Slouching Toward Bethlehem

BATS Theatre, Wellington

31/08/2011 - 10/09/2011

Production Details

“Life is ugly, brutish and short … like me.”

The true story of New Zealand’s most evil prime minister ever!

He turned the NZ National Party into an outfit dominated by a single leader bent on imposing regulation that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Eastern Europe under Stalin, but Robert Muldoon believed without a shadow of a doubt that if he needed to know what the average Kiwi felt, all he had to do was look into his own heart.

From the writer of The Man Lovelock Couldn’t Beat, The Perfumed Garden, Bagdhad Baby!, Midnight in Moscow and The Hollow Men comes an epic, expressionist biography of Muldoon taking us from his pro-Labour childhood in Auckland in the 1920s and ’30s to beating hippies and protestors in the 1970s while climbing over the corpses of his National colleagues to seize power, through to his inevitable downfall in 1984.

Slouching Toward Bethlehem stars Phil Grieve as Muldoon, with Kirsty Bruce, Dasha Fedchuk, Andrew Goddard, Alex Greig, Brianne Kerr, Salesi Le’ota, William O’Neil, Jonny Potts, Jean Sergent and Elle Wootton.

The Bacchanals are an award-winning theatre company founded in 2000, dedicated to exploring text-based theatre and ensuring that the theatre remains a place for social, spiritual and psychological debate. Their productions include new versions of Aristophanes’ The Frogs and Euripides’ The Bacchae, the NZ premieres of Sarah Kane’s Crave and Antony Sher’s I.D. (Chapman Tripp Production of the Year, 2005), Paul Rothwell’s Hate Crimes, a co-production of King Lear with Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre and touring productions of Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Bacchanals, present
Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Dean Parker
BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Terrace, Wellington
● Wednesday 31 August – Saturday 10 September 2011
   (no show Sunday or Monday)
● 6pm
● Bookings (04) 802-4175 or  

Rob Muldoon Phil Grieve
Thea Muldoon
his wife Brianne Kerr
A Tamaki Young Nat William O’Neil
Amie Muldoon
Rob’s mother Kirsty Bruce
Jerusha Brown
Rob’s grandmother Jean Sergent
Wally Brown
Rob’s uncle Andrew Goddard
A Pastor Jonny Potts
Dick Fickling
Rob’s best friend Alex Greig
A Doctor at Wolfe’s Home Psychiatric Hospital Elle Wootton
Jim Muldoon
Rob’s father Salesi Le’ota
Go-Go Dancer Kirsty Bruce
Television Host Jonny Potts
Make-Up Assistant Jean Sergent
An Alternative Publisher William O’Neil
A Satirical Editor Andrew Goddard
A Protestor Dasha Fedchuk
George Gair
a National MP Alex Greig
Frank Gill another National MP Elle Wootton
Faye Gair George’s wife Jean Sergent
Jack Marshall Leader of the National Party Andrew Goddard
Brian Talboys National MP Jonny Potts
Speaker of the House in the 1970s William O’Neil
at an Anglican Cathedral Salesi Le’ota
Tom Skinner president of the Federation of Labour Andrew Goddard
Interjectors at the television debate Salesi Le’ota, Kirsty Bruce, Jean Sergent
A Woman in the audience of the television debate Dasha Fedchuk
Athol Rob’s driver William O’Neil
Police Sergeant at the Peter Pan club Alex Greig
Barry Reynolds Brierly Board Member The Company
Barbara Muldoon Rob and Thea’s oldest child Kirsty Bruce
Jenni Muldoon her sister Elle Wootton
Gavin Muldoon their brother Andrew Goddard
Norma Holyaoke wife of Sir Keith Holyoake Kirsty Bruce
A Female Guest at a 1974 Christmas party Jean Sergent
A Poet on a Brian Edwards TV show William O’Neil
Colin McLachlan National MP Dasha Fedchuk
Hugh Templeton National MP Salesi Le’ota
Colenso an advertising agency man Salesi Le’ota
A Figure in an underground carpark William O’Neil
Speaker of the Housein the 1980s Dasha Fedchuk
Colin Moyle Labour MP Jean Sergent
A Man From Treasury Salesi Le’ota
The Red Flag Bush Band
at the Sweetwaters Music Festival The Company
Jim McClay a young National MP William O’Neil
An Older Couple at Hatfields Beach Dasha Fedchuk & Andrew Goddard
A Nurse at North Shore HospitalJean Sergent

Children, Congregation, Journalists, Backbench MPs, Asylum Inmates, Animals, Protestors, Constituents, Advertising Executives, Television Audiences, Function Guests, Party Guests & Meat Puppets played by members of the company

Publicist Brianne Kerr
Graphic Design Santa’s Little Helper
Signsmith& Doghandler Jean Sergent
Head Mechanist Alex Greig
Head Researcher & Gagsmith Jonny Potts
Producers In Absentia Fiona McNamara & David Goldthorpe
Monsters and Muppets Elle Wootton, Andrew Goddard
Chief Electrician William O’Neil
Production Photography Vanessa Fowler Kendall
Directed by David Lawrence  

Be careful what you wish for

Review by Lynn Freeman 09th Sep 2011

You can rely on Dean Parker to deliver a no-holds-barred political satire, though this critique of Sir Robert Muldoon starts off with a great deal of sympathy for the short, poor bullied young Rob whose father was in an asylum. 

