Otago Pioneer Women's Hall, 362 Moray Place, Dunedin

02/09/2014 - 02/09/2014

BATS Theatre (Out-Of-Site) Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington

11/03/2014 - 15/03/2014

Production Details

And while the wealthy and the privileged enjoyed their Festival of Arts with its splendour and budget and Dominion Post sponsorship and pro-apartheid dance shows, a group of poor unwashed actors on the fringes of the city came together to enact a tale of New Zealand political and social history.  As they sat in their dusty hall watching Chapman Tripp winner Joe Dekkers-Reihana eat cold baked beans from a can he had opened by stabbing with a knife, The Bacchanals wondered aloud, “What can we do this election year to make a difference?” 

And lo, many drafts of a new play by Dean Parker were e-mailed to them, bearing the title ONCE WE BUILT A TOWER and telling the story of how, 40 years before the birth of even the oldest Bacchanals, the 1935 Labour Government took the medical scheme used by the workers who’d built the Waitaki Dam and made it the basis for creating the Welfare State. 

“You mean Labour once used to be a serious proper political party?!” asked Charlotte, the youngest Bacchanal.  “I thought they were just a bunch of bland guys all named David whose only point of agreement is keeping Grant and Jacinda from winning an election?!” (for Charlotte, educated under NCEA, always ended sentences with an upward inflection.)  

And some of the older Bacchanals laughed, especially Michael Joseph Ness who was named after Michael Joseph Savage, and said to Charlotte: “You may think John and Bill are hip and cool, what with their capitalism and their planking and their persecution of Kim Dotcom, but There Was A Time when no person who cared about the world they lived in could conscionably vote National.”

“There is something fundamentally wrong,” says a character in ONCE WE BUILT A TOWER, “in a land where wealth accumulates and men decay and no one raises a finger.”  It was to this end that The Bacchanals decided they wanted to tell the story of this time, because New Zealand in the late 1920s, where ONCE WE BUILT A TOWER begins, is not really all that different to New Zealand today: a country that should have enough natural resource and animal, vegetable and mineral wealth for all – and yet somehow some New Zealanders are incredibly rich while others are incredibly poor.  Some New Zealanders live in ridiculous comfort surrounded by wealth while others live in conditions that would make you think this were a third world country, not the youngest and luckiest nation in the world.  And yet it was only 70 years ago that other countries were seeing the radical reforms of the NZ Labour Government as a model the whole world should aspire to.  So what the hell, you might ask, has happened to this country since then? 

Well, let us tell you by performing you a play!  I know, I know, it sounds dreary and wordy and political and like it’ll be sad grey proletariats doing angry confronting expressionist theatre but we promise it’ll be fun.  There are songs and laughs and we’ll make you a cup of tea and it’ll be like a big party in a church hall, except that it’ll be in a theatre and there won’t be a party. 

You can see Bacchanals stalwarts Alex Greig as Dr Gervan McMillan, Kirsty Bruce as Ethel McMillan, Michael Ness as Michael Joseph Savage, Michael Trigg as Arnold Nordmeyer, Brianne Kerr as Frances Nordmeyer, plus Jean Sergent, Joe Dekkers-Reihana, Aidan Weekes, Hilary Penwarden, Charlotte Pleasants and Alice May Connolly in an assortment of roles and with music played by Ellie Stewart and Walter Plinge.  The Bacchanals’ director David Lawrence is very happy that Once We Built A Tower will be their third collaboration with Dean Parker (after their Muldoon-biopic Slouching Toward Bethlehem in 2011 and the adaptation of Nicky Hager’s Other People’s Wars in 2012), their 15th show at BATS Theatre, and their 28th production together, celebrating their 14th birthday! 

11-15 March, 7pm
BATS Theatre Out of Site, Cnr Cuba & Dixon Sts
Bookings: 04 802 417504 802 4175 or www.bats.co.nz
Tickets: $20 / 14 / Groups 6+ $13

The Bacchanals are a multi award-winning company based in Wellington, New Zealand, dedicated to exploring text-based theatre (none of this devised crap for us!) and trying to ensure that the theatre remains a place for social, spiritual and psychological debate. They also want audiences to have a bloody good time and come away thinking THEATRE IS IMPORTANT AND CAN CHANGE THE WORLD. The Bacchanals want to make theatre accessible to all be it economically, geographically or intellectually.

The Bacchanals are bringing an all-new, all-improved, all-singing-all-milking production of Dean Parker’s Once We Built A Tower to the South Island!  We are SO EXCITED to be giving this play another outing, and SO EXCITED to be coming to some places that feature prominently in the story of how the 1935 Labour Government used the medical insurance scheme at the Waitaki Dam as their basis for creating a Welfare State that was once the envy of the world. 

