Mo and Jess Kill Susie

BATS Theatre, Wellington

07/01/2010 - 23/01/2010

Production Details


Two armed Maori women wait with their bound, gagged and unconscious captive, in an empty building. The hostage is the trump card in a tense face-off between Maori protesters and police. The women are waiting for a phone call with instructions on how to deal with their victim.

Gary Henderson’s prickly thriller Mo and Jess Kill Susie was acclaimed as Best New Short Play at the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards. Although it has been staged in Canada and soon in England it has been strangely neglected here since the premiere at BATS in 1996. Original reviews had headlines like “Frightening View of the Future” and “Henderson shows hard-hitting realism.” It could be argued that the content is now even more pertinent. Certainly the circumstances of a stand off between police and Maori protesters on Wellington’s waterfront, has immediate resonance.

Three young actresses, recent graduates of Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School, are relishing the dramatic impact of these three powerful yet powerless characters written by one of the country’s most prominent playwrights. While Cian Elyse White, Juanita Hepi and Antonia Bale are relative newcomers to the professional stage, the author is well known for his play Skin Tight, fondly remembered from numerous productions nationally and now boasting several overseas presentations.  Henderson also wrote the highly successful plays Home Land, Sunset Café, and An Unseasonable Fall of Snow.

This is the third of Gary’s plays that Murray Lynch has directed; “Gary has the right knack of building suspense and tension with readily identifiable characters who speak in completely believable ways. I’m having a great time with the notion that the audience will be surprised and perhaps shocked by the intensity of this hugely entertaining ride.”

The night tightens around them, claustrophobia closes in, time runs out, the call doesn’t come…

Other roles in this hostage drama are taken by Thomas Press (Chapman Tripp nominee for sound design 2009) and Production Manager Anna Drakeford (Capital E ).

The first production of Mo and Jess Kill Susie opened at BATS Theatre, 12 September 1996  

Mo and Jess Kill Susie
BATS Theatre
7 January to 23 January
at 8.30pm
Ph:  04 802 4175
Fax:  04 802 4010
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Location: 1 Kent Tce, Wgtn   

Mo – Cian Elyse White
Jess – Juanita Hepi
Susie – Antonia Bale

Production Manager / Stage Manager / Technical operator – Anna Drakeford
Lighting design / Sound design – Thomas Press
Graphic design – Nic Marshall

1hr 20 mins, no interval

A killer play

Review by Lynn Freeman 20th Jan 2010

Gary Henderson’s play about two women who kidnap a police officer is as deeply disturbing and provocative today as when I first saw it a decade or so ago. Since it was first performed we have had more kidnappings, more shootings of and by police, more protests, more child abuse, more people imprisoned.

Henderson is unflinching in his script, Murray Lynch’s superb actors are equally unflinching in their portrayals of these three women.

Cian Elyse White and Juanita Hepi bring tremendous energy and depth of emotion to the two kidnappers. They are each filled with hate and resentment, though for entirely different reasons. One because her family has been damaged through her husband’s imprisonment, the other scarred by her father’s indifference.

Their victim is a police officer whose husband is involved in a waterfront protest. As Susie, Antonia Bale has a tough job, mainly because she is blindfolded for most of the play. We watch actors’ eyes for expression, she has to convince us without them and Bale does it well.

Lynch keeps the action in top gear, using the tiny claustrophobic space to full effect. The violent scenes make you wince, and when the women are telling their stories you find yourself engrossed and moved. It’s a great production of a very fine play.
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Compelling hostage drama with sharp political edge

Review by Ian Anderson 13th Jan 2010

Mo & Jess Kill Susie is a play about differences that can’t be resolved. The slogan announces it’s about “Three women, two guns, one room, no way out,” and the title tells us what will happen onstage. The question then becomes; who are Mo, Jess and Susie?

Gary Henderson wrote Mo & Jess Kill Susie in 1996, a hostage drama in which two Maori nationalists kidnap a white police officer. As the play begins, Mo & Jess await orders from their comrades. Unfortunately, the play sets up a false dichotomy, reflecting paranoia rather than objective conditions. The original play was set in the year 2000. In the intervening years we’ve seen a sharp ramp-up in police repression, while Maori nationalist tactics hardly warrant the title of “terrorism.” This production is set in 2014, and its vision of the future has not changed since 1996.