Muldoon is portrayed as the ultimate illustration of that old adage, ‘power corrupts but absolute power corrupts absolutely’. So why now for this play about him? Well it is 20 years since he left Parliament, and of course this is election year.

The play spans the 1930s, the depression years where young Rob is influenced by his highly political, arch conservative uncle, through to his death (and a drippy closing scene which clashes horribly with the rest of the play, if this is irony, it doesn’t come off).

Parker, director David Lawrence and the return of Lawrence’s company The Bacchanals do a sterling job of representing a veritable army of characters. It’s excellent ensemble work, with Phil Grieve at the heart of it playing Muldoon. He didn’t need the dimple to pull it off, just precision acting and the former PM’s mantra about understanding and representing ‘ordinary New Zealanders’.

Brianne Kerr as the loyal Thea was right on the money too, showing flashes of steel when her husband pushed her too far. In a large and dedicated cast, Jean Sergent also shone through, especially as Muldoon’s grandmother…right down to the cackle she passed on to her grandson.

The play moves apace and I wonder how those who don’t remember the Muldoon years will manage at times, however entertaining the production. One of the highlights is set at Sweetwaters where a group of young lefties sing an ode (dripping in sarcaism) to the Prime Minister.

Great work also from those playing the increasingly concerned National MPs who came to regret pushing so hard for the man who got them all back into power. Be careful what you wish for seems to be one of the pervading themes in Slouching Toward Bethlehem

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.


Make a comment

The Curious Mix that is Muldoon

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 03rd Sep 2011

At last! A play that isn’t confined to how we relate to our friends, enemies, family and lovers. In Slouching Toward Bethlehem Dean Parker has written what he describes in the preface to his previous play, Midnight in Moscow, a play about our often confusing but very real relationship to the state. To ignore this relationship, he believes, is to limit the scope of playwriting.

Before you rush to stay home and switch on your TV for yet another cooking show, he goes on to say that this doesn’t mean a playwright has to become preachy, and let me assure you that preachiness is completely absent from the script that is in the tradition of Mervyn Thompson’s plays and from David Lawrence’s freewheeling, comic, and inventive production that creates an exaggerated but one feels truthful portrait of the lonely, ruthless politician, Robert Muldoon.

With a large cast and a theatrically disorganised set (all props, Brechtian signs and costumes dotted around the stage) there’s an improvisory air about the production but this is illusory as the songs and major scenes (e.g. the assassination of Gentleman Jack Marshall/the puppetry used in the song about the Sweetwater’s Music Festival), and the choreography of the boxing fight between Muldoon and the Trade Union Movement are all carefully and comically executed.

The play starts with Muldoon and his wife, the long-suffering Thea (sympathetically played by Brianne Kerr) looking at his prize lilies and then jumps back to his youth and the influences of his grandmother (a sinister chuckle), his right-wing uncle and his dad hidden away in a hospital. The war is ignored (as later are Think Big/The Tour/Marilyn Waring) but the essentials are all there from his vicious treatment of Colin Moyle to his caustic wit and his belief in knowing what the ordinary Kiwi bloke wants.

At the heart of the production is Phil Grieve’s Rob Muldoon. He keeps well away from a David McPhail-type comic impersonation and presents the mongrel, the anger, and the lust for power with a sort of demonic force that reminds one of the spell that Richard III could cast: scary and funny at the same time. And yet there are the lilies and the love of this country. A curious mix strongly portrayed, and in the scene where Muldoon deals with a threat to his leadership in cabinet there’s that rare thing in the theatre: fear. 
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.


Make a comment

Highly entertaining, insightful and thought-provoking

Review by John Smythe 01st Sep 2011

The title does little to represent this epic yet intimate, rough yet ready and very disciplined evocation of Robert Muldoon’s rise and fall in 90 jam-packed minutes. It is the subtitle of W B Yeats’ portentous poem The Second Coming, which ends: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

In the play a messianic Muldoon quotes those last two lines in the House, having won the 1975 election, prefacing them with, “As my opponents would say…” Labour (led by Norman Kirk) had rudely interrupted a 12 year reign by National and Muldoon had rolled Jack Marshall for the leadership while Kirk had died unexpectedly (replaced by his deputy, Bill Rowling). An obscure title, then, for a play that is anything but.