Brought to you with the wonderful support of Emerging Artists Trust Wellington, Interislander and Coffee Supreme (and hopefully several more sponsors who can’t be confirmed at the time of this website update!), Once We Built A Tower will play a different town every night for a fortnight beginning Monday 25 August. 

This is the low-down, friends:
All performances begin at 7pm! 

ASHBURTON at the Sinclair Centre, 74 Park Street!

TIMARU (Brianne’s home town!) at the Caroline Bay Community Lounge!

TWIZEL (!!) at the Twizel Events Centre, 61 McKenzie Drive.

TEKAPO at the Tekapo Community Hall, Aorangi Crescent!

OMARAMA at the Omarama Community Centre!

KUROW at the Kurow Memorial Hall – this will be a night to remember, people!

OAMARU at the Oamaru Scottish Hall

DUNEDIN at the Otago Pioneer Women’s Memorial Association Hall, Moray Place!

GORE at the James Cumming Wing Lecture Theatre, corner of Ardwick Street and Civic Ave!

BALCLUTHA at the Balclutha Theatrical Society Hall, 4 George Street!

ROXBURGH at Miller’s Flat Hall, 1674 Teviot Road!

Clyde Memorial Hall, corner of Fraser and Newcastle Streets!

We are very, very committed to this idea that theatre should be accessible to ALL and that you shouldn’t miss out on live performance just because you don’t live in a major city.  To that end, WE ARE NOT CHARGING ADMISSION.  (You can & probably should give us koha or a donation because god knows how we’re going to make up the balance of the $25,000 this tour is costing us.  And tell your rich friends that if they want to give money to a worthy cause, they should throw some pictures of the Queen our way!)  We want you to come on down, see a free play, have a cup of tea (or maybe a wine/beer/cider/absinthe) with us after and let us sing you songs and tell you tales of NZ local history!  This is the mightiest army of Bacchanals ever to take a show on the road (even though we’re leaving some formidable warriors at home): Alex Greig plays Gervan McMillan, Kirsty Bruce plays Ethel McMillan, Brianne Kerr plays Frances Nordmeyer, Michael Trigg plays Arnold Nordmeyer, Michael Joseph Ness plays Michael Joseph Savage, Jean Sergent plays the Medical Association, Joe Dekkers-Reihana plays Peter Fraser, Aidan Weekes plays Walter Nash, Hilary Penwarden plays the piano, Ellie Stewart plays the fiddle and David Lawrence plays the banjo, guitar, mandolin and clarinet.

Tell all your friends!  Tell your rich friends to give us money!  Tell your friends with spare rooms/spare beds in the South Island that they should let us stay with them! (we’re all house-trained; we’ll do your dishes and weed your gardens!)  Wanna loan us a van? trailer? petrol?  Do it!  Or send us an e-mail or something.  The Once We Built A Tower tour is going to be great!!

We are SO LOOKING FORWARD to seeing you all very soon!

Alex Greig plays Gervan McMillan,
Kirsty Bruce plays Ethel McMillan,
Brianne Kerr plays Frances Nordmeyer,
Michael Trigg plays Arnold Nordmeyer,
Michael Joseph Ness plays Michael Joseph Savage,
Jean Sergent plays the Medical Association,
Joe Dekkers-Reihana plays Peter Fraser,
Aidan Weekes plays Walter Nash,
Hilary Penwarden plays the piano,
Ellie Stewart plays the fiddle and
David Lawrence plays the banjo, guitar, mandolin and clarinet.

Rare to be so engaged and swept up in idealism for an entire performance

Review by Alison Embleton 03rd Sep 2014

“They used to tell me I was building a dream…” 

Dean Parker’s latest theatrical offering, Once We Built a Tower, brought to life by the undeniably fabulous Bacchanals ensemble, is a striking political narrative – perfect for an election year.

Centred around a forgotten hero in the establishment of our welfare state in the 1930s, Dr Gervan McMillan (Alex Greig), the play shares the story of his political beginnings and subsequent influence and collaboration with local Presbyterian minister Arnold Nordmeyer (Michael Trigg). Both actors play their roles with charm and convincing political fervour, and their various eccentricities mean there is never a dull moment.

Both Kirsty Bruce is a steely and quick witted Ethel McMillian, and Brianne Kerr as the timid yet endearing Frances Nordmeyer portray splendid political wives, each politically minded in their own way. Their characters help flesh out the main story line and give a voice to wider society.