Fortunately, Henderson’s characters are well drawn and the production is uniformly excellent. A special shout-out goes to Thomas Press for his moody lighting & sound design, at once naturalistic and expressive. The performances are also top-notch. Cian Elyse White consistently holds attention as Mo, a Maori nationalist student. While White is a commanding presence, churning out fiery rhetoric in jumpers and jeans, Juanita Hepi and Antonia Bale give excellent slow burn performances. In particular, Antonia Bale’s Susie spends much of the play asleep in a blindfold – when the police officer beneath the blindfold emerges, things really start to heat up.

But Jess, perfectly played by Juanita Hepi, is the lynchpin of the piece. Coming from more of a working-class background than Mo, Jess says she is “Not here because of some theory.” Her husband lost his job, got into a fight and came back from jail a changed man – this system of exploitation and oppression has torn her family apart, and she feels a certain amount of guilt for that. Despite these grievances, Jess is a restrained character; Mo tires herself out as only a student can, while Jess fills out a crossword. Of course, she’s the one to watch.

Ultimately, Mo and Jess have more in common than they’ll ever share with a police officer. Over the course of the play, as the three women recount their experiences, it becomes increasingly obvious that Susie’s experiences do not match up with those of Mo & Jess. Police officers are trained to keep the working class in check. In the wake of dispossession by capitalist settlers, Maori are overwhelmingly working class, and suffer the double-burden of racism. There is no peaceful way to resolve this conflict between dispossessed Maori and police officers. This production gives that dynamic an added edge with references to Tûhoe, who reject the Treaty as a colonialist document.

Despite reservations about the portrayal of Maori nationalist tactics, which step well into the realm of fantasy, this is a compelling hostage drama with a sharp political edge. Catch it if you can, it’s only on a couple of weeks.
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Every operable ounce of tension squeezed with flair

Review by Uther Dean 11th Jan 2010

Mo + Jess Kill Susie’s concept is hardly an original one. There is such a wealth of work written in this mode of the locked door, the gun and the person tied to a chair that it should almost be a genre of its own. The pressure cooker atmosphere endemic in this form is wonderful short cut for an author. It allows them to address wider issues in a much more direct and overt way than many other forms with less risk of falling into the often preachy mires of, say, epic theatre. Raised stakes and fraught tensions allow them to easily put their characters and their beliefs through the ringer.

Gary Henderson who wrote Mo + Jess (way back in 1996, and it is worth pointing out that nothing in the text has really changed barring the dates) knows this. He knows it very well.

Henderson has crafted an extremely taut thriller. Mo (Cian Elyse White) and Jess (Juanita Hepi) protesting an unspecified sale of Maori land have kidnapped police officer Susie (Antonia Bale). From the title you can kinda guess what their plan is. A protest is going on down at the water front and get to watch them as they wait for a phone call with instructions as to when they, y’know, kill Susie. The characters have much to talk about and we learn more than we should about all three of them.

Somewhat surprisingly, especially when you’re discussing a playwright as endemically political as Gary Henderson, the characters get a lot more analysis than the politics of the situation. As interesting and well constructed as the three of them are, the script develops an annoying habit of dropping hints towards the characters’ backgrounds and motivations and making the audience work towards understanding them and then simply having them state it openly. At times, it just feels like this script doesn’t trust itself to be subtle.

All three performances are very good, each building emotional arcs nicely over the course of the work. This is notable simply for averting the obvious ease within the play to hit one high emotional note and stay there. Antonia Bale’s performance of Susie deserves a special mention, for being performed through a blindfold. That her performance still connects to this reviewer without the use of her eyes is quite the achievement.

Murray Lynch’s direction is dynamic and full of flair, squeezing every operable ounce of tension onto the stage. Thomas Press’ lights and sound are ridiculously wonderful. Like ridiculously. A haze filling the stage forces us to focus on the fine details on the performances as the ever present sound-scape shifts and accents all the action.

There is something decidedly cinematic about this production of Mo + Jess Kill Susie. Something wonderfully tense and thrilling. It may not be some big leap forward or some massive masterwork. But it is good and solid. Great way to start the theatric year.


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Taut, claustrophobic production builds to an explosive climax

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 09th Jan 2010

Mo & Jess Kill Susie is ‘in-yer-face,’ tense and disturbing. However, like the wildly different Te Haerenga: a Journey of Identity [which plays the 6.30 slot at Bats] it also probes away at the teasing question of personal, racial and political identity.

In Gary Henderson’s 1996 hostage drama two Maori women have captured a Pakeha policewoman and are waiting for a phone call from their associates who are on the wharves doing something to stop “their birthright from being sold.”

