Bright Room Called Day, Theatre Militia, in their best production so far by a long way, have thrown a post-Brechtian Molotov cocktail of a play into the current theatrical scene and it makes plays about old soldiers and an ageing seductress seem trivial.

Though it was written in "deepest-midnight Reagan America" Bright Room is set in Berlin as the Weimar Republic is crumbling and Hitler’s star is in the ascendancy.  Some friends, idealistic film actors and communists, attempt playing roles outside the studios in their fight against fascism for which they are temperamentally and physically incapable of assuming. Inevitably, all are defeated.

Like Kushner’s greatest success, Angels in America, the play is also a stimulating and challenging mix of satire, comedy, politics, symbolism, free verse, fantasy and serious philosophical debate. Even a bald, slobbering Devil (Chris Reed), offering Faustian-like pacts, makes a sensational appearance as an importer of Spanish novelties who claims to be invisible in society because evil is now so common. In the script he’s described as a handsome, blond Aryan.

The play is periodically interrupted by historical video footage and by Zillah (Jean Sergent), a contemporary American woman with anarcho-punk tendencies who makes the connections between 1930s Germany and the present.

Kushner has offered directors the chance to contact him so new parallels and warnings can be added. However, this doesn’t appear to have happened in this production because the most recent of Zillah’s references are to Reagan, Maggie Thatcher, and Aids.

Rachel Lenart’s cast rise to the challenge with excellent performances all round and with stand-out performances from Hannah Clarke in a highly physical presentation of a ghostly old woman and Liz Kirkman as Agnes, the one who remains true to her beliefs as evil spreads across Germany.


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Brilliant theatricality and strong political message

Review by Melody Nixon 01st May 2007

Rich with wide and complex themes, contemporarily relevant and historically informative, Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day is yet another excellent choice of production by Wellington’s Theatre Militia.

In A Bright Room Called Day Tony Kushner (Angels in America) has created a piece of theatre that examines, among many other things, how issues of the personal and political, the reoccurrence of ‘evil’ in the world, and the subjective nature of the ‘good-bad’ dichotomy can be explored through paralleling the present with the past, the USA/West with Nazi Germany, the covert murder of masses with the overt.

This is achieved through the telling of a tragi-comic tale of five friends in an apartment in Berlin, during the early 1930s and Hitler’s rise to power. The mix of communist, Trotskyite, anarchist and self-serving friends has formed out of intellectual and artistic compatibility, and in the first half the dialogue is rich with wit, poeticism, and insight. In the second half the tone grows morose, reflective and poignant as the friends begin to battle with themselves, and with one another. The fascist wheels of the Third Reich have begun, ever more terrifyingly, to turn around them, and the friends must each face the dumbfounding question: save yourself, or risk your life for a greater moral good?

To the side of this action sits Zillah (Jean Sergent), an American living under the reign of Reagan and her country’s own situation of mass death (Kushner hints at the role of the American state in the death of hundreds of thousands from AIDS in the eighties.) Theatre Militia has adapted the dialogue of Kushner’s script and the changes are most evident in the contemporary language and themes of Zillah’s monologues, as she implores us to “listen to your nightmares”.

The production also expands on the original script through set design and the use of audio-visuals. The previously imagined ‘view’ out of Agnes’s (Liz Kirkman) apartment window has been filled with a large digital screen. Three televisions are stacked high upstage and show documentary footage of the Third Reich, and abstract images and colours. These televisions are linked also to a video camera, into which paranoiac Zillah talks in her ‘Interruptions’.

These visuals generally work to convey the script, enhancing existing themes of the importance of visual imagery in Western culture, and our desire to see things simultaneously; an idea Kushner has borrowed from cinema, and as is shown in the split scenes on stage between Zillah and the others. The visual effects also bring in new threads of meaning; the documentary evidence calls into question the revising of history, Zillah’s idea that “the Nazi’s control not only the future but the past as well”, and whether such control is possible (or more possible) with the advent of visual media.

