Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

30/08/2014 - 27/09/2014

Production Details


The story is right there in the title

“I’m Walt Disney. This is a screenplay I wrote. It’s about me.”

Lucas Hnath’s hit play opens with that declaration as it is tonight that Walt is going to read you a screenplay he wrote. It’s about his last days on earth. It’s about a city he’s going to build that’s going to change the world. And it’s about his brother. It’s about everyone who loves him so much, and it’s about how sad they’re going to be when he’s gone.  Right? I mean, how can they live without him?  How can anyone live without him?

An adrenaline-charged odyssey, a supersonic portrait of a man who tried to abolish reality. 

Playwright Lucas Hnath gives us his take on Walt Disney as a man who wants to master the world, who wants to be loved by his family, who wants to live forever and who, while apparently devoting his public life to bringing pleasure to millions, had a horror of being considered one of them.  

Danny Mulheron and Miranda Manasiadis have much pleasure in bringing the New York 2013 season’s hottest show to Circa audiences. 

Starring David McPhail as Walt Disney, in his first appearance at Circa Theatre, together with a top-notch cast of Wellington actors: Jessica Robinson, Richard Falkner and Nick Blake. 

“Nothing that ever came out of the Magic Kingdom was ever this animated” – TIME OUT NEW YORK 

“… blood-pumping and often hilarious evening of theater …” – THEATREMANIA 

“A devastating portrait of a man for whom make-believe was more real than reality itself”NEW YORK POST 

30th August – 27th September 2014
Tues-Wed 6.30; Thurs, Fri, Sat 8pm; Sun 4pm
$25 SPECIALS – Friday 29th August, Sunday 31st August
Tickets: $25 – $46
After show Q & A Tues 2nd September 
Bookings: (04) 801 7992 www.circa.co.nz  
Pre-show dinner available at Encore – phone 801 7996

Walt Disney:  David McPhail
Daughter:  Jessica Robinson
Roy:  Nick Blake
Ron:  Richard Falkner

Set and Costume Design:  Miranda Manasiadis
Lighting Design and Operator:  Glenn Ashworth

Stage Manager:  Eric Gardiner 
Set Construction:  Finn Robson Marsden, Jim Marsden 
Lighting Crew:  Paul Tozer, Matt Eller, Sam Lovell 
Publicity:  Colleen McColl 
Poster Design:  Marilena Agathou 
Graphics:  Rose Miller
House Manager:  Suzanne Blackburn
Box Office:  Linda Wilson 
Photography:  Stephen A’Court

1hr 20mins (no interval)

Not the happiest place on Earth

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 02nd Sep 2014

Having entertained and delighted millions of people of all ages for more than four decades with his films, Walt Disney’s private life was anything but the magic world of his movies. 

While A Public Reading of An Unproduced Screenplay About The Death of Walt Disney is a fictionalised account of the man, and the screenplay that is at the heart of the play may never have been written, it nevertheless shows an interesting side of one of the greatest lights of entertainment.

On a simple but effectively designed set by Miranda Mansiadis resembling a cinema from a past era, Walt Disney (David McPhail) and his brother Roy (Nick Blake), his son-in-law Ron (Richard Falkner) and his Daughter (Jessica Robinson) sit at a large table and read through a screen play that Disney has written about his life.

Disney does most of the reading, including the directions of cut to and freeze frame, etc.  Lucas Hnath’s writing is terse and sparse and not always easy to pick up on, and the style of presentation is somewhat unusual in that there is literally no movement, just the reading of the unproduced screenplay – yet it does work and does have a way of holding the audience’s attention.

This does make great demands on the actors, however, and it is to the credit of each that they create creditable and believable characters from the sparse dialogue. 

Roy the brother was far more than just a sycophant to Disney’s whims and Blake portrays this well.  The son-in-law marries into the dysfunctional family and has to work hard to gain a place in the Disney empire, and this is well shown by Falkner.

Robinson’s Daughter shows the pain of a daughter despising everything a man like Disney stood for, but loving him as a father. 

