Shed 6, Queens Wharf, Wellington

10/03/2020 - 14/03/2020

New Zealand Festival of the Arts 2020

Production Details

Creative Director Marnie Karmelita
Creators Bret McKenzie, Tim Price and Lyndsey Turner
Written by George Saunders

A work in progress showing of a surreal musical satire on tyranny 

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is a ‘work in progress’ showing of a new musical based on George Saunders’ cult novella of the same name.

For the first time, creators Bret McKenzie, Tim Price and Lyndsey Turner offer up this first draft to a live audience at the New Zealand Festival of the Arts. With scripts in hand, actors, musicians, singers and technicians will test out their new material, rewriting each day in response to the audience and turning the Festival into a living breathing development lab for Saunders’ brilliant timely satire on society’s fatal addiction to power.

Shed 6, Queens Wharf, Wellington
Tues 10 – Wed 11 Mar, 7.30pm
Thurs 12 – Fri 13 Mar, 6.30pm
Sat 14 Mar, 4pm
$59 (excluding booking fees).

Creative Director Marnie Karmelita:

“The Weta Digital Season of The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is an opportunity to see this new musical version of the George Saunders novella in the making.

“Under commission to the National Theatre of London, Bret McKenzie has been brought on board to write the music and lyrics.

“Bret offers Wellington artists the chance to workshop the script with the creative team from London and our Wellington audiences the chance to see it even before the World Premiere.”

Bret McKenzie 

Bret McKenzie wants to bring a buzz to his hometown in the Festival’s third and final week. One of Wellington’s most successful artistic exports, Bret is half of Grammy Award-winning duo Flight of the Conchords and an Oscar-winner for his original songwriting on The Muppets movie.

Headlining Bret’s week is a theatrical coup he has scored for Wellington: a work in progress production of a new National Theatre (UK) musical adaption of George Saunders’ darkly funny The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. You’ll see Phil before the rest of the world and can say “I was there when…”.

Tim Price
Tim Price is a Welsh screenwriter and playwright. His theatre experience includes Praxis Makes Perfect (National Theatre Wales/Barbican tour) The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning (National Theatre Wales – winner James Tait Black Prize) Salt Root and Roe (Donmar Warehouse) Demos (Traverse Theatre) For Once (Pentabus Theatre/Hampstead theatre). His TV experience includes Eastenders, Casualty, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, The Smoke, and Sherman. His film experience includes How to fake a war.

Lyndsey Turner
Lyndsey Turner is an Associate of the National Theatre. Her work includes Top Girls, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, There is a War and Edgar and Annabel at the National; Faith Healer, Fathers and Sons and Philadelphia, Here I Come! at the Donmar Warehouse; Hamlet at the Barbican; The Treatment and Chimerica at the Almeida; Girls and Boys, Posh and Contractions at the Royal Court.

George Saunders
George Saunders is the author of nine books, including Lincoln in the Bardo winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize. Tenth of December was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the inaugural Folio Prize. He has received MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships and the PEN/Malamud Prize for excellence in the short story, and is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2013, he was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine. George Saunders teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University in New York State.

Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Nigel Collins, Zechariah Julius Donne, Moana Ete, Jeffrey Kingsford Brown, Jeremy Randerson, Vanessa Stacey, Caitlin Drake, Devon Neiman, Andrew Paterson, Tom Knowles, Daniel Rigby

Co-designers Camilla Clarke and Chloe Lamford

Theatre , Musical ,

A satire for the times

Review by Sonya Stewart 21st Mar 2020

This new work is based on the 2005 novella by George Saunders which means it predates the current American administration. Eerily it seems as though this satire was written for it.

With music and lyrics by Bret McKenzie and script by Tim Price what has resulted is a primary school play meeting Animal Farm via one-off broadway musical. This “world premiere workshop” was commissioned by the National Theatre of Great Britain and showcases New Zealand and international talent.

As the show is being reviewed and adjusted after each performance these books are very necessary, even on opening night one of the songs had only been written the day before. I couldn’t tell you which one, they were all excellent. [More


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A timely warning

Review by John Smythe 12th Mar 2020

Texas-born, Illinois-raised George Saunders teaches creative writing at Syracuse University, New York. The astonishing thing about his second novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, is it was written in 2005 and published in 2006, yet no-one now reading its 91 pages could avoid the reek of Trump’s USA.