However in certain places this aspect is a little overdone. While Husz (Felix Preval) gives a powerful description of a movie he envisions, the television screens in the background blare abstractly linked images, and text; the screen ‘out the window’ of the apartment flashes further images; and the set lighting changes colour and angle. While making such links between the real and the hallucinatory may be irresistible, the bombardment of images takes away from the richness of what Husz is describing. His words and the song of his ‘comrades’ should suffice to bring all the imagery needed to this scene. Also, the screen on which dates and information are projected is placed a little too unnaturally. It is too easy to miss much of the slides displayed on it as it lies beyond our normal field of vision.

Set design evokes the red velvet and luster of the 1930s Berlin jazz cabaret scene. The addition of a hat and jacket hanging on a peg works nicely with the metaphorical story of the wind the friends relate in the first scene. Music by Emile De La Rey adds much depth and emotion to the production, however the hollow echo applied to the Devil/Gottfried Swetts’ voice (Chris Reed) at times it drowns out the actual words of the script, detracting from this beautiful treatise on the way we define ‘evil’. Costuming by Kathryn Tyree successfully evokes alternately the self-serving and self-sacrificing nature of the characters; e.g. the choice of decadent dresses for starlet Paulinka (Bex Joyce), and the suspenders and workingman’s shirts of Husz; but the choice of a bright red shirt on endangered, fleeing communist Rosa Malek (Hannah Clarke) in one of the final scenes seems unlikely.

Beyond set, the production is endowed with a talented, perceptive cast. Jean Sergent as Zillah is powerfully confident; Theatre Militia’s revision of script has perhaps lent her to a greater personal understanding of her character’s words. Although Kate Fitzroy as rhetoric heavy Gotchling stutters at first on opening night, she too provides a movingly consistent performance. Felix Preval is also a thoroughly believable Husz, his amusing Hungarian accent working well to fix his outsider status amongst his German friends. As the central figure of Agnes, Liz Kirkman acts modestly and steadily to preserve the backbone of the story. Yet Hannah Clarke is the most captivating actor of the show, her complete lack of self-consciousness allowing viewers to relax into her performance.

By the end of the play each of the five friends comes to a separate resolution. Each has addressed the issue Zillah has raised: that “People shouldn’t be leaving” Nazi Germany, or the USA, or their inner voice of resistance. In this way Kushner and Theatre Militia elegantly point us to the fact that the personal is political. As Agnes’s ultimate guilt, or Gotchling’s sacrifice show, individual decisions we make have an effect far beyond our reckoning and that by viewing ‘evil’ and ‘politics’ as separate from ourselves we renege responsibility. As Zillah, ever the prophetic outcast, states: “don’t put too much weight on a good night’s sleep – in bad times, it is only those who are giving us nightmares who sleep well.”

In this way, by adeptly exploring the wealth of ideas in Kushner’s script, and adding new themes of media and control, in A Bright Room Called Day Theatre Militia has brought us a play that is not only worth seeing for its brilliant theatricality, but for the strength too of its political and historical messages.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


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Provocative and memorable

Review by John Smythe 27th Apr 2007

Politics, sexuality and the role of the artist in society have always been key concerns for US playwright Tony Kushner. Likewise Theatre Militia, who have mounted an impressive slate of devised works in the past three years: Word Virus, 2004; Sstimuluss, 2005; Bouncing With Billie, 2005; Theatre Militia’s Symposium, 2006.  

Half a decade before he became famous for his two-part epic Angels in America (1991), Kushner wrote A Bright Room Called Day (1987; his first published play) in which the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Hitler-led Nazi Party – evoked through the experiences of a lively group of artists and activists – is juxtaposed with the increasingly paranoid "interruptions" of a refugee from the rise of 1980s Reagan-led Republicanism.

The busy-brained Zillah (Jean Sergent) has left Long Island to lie low in Berlin. Presumably she is now inhabiting the apartment once owned by actress Agnes Eggling (Liz Kirkman), and is channelling not only the ghosts of Agnes and her friends but an even older seeker of succour, Die Alte (the old one; not that a lithe and limber Hannah Clarke plays her that way), who rises from the dead and enters the high-level apartment window to test Agnes on many levels.