While providing care and guidance for the labourers and their families during the building of the Waitaki dam, and witnessing the subsequent hardships brought on by poverty during the Depression, McMillan and Nordmeyer are moved to share their socialist ideas about subsidised healthcare and pension funds with visiting Labour Party parliamentary hopeful, Joe Savage. (A rousing speech from Michael Ness has me wishing I could vote for him on September 20)

Once in parliament, McMillian and Nordmeyer butt up against the Treasury, the Medical Association and some of the members of the Labour Government Cabinet – all  of whom seem reluctant to put into play the welfare they promised in their election platforms.

The cast is without a weak link, Joe Dekkers-Reihana, Hilary Penwarden, Jean Sergent and Aidan Weekes all play various roles throughout. They never let the energy drop for a moment, constantly engaging with each other and with the audience. Using battered suitcases and a few props, the cast works together to create everything from labourers’ huts in Kurow to the Waitaki dam. Their physicality and creativity as a team is a wonderful thing to watch.

Subtle music guiding the rhythm and mood of the play continues throughout thanks to the talents of Ellie Stewart, director David Lawrence and Hilary Penwarden. The play is also punctuated by depression era musical numbers sung by the entire cast which helps to build on the community hall style/people for the people aesthetic. Not to mention they will stick in your head long after you leave the theatre.

“Brother, can you spare a dime?”

Part-funded by grants and donations, the entire show is performed for ‘koha’. The cast has been pedalling the production around the South Island, giving a delightful theatrical treat to some of the New Zealand’s lesser known nooks and crannies – something very few ever seem to do.

Their passion and belief in a better political system is a powerful thing to see brought to life on stage, it is rare to be so engaged and swept up in idealism for an entire performance.  I wish I could see it all over again.

If Messrs Greig, Ness and Trigg were the driving force behind today’s Labour party, I would feel far more inclined to cast my votes in their direction.

(I also have it on good authority that The Bacchanals are some of the most excellent house-guests imaginable.)


Steve Dedalus September 3rd, 2014

Brilliant. Totally agree.

Dean Parker September 3rd, 2014

One of our theatres rang me last year (fuck!) and asked (in passing, as it turned out) what I was working on. Now I’m always working on a variety of things in a variety of shapes but I thought I’d give them a shock so I said, “Oh, um, you know… play about the 1938 Social Security Act...” Oh, the response! (You do so yearn for other places where the response would be, “Ah! I smell mischief!”) As things have turned out, never has a play been more timely. Once We Built A Tower is about people at the bottom of the heap organising together to try to bring about changes in their lives. Politics as hope. Compare that with the underlying story of Dirty Politics: that the more identical political parties become, the greater is the sort of personal vilification and scummery that Cameron Slater and Judith Collins and Jason Ede have to indulge in to define the opposition. Politics as dirt. The 1938 election was the battle for a welfare state and produced the biggest turn-out ever and the biggest Labour vote ever. Today we’re facing the lowest turn-out ever and probably the lowest Labour vote ever.

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Warm, engaging tribute to a forgotten hero

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 14th Mar 2014

Once We Built a Tower is a thoroughly entertaining, good old-fashioned musical documentary in the tradition of Mervyn Thompson’s Songs to Uncle Scrim and O Temperance! It is performed with the usual warmth, simplicity and gusto that David Lawrence’s Bacchanals bring to their shows. 

The play pays homage to a forgotten hero in the establishment of our welfare state in the 1930s, Dr Gervan McMillan (played by Alex Greig), who chaired the Parliamentary National Health Insurance Investigating Committee in 1936.

But before he became an MP he was formulating and putting into practice his socialist ideals about medicine, medical insurance and the hardships brought about by the Depression while looking after the workers in Kurow who were constructing the Waitaki Dam.

The first act deals with his growing political influence in the religious beliefs of the Rev. Arnold Nordmeyer (Michael Trigg) and his socially timid wife (a touching and funny performance by Brianne Kerr). In the second act their fervent idealism comes up against implacable opponents, the Treasury, the Medical Association, and some of the members of the Labour Government Cabinet.

Sounds dull? Far from it. Apart from an overlong debate between McMillan and the Medical Association (Jean Sergent) the production moves swiftly and ingeniously through the years with period songs (‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’ / ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’), rousing anthems (‘Jerusalem’), comic patter and mimes, corny jokes, running gags (wet handshakes), and scenic effects created out of about forty battered suitcases, which are used to make the dam, swing doors, workers’ huts, and a tower amongst other things.

Though it is not in any way underlined the unspoken message is crystal clear. The current Labour Party isn’t what it used to be and has lost its idealism and drive, and the bland current political parties of both the Left and the Right lack vision, and, as Dr Gervan McMillan says at the climax of the first act “without a vision the people perish.”


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An exemplary piece of political theatre in the populist mode

Review by John Smythe 12th 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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