And in the role of Disney himself, McPhail is outstanding. Apart from one brief moment, he spends the entire play seated at the table, yet he is never still, constantly talking either to the audience or to his family as he goes through the script, visualising and animating its many scenes with a grandeur that obviously made him the man he was.

That was until things didn’t quite go as per the script in the end when he finally succumbs to the lung cancer that killed him, bringing to an end an unusual yet intriguing play that is also entertaining. 


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All a bit of a slog

Review by John Smythe 31st Aug 2014

There is an inherent danger in seeing a play in one part of the world then mounting a new production in another, expecting it to work as well in the new cultural context. To be in New York feeling disinclined to follow the mobs to the big ticket shows and opt instead for an Off-Broadway play which someone has mentioned in passing, and to feel enamoured of its apparent refusal to conform to basic dramaturgical principles, is one thing. To then produce it in Wellington’s major mainstream theatre is … risky.

Nothing wrong with risk, of course. It has been said that the biggest risk in the battle for bums on seats is to take no risk at all. But what or when is a risk worth taking? Ninety two years ago our own Katherine Mansfield wrote a ‘note to self’ in her journal: “Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinion of others, for those voices.” Fair enough.

Director Danny Mulheron tells anyone who wants to know that as he sat in NYC’s Soho Rep watching A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about The Death of Walt Disney he felt inspired to bring it to Wellington because of what he perceived as parallels to our very own resident movie mogul who specialises in fantastical tales. But you have to have an awful lot of inside knowledge to make the connections and even then, for every similar aspect there is a diametric opposite.

However that is surely beside the point because the Walt Disney brand is universal; it has touched all our lives in various ways at different stages, whether we like it or not. So anything relating to him should offer plenty of points of connection. And this, I discover, is my problem.

KM’s journal entry continues, “Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.” Also fair enough. So whose truth is being enacted in Lucas Hnath’s A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about The Death of Walt Disney – and does it inspire each of us to confront our own truth?

The premise is that a consumptive Walt Disney has summoned, to publicly read the titular screenplay, his brother Roy, his Daughter (unnamed, for fear of legal action apparently) and son-in-law Ron (which rather gives the show away as a quick Google reveals it was Diane Disney who married Ron Miller).

Designer Miranda Manasiadis sets a long ‘Last Supper’ table within a pink Art Deco frame with a movie screen at the rear, suggesting we are in Walt’s private screening studio. Her costume designs are simply apropos and Glen Ashworth lights it well, subtly fading in and out to draw our attention to those whose reactions need to be noticed.

In their programme note, Mulheron and Manasiadis (also the co-director) describe Hnath’s play as “a Shakespearean fable based on Walt Disney, the King Lear of the Magic Kingdom.” I saw David McPhail – who plays Walt Disney here – in the title role of a dystopian King Lear directed by Peter Evans at the Court in June 2004 and was mightily impressed. My National Business Review critique included this:
“David McPhail’s hobo King crystallises his descent into a madness born not so much of arrogance as of finding himself suddenly redundant in a world he once ruled; suddenly unloved by the very people to whom he gave away his kingdom’s assets. More than once I got a flash of David Lange. McPhail makes Lear’s fear of going mad so clear, I felt tempted to cheer his moments of lucidity. Yet trapped as he was in a world of such unrelenting cruelty, his delightful dementia felt like a blessed release for him. In direct opposition to the old man’s fate, this is a winning performance.”

Unfortunately this largely fictionalised Walt comes nowhere near Lear as a tragic hero. Yes he is a deeply flawed megalomaniac, desperate to achieve immortality by creating the World in his own image; a fake world of crafted perfection where happiness comes from adoring its Maker. But while we may get some sense that blissful ignorance of the truth about himself may have made him lonely beneath all the prescribe ‘love’, there is no dramatic journey to self-awareness; no catharsis.

The supporting actors – who play bit parts in the life of the master – troop on, take a bow, sit at the table and wait. Walt makes his entrance, distributes bits of paper (not nearly thick enough to suggest a screenplay) then he too sits. Strangely, given the title, the entrances are the only time we, as the ‘public’, are acknowledged. Surely a bit of direct address would have allowed us to glimpse the old Walt Disney charm and charisma that is sadly lacking from the play.  