Another stunning fantasy sequence involves a visitation from The Devil, posing as Gottfried Swetts, an importer of Spanish novelties (a white-suited Chris Reed, oozing sweat from every pore; voice enhanced by a body-miked echo-effect). When asked by film starlet, opium-smoker and psychoanalysis-addict Paulinka Erdnuss (Bex Joyce) if he might be a neurotic manifestation, he counters, "I gave birth to myself." Described in Kushner’s character notes as "distinguished, handsome, blond, Aryan", I think this manifestation of ‘evil’ and the ugliness that spews from such ‘perfection’ could be less signalled and come as more of a shock.

With ‘evil’ now firmly back in the political vocabulary it both dates the play and delivers an ironic jolt when someone scoffs that the term only has currency in the Southern Baptist bible belt. But the question the play most clearly raises is always relevant: when it comes to allowing political fascism to flourish, is action or inaction more effective?

By filtering the 1932-33 story through Zillah (a name that alludes to the absence of God?), Kushner liberates a fusion of styles. Middle class inaction in the face of radical change references Chekov, non-naturalistic disruptions to engage our brains over our hearts echo Brecht (whom Kushner has adapted more than once), but the verbal wrestling with social issues takes me back to George Bernard Shaw (all but forgotten in today’s production schedules).

Jean Sergent’s Zillah has a sincere and deeply committed (maybe she should be) intensity that constantly challenges us to evaluate her increasingly bizarre observations, interpretations and conspiracy theories.

As Agnes, a bit-part actress and would-be scriptwriter flirting with communism but not yet a signed-up Party member (which arguably saves her, come the crunch), Liz Kirkman authentically embodies a woman torn between self and community, comfort and conscience, action and reaction. Her more vivacious and ambitious counterpart, Paulinka, less able to escape her conscience than she would like to be, is vividly rendered by Bex Joyce.

The one-eyed cinematographer, Hungarian exile and socialist idealist Vealtninc Husz, is emphatically delineated by Felix Preval: the only cast member to adopt a foreign accent. As the neatly suited Baz (full name, Gregor Bazwald), who works for the Berlin Institute for Human Sexuality and is (like Kushner) homosexual, Richard Dey captures a slightly bemused objectivity that’s all too easy to identify with. The turn-around, when he contemplates suicide, recovers his will to live in Munich (thanks to an anonymous encounter in a park) then fails to embrace a golden opportunity to assassinate Hitler provokes Husz to provide a dramatic high point.

Kate Fitzroy brings a strong presence to the committed communist and poster artist Annabella Gotchling, confronting us ("what would I do?") along with Agnes with a classic moral dilemma as she seeks safe-house shelter in the apartment for Party members on the run. And doubling as minor Party functionaries Rosa Male and Emile Traum, Hannah Clarke and Chris Read find an edge of comic relief in their earnest line-toeing conformity and petty bickering.

I’m not sure which version of the A Bright Room Called Day Theatre Militia have used as their starting point – apparently Kushner re-wrote it to resonate during the George Bush Snr administration then accepted some minor revisions submitted for a more recent USA production that referenced the current Bush regime – but director Rachel Lenart notes in the programme that they have taken some liberties with the text "to create a fresh vision for the show", not least by infusing it with screen media images.

Beyond the apartment set, designed by Rob Larsen and Kate Logan (necessarily constrained by the need to accommodate a different production at 6.30), video designers Hamish Guthrie and Ryan McArthur work back-projected wonders with a high-level view of Berlin through the windows, which morphs through day and night and the production’s mood-swings. New Year fireworks are ingeniously invoked. A tower of video screens above runs newsreel footage – which sometimes invades the back-cloth too – and the confidential video-cam close-ups of Zillah.

Emile De La Ray’s sound composition and Marcus McShane’s lighting design are splendid, with the conscious theatricality excusing the faint and unavoidable shadows on the back-drop. Kathryn Tyree’s excellent costume designs help to ground the focal story in time and place, thus allowing us to extrapolate its wider implications.

