The Hollow Men

Centrepoint, Palmerston North

13/10/2007 - 27/10/2007

BATS Theatre, Wellington

26/09/2007 - 11/10/2007

Production Details

Adapted by Dean Parker from a book by Nick Hager
Directed by Jonathon Hendry

One Man, One Mission, Many Advisors: politics up-close ….

Dean Parker’s The Hollow Men examines the months of Don Brash’s leadership of the National Party leading up to the 2005 election and is a riveting piece of new documentary theatre, a genre which is currently proving to be a phenomenon overseas.

Director Jonathon Hendry says “Shakespeare had great popular hits examining political events on stage with plays such as Julius Caesar and Richard the Third. At times of change and uncertainty it seems we desire to see and reflect on stories about real events. Internationally over recent years a new form of documentary theatre is selling out from Broadway and Britain’s National Theatre to smaller fringe venues everywhere. Renowned British playwright David Hare (whose play Stuff Happens dramatised events leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003) says that “theatre using real people has become a fabulously rich and varied strand which, for many years, has been pumping red cells into the dramatic bloodstream.” We’re excited to be sharing this genre with New Zealanders in Dean’s highly entertaining adaptation.

Featuring iconic New Zealand actor Stephen Papps as Don Brash (Best actor NZ film awards for The End of The Golden Weather,  Spike Milligan in Ying Tong, Court Theatre) Michael Keir Morrissey, Lyndee-Jane Rutherford, Will Harris, Sam Snedden  and Arthur Meek . This talented cast play a variety of political movers and shakers, many of whom still walk the corridors of parliament and have influence behind the scenes today.

Dean Parker writes “… to have it in front of you in black-and-white, as Nicky Hager presented it to us last year, detail by detail, 50 pages of footnotes—it takes your breath away. “Politics,” wrote Albert Camus, “is man’s direct address to other men.” If this is to be true, we must look to ourselves and not to parliamentary processes.  Nicky Hager did a superb job with The Hollow Men. … It’s an honour to do the adaptation—a gleeful honour.”

Strictly limited seasons, people are advised to book early to avoid disappointment.

For bookings please contact BATS on 04 802 4175 or  or Centrepoint on 06 354 5740 or   

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Stephen Papps - Brash
Michael Keir Morrissey - Keenan
Arthur Meek - Sinclair
Sam Snedden - Hooton
Lyndee-Jane Rutherford - Diane Forman, Sue Wood, Ronald Reagan, Winnie Laban, Ruth Richardson, Sandy Burgham, Katherine Rich,Claire Harvey, TV Journalist
Will Harris - Commentator, Michael Bassett, Dick Allen, Phil Goff, Murray McCully, Ron Hickmott, Richard Long, TV Journalist

Brian King -
Set Design
Jennifer Lal - Lighting Design
Judith Crozier - Costume Design
Andrew McMillan - Sound Design
Glenn Ashworth - Technical Operator
Sarah Griffiths - Producer
Rose Miller - Graphic Design
Matt Grace - Photography
Iain Cooper - Set Construction
Phil Halasz - Set Construction

Theatre ,

Brash at Play not Brash by the Book

Review by Peter Hawes 15th Oct 2007

The Hollow Men is a splendid play based on a splendid book – in tandem so splendid, in fact, that theatres are scared of one version and newspaper editors of t’other.

The play is the first I can remember dealing with NZ politics since Roger Hall’s Hansard Diaries in the 1980s, which was a compilation of extraordinary, unbelievable and hilarious extracts from parliament’s book of official record. The Hollow Men is a similar compilation – but of utterances never, ever, designed for publication; slimy, greasy, low back-street mutterings as sinister, cynical and contemptuous of humankind as the Nixon tapes.

It is superbly acted, my only beef with the performances being that they are done in full dress whilst this, par excellence, is the story of hollow men caught with their pants down.

You know the story: an intelligent man with vile but sincerely-held views is called upon by like-minded friends to save the nation from a government that refuses to reduce taxes on obscenely rich people. He arrives on a white horse, bumps the leader of his party, replaces him, then readies himself for election as PM. He is an honest man – he says what he thinks, he airs his views. The rest of the play is about `repackaging’ him to the state of a normal politician. 

The set consists of interesting purple darknesses, electric brightnesses and intersecting metal lines which create parliamentary Aye booths, TV studios and smoke-filled rooms… but are, most interestingly, reminiscent of Rennaissance perspective exercises. Which, on this set, never intersect. More of this anon.

The story of The Hollow Men – which is the story of National’s Keystone Cop-outs – is enacted by three busy men in grey suits: Michael Keir Morrissey as Peter Keenan, who believed that "Children should be marching in celebration in the streets, chanting the praises… of Douglas, Richardson and Birch"; Sam Snedden as Mathew Hooton, a Reaganophile pro-tobaccoite who once advocated amending the nuclear-free legislation, and Arthur Meek, as Bryan Sinclair, Don’s assistant and contact man with the Exclusive Brethren. The Three Wisecracking Monkeys; all real and extant people – can you believe that?