But Trump didn’t invent hateful populist politics. Fear-fuelled bullying of those who are different and ‘other’ – be they from a different tribe, foreign migrants, refugees, or any minority group or individual – has been rife throughout history. Presumably his perception it was on the rise again in so-called western democracies inspired Saunders to write his absurdist satirical parable. That the Trump and Brexit phenomena have since proved how readily such shit can become real is doubtless what’s driven this National Theatre of London commission to develop it as a stage musical.

I am not privy to who instigated the project, but director Lyndsey Turner, a National Theatre Associate, is working with Welsh playwright and screenwriter Tim Price, Wellington-based musician, songwriter and entertainer Bret McKenzie, and a cast of UK and NZ actors to develop The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil – presented in incremental stages of development as part of the NZ Festival of the Arts 2020. And it’s Bret who introduces the premiere try-out performance to his home crowd.

This time, Shed 6 is configured with an end-on stage. The band is stage right, an artist – Camilla Clarke, a co-designer with Chloe Lamford – sits at a desk stage left with an overhead camera transmitting her visual creations live to a screen upstage centre. The 12-strong cast is clustered upstage left, in basic black clothes adorned with various bits of weird white junk and clutching their scripts, at the ready.

A brief post-show dip into the novella (on sale at the venue), reveals Price has book-ended Saunders’ scenario with a creation myth and a recreation ‘reality’. The Creator does get a mention in the book, when Phil claims his ‘God-given’ rights, and at the end when humanity is revised, so the playwright has built on that. Thus, “In the beginning…” the cast, whose body parts variously include such things as flanges and gaskets, is divided into inhabitants of tiny Inner Horner and vast Outer Horner. All join in the up-beat opening song: ‘It’s Gonna Be A Great Day (except for you)’.

Despite the physical limits of their domain, the Inner Hornerites – Carol (Naana Agyei-Ampadu), her husband Cal (Nigel Collins), their son Andy (Zechariah Julius Donne), Wanda (Moana Ete) and Gus (Jeffrey Kingsford Brown) – are happy hugging the apple tree, if nervous at young Andy’s desire to climb it. At first awed by the view, it is Andy who spies the social pariah Phil behaving oddly in the rose bushes beyond the border. All the more reason to love their little country: “It’s neat and it’s cute; You can’t beat the commute”.

When a simply-but-effectively evoked earthquake shrinks their homeland even more, the Inner Hornerites are suddenly refugees in Outer Horner, to the consternation of its people: Melvyn (Jeremy Randerson), his wife Freeda (Vanessa Stacey), their daughter Gertrude (Caitlin Drake), Leon (Devon Neiman), Vance (Andrew Paterson), Jimmy (Tom Knowles) …

It’s Awkward Phil (Daniel Rigby) who suggests they should tax the ‘invaders’ for occupying a tiny part of their vast land, and although they tend to be dismissive of him – after all his brain tends to fall off and then he rants like a crazy man – they nevertheless act on his suggestions and claim them as their own. Eventually his brainless rants press the fear and self-interest buttons of the Outer Horner and they decide a strong leader like him is what they need, in what they are now convinced is a crisis. And so the resistible rise of Phil commences …

Flashbacks bring depth to Phil’s psycho-emotional profile, allowing us to understand his weaknesses even though we recoil at his resulting behaviour. He has absent father issues – played out between Devon Neiman as a vulnerable young Phil and Tom Knowles as his self-serving father. This leads to Phil’s text-book attempts to woo young Carol (Caitlin Drake) and just not getting that she’s in love with Cal and intends to marry him – today!

Meanwhile, we can readily relate to the community and family dynamics in Outer Horner. Melvyn escapes to the pub while demanding teenage daughter Gertrude treats her mother like trash, causing Freeda to reach out to self-help resources, only to be ridiculed for it – by Phil. And by us, if we lack empathy and compassion.