Just a couple of quibbles. The projection of time and event-locating text on a high screen – off to one side and often requiring speed-reading once you realise there is more to absorb – is not well-positioned to integrate with the on-stage action. The pristine state of Die Alte’s gorgeous cream night attire is not, as Kushner suggests in his character notes, "soiled and food-stained" so the required sense of destitute decadence is lost.

But nothing can detract from the fact that Theatre Militia delivers, once more, a provocative and memorable production. I leave enriched with strong images, deep-felt feelings and stimulated thoughts. Director Rachel Lenart has facilitated a strong ensemble performance with a committed sense of purpose that is well supported by powerful production values.

Note: Unusually for BATS, this is a full-length play with an interval. Assuming it starts at 8.30pm (it was 10 minutes late on opening night) it should end by 11pm.  

Footnote:  Thinking further about the role and responsibilities of artists as political activists, it is easy for people of my (‘baby boomer / socio-sexual revolution’) generation to feel smug and / or disillusioned about today’s young ‘activists’.

Looking back at my review of Sstimuluss (National Business Review, 4 February 2005), it’s easy to see why Theatre Militia was attracted to A Bright Room Called Day (named, incidentally, from a poem quoted in the play that talks about getting far away from the dark night of fascism to "a bright room called day"). I wrote, in part:

"Angsty songs about relationships and betrayal … suddenly give way to a more global view of ‘lies, fear, aggression, invasion and occupation.’ Images of George W asserting power are intercut with Hitler’s Nazi invasions, followed by a decadent masked ball, serried ranks of skeletons and hooded Death with his scythe.

"But soon the songs return to introspection about more immediate relationship issues. Perhaps the difference between the Hair generation and this one is that back then the baby-boomers felt they had the power to change the world while now the information and communication explosion has made individuals feel too insignificant."

Now I discover that in an interview with Ben Greeman for Mother Jones online magazine (November / December 2003), Tony Kushner reveals some interesting views about the new generation of politically active youth. (They are talking about an essay Kushner had recently written, called Save Your Democratic Soul!: Rants, Screeds, and Other Public Utterances.)

"MJ: Save Your Democratic Citizen Soul! is targeted largely at young people. Are young Americans today insufficiently prepared for political activism?

"TK: I think the country is under-educating its young. I think it’s a deliberate, designed, malevolent project by the right to destroy public education. People are more easily manipulated when they don’t have information. If you ensure that kids grow up without basic reading skills, math skills, and so forth, then you ensure that they can’t act effectively.

"On the other hand, there will always be a strong sense of injustice among the young. When I wrote Homebody/Kabul, I thought it was time to think more internationally in part because of the IMF and WTO protests, because of all these kids protesting free-market capitalism.

"There are a lot of politically active young people, but I feel that we’ve misled them. I have great admiration for the essayists and writers on the left, but the left decided at some point that government couldn’t get it what it wanted. As a result, it’s a movement of endless complaint and of a one-sided reading of American history, which misses the important point: Constitutional democracy has created astonishing and apparently irreversible social progress. All we’re interested in is talking about when government doesn’t work."

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Hans Beefcake April 30th, 2007

I concur with most that John has written. This play touched me vividly and I was left dreaming that very night, with many of the plays images continuing to resonate in my consciousness. If you have the money and time to spare you should not miss this production. It's cast and crews committed sense of purpose shine through emphatically. Well done!

Rachel Lenart April 30th, 2007

Hi John, Thanks for the comprehensive review and complimentary reflections. Thoroughly researched as ever. As much as we'd love this show to run for two months, Our final night is actually May 5 (not july) thats this saturday... Book now xxx

Grant Platt April 30th, 2007

Reflections on German history in creative works, plays and prose, aren't new. Gunther Grass's The Tin Drum (Die Blummel Trommel?) analysed the growth and pains of Germany and the effects on surrounding countries. Allusions, like the moth being drawn to the flame, represented Germany's fascination with conquest. The rotting horses head in the inland sea perhaps gave regard to things gone wrong.

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