The pseudo reading begins as a duologue between Walt and his producer brother Roy (Nick Blake): a pixilated welter of Walt-driven sentence fragments that come across like an attempt to emulate David Mamet.   

In a conversation with David Schwartz, Chief Curator of The Museum of the Moving Image, Luca Hnath cites poet Gertrude Stein and playwright Caryl Churchill as influences and reveals that in the development workshop he played the game of seeing how many words they could remove from the dialogue while retaining the sense. (Apparently a complete version of his script exists, which they call the ‘cheat sheet’, but in the original production he and the director only let the actors see it when they were utterly unable to make sense of a sequence.)  

The result of this pointless perversity is that the audience has to expend a great deal of mental energy trying to work out what the hell they are talking about, let alone why. Our reward for this effort is simply to realise that certain things have happened and are being revisited in the screenplay – e.g. [spoiler alert] Roy’s dog is on its last legs; the lemming suicides (in their award-winning ‘documentary’ Wild Kingdom) are faked; Walt exploits his workers, hates unions and makes Roy take the rap; Walt becomes obsessed with building The Perfect City instead of just another theme park; Walt wants his head frozen in the belief that all one’s existence resides there and one day it could be transplanted to a healthy body … [ends]

All this offers great dramatic potential but the task we are set mitigates against our conjuring with the concepts, empathising with the characters or taking a ride that gives us an intellectual, let alone an emotional, thrill. It’s all a bit of a slog.

Walt also spouts totally nonsensical scene headings and scene numbers, and litters his lines with “CUT TO” in equally inappropriate places; an irritating tic that – despite the explanation Hnath gives in the aforementioned conversation – does nothing to increase our understanding or enjoyment. I find it a pretentious affectation with no artistic merit.

We do get to see how monstrous Walt’s egotism is, how blissfully unaware of it he is, how badly he treats Roy … But these things come into focus a few seconds after they happen, while we are trying to make sense of the next bit, so its something like watching a film where the sound’s out of sync with the action.

For what seems like an age, the Daughter (Jessica Robinson) and Ron (Richard Falkner) sit mute at the other end of the table, watching, listening … It could be argued that their non-verbal presence is the only thing that stops it being a radio play but, despite the actors’ valiant efforts to be engaged in proceedings, it’s hard to see what value their reactions add.

When the Daughter finally gets to have her say – about the naming of their son – it is the play’s first sustained speech and suddenly it comes alive. Robinson gives us clear insight into her character’s suffering as Walt’s daughter and her fortitude in trying to move on past all that to become her own person.

The downside of this treasured moment is a heightened awareness that the three male characters do not feel like grounded, fully-fledged characters. We get the idea of who they are and what they have experienced and are experiencing, but the fragmented script makes it almost impossible for them to ‘be’ themselves in coherent focus.

The device of having a microphone by Walt adds another unnecessary difficultly: when one is talking on mic and the other is off-mic in a fast-moving swirl of broken sentences, our ears don’t know which level to tune into.  

There is a rare non-static moment involving blood-stained tissues which juxtaposes the spectre of an incurable lung disease with a rather beautiful visual image. Surely this is symbolic – but of what?

In the end I find it hard to see the relevance of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about The Death of Walt Disney, not least because it can’t even stand on the value of documentary truth. Given we know the cryogenics thing is an urban myth – His daughter Diane wrote in 1972, “There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that my father, Walt Disney, wished to be frozen. I doubt that my father had ever heard of cryonics.” (see Wikipedia) – we have to question the veracity of other elements, such as the family relationships. So while questioning the decision to produce it at Circa, it also seems fair to question the playwright’s purpose in writing it.  

It’s entirely possible A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about The Death of Walt Disney could work much better in the relative intimacy of Circa Two – and I have a strong feeling Destination Beehive (in Circa Two with its cast of eight) is destined to sell out and leave many punters disappointed.  If it was logistically possible for the shows to swap venues, I think they should.


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