The Media gets a whiff of Phil’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and initially take the line the borders are not safe until Phil is behind bars. Phil’s rejoinder, in rousing song, is ‘It’s My Time to Shine’ and in a relentless march tempo, he vows to make history. His assertion the earthquake story is fake sucks in The Media.

The impossibility if the Inner Hornerites returning to their land, which has shrunk even more, is dramatised. Their being taxed all they have to be confined in Outer Horner’s Short-Term Residency Zone leads to their being blamed and shamed as do-nothing free-loaders. And Phil recruits Vance and Jimmy – survivors of childhood abuse desperate to find a place in the world – as Border Security Guards, on a four-year trial at just one smoloka a day.

Cal (Carol’s husband) has urged his family not to give in to fear and to hang on to love but when Phil fakes a random selection then orders Carol to be strip-searched at the border, Cal has to intervene. But his right and duty to defend his family is trumped by Phil’s assumed duty to defend his country – as Cal is ‘disassembled’. Carol’s ‘Rest My Love’ solo lets us share in her grief – until Phil’s chances his arm, now she’s ‘back on the market’. Rejected, he fakes an assault and she is ‘decommissioned’ by being stripped of her flange converter.

There is a glimmer of hope when Soldiers from The Capital arrest Phil for unauthorised disassembling and bring him to trial at the Presidential Palace. But the President, sporting a naval cap (suggesting he led a military coup in the past, perhaps?) is doddery and nostalgic for the Good Old Days – so much so that he has fond memories of what’s just happened. Jeffrey Kingsford Brown gives a splendid rendition of ‘It Seems Like Only Yesterday’ with the masses chorusing “we won’t see the likes of those days again” – which is all very jolly until Phil intrudes with a reprise of ‘It’s My Time to Shine’. And now The Media takes a shine to him.

A simple con sees Phil become president. He appoints his sycophants to high office and offers perks. Then he tables a law that will give him absolute power to take executive action whenever, wherever, for whatever, and demands that everyone sign. The way this plays out is insightful and chilling, as is Freeda’s fate when she resists.

Phil’s visit to Outer Horner greatly excites The Media, as does his demonising of the Inner Hornerites. But the lethal ‘cleansing’ progrom he tries to command – which also resonates with historical precedents that every generation must learn about lest we repeat them – turns the tide. When the gun-toting troops suggest the supposed enemy are just people like them, Phil insists he can see only Evil – and at last the People rebel. His power denied, Phil withers to a mumbling wreck on the ground.

Realising something went wrong, The Creator remakes the human inhabitants – who sing of how they’ll be kind to one another this time and live free from fear – even though some are Pointyheads and others are Blockheads. They discover the lifeless Phil in a heap, preserve him as a warning (he’s always wanted a statue) and call it Phil Monster. But a Pointyhead questions the syntax of ‘Phil Monster’, a couple of Blockheads decide she thinks she’s some kind of big-shot and suggest this place would be so much better it is was only for people like them.

While the book leaves the Phil Monster monument ignored in a thicket of weeds, forgotten except for occasional visits by young woman who finds him strangely beautiful, the play adaptation simply has Phil stir as those last lines are uttered – and yes, we get it. Trepidation ripples throughout the audience.

There is no doubt The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil brings a timely warning to us all and it is well worth bringing to the stage. I’m not sure the flanges and gaskets add much to the satire – even in fully designed form they’d be a distraction, I feel. I just don’t get that metaphor, I guess. Otherwise this ‘in development’ reading by a skilled cast, with its cleverly conceived songs and live music, certainly proves its potential.

While the script and staging are still fluid, and the actors are ‘on book’, we have to accept characters will be more two-dimensional than three, so we are not yet challenged to feel how compelling Phil’s strategies can be. Or is it simply assumed this play’s audience will be ‘woke’ and therefore happy to judge objectively how irrational yet credible this populist politics syndrome can be? Despite the story’s absurdist distortions and abstractions, the human relationships and Phil’s all-too-familiar dog-whistle politics are what bring it into our world. And the more we are tempted by Phil’s propaganda and growing charisma, the better it will work.

My main feedback, then, is to consider engaging us more directly by enrolling us as citizens with a stake in Greater Horner. Tempt us, seduce us, challenge us, because we all have a vote, we are all potential enablers and we can all make a difference.


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