Ever-astonishing Lyndee-Jane Rutherford is eight women – admittedly one at a time – but imagine playing Ruth Richardson and Katherine Rich and looking like them both! She is also a flesh-creepingly perfect Ronald Reagan.

Will Harris is everyone else in the play bar one. He is, among others, a plangent Phil Goff, an insidious Richard Long and an ineffectually pompous Michael Bassett. In other words he recreates them to a tee.

Last and most, Stephen Papps as Brash. Papps acts the mannerisms rather than the man and does it superbly, curving like an S-bend among ostentatiously straight colleagues, radiating alienation and bearing a constant expression of cherubic bewilderment until taught the rudiments of strategic petulance. His ties curl up like the bloke’s in Dilbert, his clean bright spectacles reflect light and advice and he paves the way for arrest for decent acts – in all ways he is one of the great theatrical cartoon creations.

And herein lies my faint unease. It would have been a crime to direct Papps away from this character – it must be seen by all NZers of every political denomination, then installed in model form in Te Papa. (Perhaps over the front door – `Te Papa’ after all, means `The Potato’ in Spanish – Papps’ Brash could be our cultural Mr Potato.)

But the Brash on the stage is not the Brash in the book – or Book as I choose to call it. The theatrical impression is quickly and enjoyably given that Brash was a clown, a dupe manipulated by soulless and crafty men whereas the Book tells us he was a soulless and crafty man himself, aware of his inadequacies and determined to have them nullified by advisers.

Now, back to those straight lines heading towards each other – I don’t think Dean Parker’s fine adaptation ever quite intersects with the Nicky Hager book – (there’s that same difference between the literary version of Once Were Warriors which was male-centred, and the film, which switched the gender view). The play lets Brash off the hook upon which Nicky Hager had so emphatically hung him.

Dean Parker presents Brash as the innocent Pinocchio falling into the evil clutches of the wolf and his cronies, whereas Hager presents him as the evil Machiavelli, drawing the cronies in around him for assistance.

As the Book says of Brash’s shared feelings with his cohorts in the Grand Plan: "…politicians do not need the party membership except to supplement fundraising efforts. They do not particularly need the rest of the caucus either. Other MPs often just cause problems. The main things needed are one or more politicians, frontpeople, a small group of hired advisers … PR advisers, speechwriters and strategists."

Note the word hired.

Ultimately, did Brash fall or was he pushed? No, he fell because he pulled.  He pulled them in, they didn’t push him in. The noisesome Hooton, for example, was "The first person Brash brought in to help him".  

Brash was his own man – we’ve got to give him credit for the free will to commit political calumny to realise his infamy. Here’s a portrait – from the Book – of the seeming `puppet’ in the play: "Don Brash was one of NZ’s early and leading free market advocates. When he headed the merchant bank Broadbank in 1981 he personally arranged a tour of the country by Milton Friedman the foremost new-right thinker in the world…. Brash stood twice for the National Party in the East Coast Bays electorate and was one of a small number of renegade free market believers on the right of the party who challenged the leader Robert Muldoon’s policies…."

Sheesh! Fronting up to Rob? That ain’t the activity of a wimp. I have visions of a sketch I wrote for A Week Of It; Muldoon as a young George Washington is cowering, tomahawk in hand, under the wrathful eye of his father and whimpering: "Father, I cannot tell a lie – teach me."  Well, the bastards taught Don, all right. They taught him to protect his retro-Reaganist neo-con dribble-down bullshit agenda under a plethora of wide-mouthed lying smiles. But only because he wanted to know.

We leave the play bidding, almost fondly, farewell to a well-meaning fool, whereas we close the Book on a nasty bastard who almost got us. Which is why the play is stunning entertainment – but the book is, imperatively, the Book.  
For more production details, click on the title at the top of this review. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.  


Dean Parker October 15th, 2007

As the record shows, Brash stood for election under Muldoon on a neo-liberal monetarist platform and was casually and breathtakingly disposed off – by Muldoon. He was a political novice and knew he was and came to rely on others. He had a specific right-wing agenda which he makes clear at the start of the play and he had considerable achievements in right-wing economic policies – again which he makes clear at the start of the play. Those about him convinced him he would have to “nuance” some of this agenda and downplay some of these policies. As the play shows, against the advice of one of his principal staffers he took a hard line on welfare. Nevertheless, the nuancing continued and led to alarm among his supporters that he was becoming just another National Party hack. Meanwhile his early protestations against resorting to dishonesties and duplicities and “getting down in the gutter with Winston” disappeared – and in the course of the play we see them disappear. The night I went the audience laughed scornfully at his final attempt to defend himself – the short speech he gives where he says, “If what it takes to be a natural politician is to evade the question, give misleading answers and act deceitfully, then count me out.” The speech was placed there for that very reaction. But more important than the characterisation of Brash are the play’s last lines: “Meanwhile in the building, [Brash’s] successor, multi-millionaire finance dealer John Key, was being advised by the same advisers, and funded by the same funders, and marketed by the same marketers as the latest fresh, distinct, individual, unique, centrist leader: the old—but new, the same—but changed.” The important thing with this play is that people become aware of the workings of bourgeois politics, that we stop saying, “If only we could get rid of Muldoon… If only we could get rid of Roger Douglas… Ruth Richardson… Don Brash…” I was asked to contribute something to the programme for the first season at Bats. I came up with three quotes which never quite made it to the page. The first was from Albert Camus: “Politics is man’s direct address to other men.” The second was from Nicky’s book: “As the head of ‘spin’ for the National Party leader’s office, one of Richard Long’s main jobs was scripting the words used by the politicians when talking to journalists. Long always referred to these as ‘lines’, a term borrowed appropriately from the world of theatre and fiction.” And the third was from left-wing British Labour MP Tony Ben: “My wife said that if I ever left parliament I should say that I left to devote more time to politics.”

