Hail to the Thief

BATS Theatre, Wellington

01/03/2008 - 08/03/2008

NZ Fringe Festival 2008

Production Details

Do faith and values have a place in state politics? Can an effective leader have a heart?

Explore the consequences of political and personal appetite in this darkly funny, post-modern take on a biblical classic. The newest play from Philip Braithwaite (The Ghost of Woody Allen, Arcadian Nights) re-tells the story of King David and his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, twisted and turned through the playwright’s own unique sensibility.

What has changed, what stays the same? Through this 4,000 year-old story of love, lust and betrayal, the audience may examine parallels with the current climate of terrorism, divided sectors of fundamentalist thought, the human need to scapegoat, to explore the place of faith and values in politics of the state and the heart.

When David falls in love with Bathsheba and acts on his desires, he is launched into a 21st century existential crisis.  Where can he find atonement for his guilt? How does God figure in all of this? His conclusion is as shocking and twisted as any 21st century strategist might devise.

Hail to the Thief uses language and a mix of genres, to explore the fine line between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and the consequences that can result from love. The show is directed by David Lawrence (King Lear, I.D) who loves grappling with a fresh, new script. Lawrence splits his time between directing classics and Shakespeare and new New Zealand playwrights, such as Paul Rothwell. 

Philip Braithwaite is an award-winning playwright and theatre practitioner. Amongst his credits are the BBC World Service/British Council International Radio Playwriting Award 2001, the Sony Award for Radio Drama and the Massey University Cultural Award. His work has been performed in New Zealand, Australia and Europe, and he has collaborated with devising groups from the Royal Court Theatre in London, the BBC and the Wellington-based SEEyD Theatre Company.

David, King of Israel:  Alex Grieg
Bathsheba:  Amy Tarleton
Zadok the advisor:  Jonny Potts  
Anton:  Benjamin Fransham
Nathan the Seer:  Tony Hopkins
Uriah the Hittite:  Benjamin Fransham
Guards:  William Moffatt, Michael Trigg
The Ark of the Covenant:  Blinky Lightbulb.

1 hr 5 mins, no interval

Dramatic tension missing #1

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 07th Mar 2008

Hail to the Thief goes to the Book of Samuel for the tale of David and Bathsheba for its plot.

Despite containing strong acting, simple but effective settings, good sound support, the play seems wordy and lacking that essential ingredient of vital theatre: dramatic tension.

Within minutes of the start, King David (Alex Greig) is confronted by the oddly named Anton (Benjamin Fransham), who believes in nothing and is caught stealing a stone from the site of the Ark of the Covenant, by Bathsheba (Amy Tarleton) – who is anti-war and demands to be treated with politeness – and by his mentor Nathan (Tony Hopkins) who prophesies God’s punishment if David continues to lust after Bathsheba.

David has a PR man called Zadok (Jonny Potts), who, dressed in a modern business suit and constantly glancing at his BlackBerry while everyone else is in suitable Christmas pageant costumes, advises him not to keep showing mercy or else his ratings will fall.

To get rid of Bathsheba’s husband (Fransham doubling) he is sent off to war and is killed; Bathsheba has a child and marries David; David feels guilty and according to Samuel II ‘the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.’

Has much changed in 4000 years? asks the play’s poster. After the horrors of the 20th century it’s an odd question to ask. 


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Uneven despite some great performances

Review by Lynn Freeman 06th Mar 2008

Philip Braithwaite has a genuinely original mind, but it can be a touch hit and miss. Hail to the Thief is a bitser of a play – a bit of drama, a bit of satire, a bit of history mixed in with contemporary references. 

It’s asking if things have changed much when it comes to human behavior, power and politics over the centuries, using the contradictory David King of Israel as the protagonist.  

The production, mainly a script issue, is both too long and too uneven, despite some great performances, notably by Jonny Potts as Zadok, the suited advisor who could have walked straight off the set of The Hollow Men, and Amy Tarleton as David’s wife Bathsheba.  


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Where is the punch line?

Review by John Smythe 03rd Mar 2008

Directed by David Lawrence, Hail to the Thief opened on St David’s Day but revisits a dubious phase in the eventful life of a much more ancient David.

As detailed in The Bible, 2 Samuel, chapters 11 & 12, David King of Israel has an adulterous affair with Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite who is off fighting a war. God is not pleased …  

Playwright Philip Braithwaite has used the biblical plot – re-jigging the structure somewhat, adding bits and making significant changes – to ask (according to the media release): How much has changed in 4,000 years? Do faith and values have a place in state politics? Can an effective leader have a heart?  

Such questions do underpin the plot that plays out in this tightly focused, well-paced production, set and dressed simply to evoke biblical times. As with the classics he directs, Lawrence ensures the story is clear, and that the moments of insight and truth are compelling, garnering good laughs from an on-to-it audience.

But I am not at all clear on what to make of the resolution. [I could add a SPOILER WARNING here but I don’t think knowing the bones of the plot will change your appreciation – or otherwise – of how it plays out.]

Alex Grieg’s David is full of unquestioning confidence in his divinely ordained authority. Yet – contrary to the innate brutality of the guards (William Moffatt and Michael Trigg) – he is merciful towards the understandably fearful Anton (Benjamin Fransham), alleged to have stolen a pebble from the site of the Ark of the Covenant which he has also had the temerity to gaze upon.

David is likewise unable to turn from the sight of a woman washing herself: Bathsheba – nicely evoked in silhouette. Even a warning of God’s punishment from Nathan the seer (Tony Hopkins) cannot break the spell. And Zadok the spin-doctor Advisor (a fresh-faced, ultra-plausible Johnny Potts), clad in modern-day suit and tie, is reassuring in dismissing the old man’s warnings as "fortune-telling and fear-mongering".

But when Bathsheba – impeccably realised by Amy Tarleton – is brought to the presence of her Lord, the King, she turns out to have a mind of her own; a bit disconcerting for a man who assumes he has the right, if not the responsibility, to ‘service’ a man’s wife while he’s off at the war.

The substantive ‘dramedy’ comes from the progress of David and Bathsheba’s relationship. Her requirement that he respect her seems to slowly humanise him … But, despite becoming pregnant to him – as prophesied by Nathan – she will not call him David, instead of "My Lord", until his transformation is complete.

The awkward question of Uriah (Fransham again, full of testosterone this time) sees him recalled, wined and dined by David and Zadok, and free to go home that night and lie with his wife. But this attempt to perpetrate a lie concerning paternity of the child goes awry because Uriah has a soldier’s integrity. So the war is manipulated to see to his death.

Marriage and the baby prove to be no protection against David’s guilt-induced paranoia. A visit to the Ark of the Covenant – accompanied by gloopy sfx (a trademark Lawrence moment that undermines the drama we may have got sucked into (presumably to alert us to the oogie-boogie nature of faith in this thing?) – leads to the old 40 day and 40 nights remedy …

And so to the resolution. The dire prophecy (that the child will die and David will lose all his power) does not come to pass. He reasserts his authority by sending a clearly innocent Anton to his death. And Bathsheba calls him David at last.

While I am clear those in power do still get away with murder, and that David is the thief of the title, there is no focused moment of truth in the ending of Hail to the Thief that helps me go ‘I get it."

Was the punch line fluffed or, after all that build up, is it just not there?  I mean, if a play that seeks to prove society has no moral centre (and never has) doesn’t have one itself, what’s the point? And if the audience sits there engaging with the moral questions, because they do have moral integrity, what does that say for the premise?

What have I missed here?


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