While the details of the protest and the hostage-taking are deliberately left vague, the tangled relationship between the jittery, garrulous Mo (Cian Elyse White) and the older, level-headed Jess (Juanita Hepi) reveals what has brought these two women to this critical point in their search for identity.

It is explored further when Susie (Antonia Bale) recovers consciousness and pleads for commonsense to prevail but Mo’s relationship with her dead father and her belief that people have always been violent and it is hypocritical of Jess to believe otherwise and Susie being told she is no more than a symbol all build in Murray Lunch’s taut, claustrophobic production to an explosive climax. 
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The dynamics of Henderson’s taut writing honoured

Review by John Smythe 08th Jan 2010

First produced at Bats in 1996, Mo & Jess Kill Susie has lost none of its power, bite or tragic poignancy. In exploring the nature of radical action through three individuals who are pawns in a much bigger game, it is just as pertinent, if not more so, than it was 14 years ago.

The premise is that as part of the strategy for protest action taking place “down the waterfront”, two Maori women (Mo and Jess) have taken a Pakeha policewoman (Susie) hostage in “a claustrophobic space” where they await the phone call that will tell them whether to release or shoot her.

Minimally updated from the ’96 text – published in 2007 by Playmarket (with Skin Tight and An Unseasonable Fall of Snow, also by Gary Henderson) – I am told this iteration of Mo & Jess Kill Susie is set four years from now rather than at the turn of the millennium (which was four years into the future for its original audience).

Thus Mo’s disaffection with the Moutoa Gardens occupation (1995) is replaced with her disappointment at the outcome of Tuhoe’s “Guerrilla theatre” performance to the Waitangi Tribunal and the world at large via TV coverage at Ruatoki (2005). But the play’s current confrontation, on the waterfront, stands from the original text and Jess’s “How dare they take the very last thing!” may be seen as a premonition of the foreshore and seabed fiasco that spawned the Maori Party and channelled Maori anger in a different way.

The future setting is not made clear, however (indeed I’m sure the crossword Jess is toiling at, that Susie was solving when she was abducted, was said to be in this morning’s Dominion, which merged with the Evening Post in 2002, well before Ruatoki … but I’m told it’s supposed to be the DomPost crossword now). Something is needed to replace the ‘turn of the millennium’ clue, and I’m thinking some sense that the Maori Party’s ‘working inside the tent’ strategy has broken down might also be required.

But such details do not detract from the plays searing depiction of three individuals caught in a political tide where keeping afloat, let alone making progress, seems increasingly impossible.  

Mo, a disaffected university student and the more loquacious of the two, slowly reveals emotional damage that no amount of academic education can repair. Cian Elyse White brings a staunch resolve to the role, tellingly betrayed by a constantly vibrating foot. Her sense of feeling dispossessed goes deeper than the land, to a primal relationship that has left her wanting. It becomes very clear why she has locked on to direct action as a way to achieve the approval she craves and so heal the hurt. Or not.

More brooding in her nature, yet apparently more mature and authoritative, is Jess, a destitute mother of three aged 10, 8 and 2. The powerlessness of poverty seems to be her driving force until a corrosive element of unresolved guilt is revealed as part of her mix. Juanita Hepi compels our attention as much in her silence as in her speech. Her claim that she is not a violent person is betrayed by her bleeding knuckles and Mo’s challenge as to the exact nature of the thrill she got from punching Susie.

Bound and gagged for the first 30-odd of the 80 minutes it takes to play out, Susie – also a mother – is feisty when she gets the chance. Made very real by Antonia Bale, Jess’s assertion that this is not about her cannot be easily accepted. But the way she gobbles at the bottled water despite being told it’s a scarce resource betrays the value system that underlies her professed desire to “work with people. Youth perhaps.”  

In a chalked square superbly lit in vertical shafts by Thomas Press, who has also designed a visceral soundscape, director Murray Lynch honours the dynamics of Henderson’s taut writing with great proficiency. Mo’s fake smoking and some less-than-convincing violence apart, the drama is gripping as the tension heightens in strong counterpoint to the increasing depth of our understanding.

The title suggests there will be no surprise about the outcome. But there is: a shocking one. And it’s all too easy to envisage the superficial way it will get reported on the news.

Henderson’s plays are revived all too rarely and this opportunity to catch a fine production of this compressed gem is not to be missed.  
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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