Using ‘popular people’s theatre’ conventions with flair, 11 actors cover 47 named roles plus umpteen extras, brilliantly integrating tireless ensemble work with concisely defined characters, some of whom recur while others are caught in a glimpse. But it’s not vulgar ‘agit prop’ populism, with two-dimensional goodies and baddies pushing a simplistic political agenda. Playwright Dean Parker is too good a dramatist for that.

That said, Muldoon himself was an outrageous populist and polariser; a classic case of the bullied turned bully; the ‘fatherless’ boy desperate to win approval, whose way of going about it alienated his colleagues and family even as his poll ratings soared. Parker’s compelling character study, superbly embodied by Phil Grieve, gives the play its heart and confronts us, as ‘ordinary New Zealanders’, with our role in electing such people and keeping them in power (until they self-destruct).

Phil Grieve is on record (Dominion Post ‘Arts & Entertainment’ supplement, 1/9/11, p4) as saying his doesn’t want to impersonate Muldoon and reduce the play to a vehicle for displaying that skill. He does get the voice, the laugh and the arrogant persona spot on but more importantly he works with Parker’s text, director David Lawrence and the ensemble to draw us into the dark recesses of Muldoon’s contradictory being: the God-fearing little boy with the feisty socialist grandma (Jean Sergent), rampant Tory uncle (Andrew Goddard), hard-working “look on the bright side” mother (Kirsty Bruce) and institutionalised father who barely recognises him (Salesi Le’ota); the lily-loving appreciator of wondrous nature who is anything but lily-livered in ruthless political life; the appealer to “the ordinary, decent, hard-working New Zealander” who promulgates government subsidies and economic protectionism yet leads a conservative government …

In three acts we see Muldoon as the Pretender, the Prince and the King, book-ended by his doting, in his dotage, on the Mount Cook lilies he proudly grows in Auckland. Thea – pet name ‘Tam’ – is the only other character to thread through most of the play. Brianne Kerr draws us in with a sympathetic ‘less is more’ portrayal of Thea’s journey from youthful optimism through loyal wifedom to feeling betrayed, disappointed and resigned.

Two ‘nights of the long knives’ – “If it’s to be done, it is to be done now” – are wittily enacted, first with Jack Marshall (Goddard) in Caesar-like toga and laurel wreath then later with Muldoon as the target for assassination, precipitating the 1984 snap election. Despite his ignominious loss of the leadership, it is Jack Marshall (who was Major to Muldoon’s Corporal during the war) who makes the most pertinent observations: “He’s in the wrong party!” and, smarting at Muldoon’s being PM and Minster of Finance and thus in charge of everything, “There’s a cowardly streak in the New Zealand male. They always do as they’re told. That’s what makes them such good soldiers.”

Inspired moments of theatricality include the paisley-printed evocation of the seventies; a boxing match between Muldoon and the Trade Union movement; the Sweet Waters Music Festival where a chorus of sock puppets sing ‘The Little Corporal’ as Muldoon plays up to his fascist image (railing against Maori radicals, etc); a visit to Disneyland where Muldoon waltzes with Mickey Mouse. The Brierly monster is as formidable as the scene is hilarious where cabinet colleague Colin McLachlan (Dasha Fedchuk) and Muldoon (they co-own a racehorse) get drunk and liberate their swear genes (somewhat redolent, in its effect, of the Derek and Clive Live classic ‘This Bloke Came Up To Me’).

Many other cameos are also captured with alacrity. Notably Johnny Potts plays a fiery Pastor, a Brian Edwards-like TV Host and cabinet minister Brian Talboys; Salesi Le’ota manifests the devilish Colenso in mounting the 1975 campaign; Kirsty Bruce’s Norma Holyoake teaches Thea the protocols of being a PM’s wife; William O’Neil plays a poet called Sam on a TV show, the Crown driver invited by Muldoon to eat with his family, and a ‘Deep Throat’-like figure (cf: Watergate) in an underground carpark. Alex Greig and Elle Wootton pop up in a range of roles, always adding value.

Lawrence and his cast have also created some powerful non-verbal moments in a production that is adroitly modulated between the extremes of high comedy through penetrating observation to poignant pathos.

Slouching Toward Bethlehem is a show that leaves you wanting more. Many who experienced those years are likely to come out lamenting the absence of iconic Muldoon moments around Think Big, the 1981 Springbok tour, the Mahon Report into the Erebus disaster, giving himself a knighthood, Marilyn Waring’s resistance to his policies, his holding the incoming Lange government and the whole country hostage over the exchange rate … Was some of that there, I wonder, and did it have to be cut?

This already impressive work deserves to be two hours at least with an interval – a full-scale musical even! – and leaves me pondering the limitations of alternative theatre done on a shoestring in small venues that have to mount more than one show a night to meet their basic overheads (even at 90 minutes, this show is an exception to the ‘within one hour’ norm).

But what we have is a highly entertaining insightful satire that is timely and thought-provoking as that other major tournament of this year looms: the November general election. Don’t miss it! 
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.


Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council