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The presentation of image

Review by Kate Blackhurst 04th Oct 2007

One hour and forty minutes of four men (and one woman) in suits ranged across the stage talking politics and economics could be deadly dull. Adapted by Dean Parker from Nicky Hager’s book, The Hollow Men is far from it, and contains moments of humour as it depicts how the National party led by Don Brash managed to lose an election; coming so close to victory, only to throw it all away.

There are all the names and the allusions to incidents in recent politics, but, apart from the murmurs of recognition from the audience (themselves much older than BATS’ usual clientele) the power of the play is that it shows how little these individual details actually matter. The Orewa speech stands out; although we’ve heard it all before – the verisimilitude of the speeches is one of the play’s strengths – you could have heard a pin drop. Love it or loathe it, it’s a great speech, but as the bins on stage fill up with empty coffee cups and crumpled speeches, we realise that they are equally dispensable.

Modern politics isn’t about the details, it is about the personalities, and there are very few in this play. Perception becomes reality, and the job of the speech writers and the spin doctors is to make Don Brash appealing to the electorate. They instruct him to tell the public what they want to hear, but not to mention things they won’t like. They fill him with their ideas and pronouncements, and when he breaks, they throw him away.

In this version of events, he commits no greater crime than a love of the economy and an exaggerated faith in his advisers and his own potential. From the beginning, a suit hangs on a dress maker’s dummy and when it is switched to his shoulders, it is clear that he will be a construct. He is treated like a puppet, even to the extent of being guided around the stage with a hand in the small of his back like a ventriloquist’s dummy. He is gentle and domestic, as illustrated by a masterly sequence of stage business with a dustbuster and a pair of rubber gloves, but hopelessly out of touch with the modern world. His ham-fisted use of a cell phone when everyone else is texting and phoning at a whirlwind speed highlights his alienation.

This Brash is a reluctant politician; he can’t lie or evade questions. He attempts to appeal to business interests but his smart alec advisers, Hooton and Sinclair, tell him that monetary politics are dull, beliefs are boring, and spin is sexy. They tell him to be himself but this is the last thing they really want as they collectively coach him to be more presentable and try and stop him from making speeches. As far as they are concerned, charisma is the name of Mark Todd’s, and Brash needs to get more populist – like Winston Peters, for example. His appeal is his honesty and his reputation, but they take even that from him. He changes his politics to suit popular opinion but abandons his integrity along the way, becoming a mere shell. His plaintive cry “I am not a liar” feels like the denouement of a Shakespearean tragedy, and there is more than a hint of Julius Caesar in the crucible of the Beehive.

Don Brash is portrayed by Stephen Papps as a decent man, not suited to the cut and thrust of the political sphere. His gauche gestures are effective, with sloping posture, crossed arms, thoughtful frowns and a rubber face. He mops his neck with a handkerchief and rolls an olive around in his mouth with hints of Mr. Bean. He uses childish words like ‘crikey’, ‘golly’ and ‘fiddlesticks’. His awkward attempt to sing the National Anthem in Maori, illustrating his lack of empathy with the indigenous people of New Zealand, drew a spontaneous round of applause. It is surprisingly easy to feel sorry for this Brash, manipulated by others. He sits like a chastised schoolboy alone at the death of a party when the harsh lights come back up and the sycophants have moved on.

Sinclair and Hooton are played with boundless vigour by Arthur Meek and Sam Snedden respectively, racing across the stager on their swivel chairs in a new interpretation to the notion of spin. Meek plasters on a smile without substance and displays enthusiasm in a Tom Cruise, perfect teeth sort of way. Snedden is a bundle of nervous energy; he plays with his stress ball; examines his nails; takes his hands in and out of his pockets and fidgets in a manner which is evidently shifty.

Michael Keir Morrisey’s oleaginous Peter Keenan is New Zealand’s version of Sir Humphrey in ‘Yes, Minister’, but the biggest joke is that it’s true. He finds it hard to deliver the line, “Labour is poll driven. We are policy” with a straight face. Will Harris plays many parts – most notably Dick Allen (with a suspect American accent but unctuous effusiveness) full of platitudes about freedom and mushy nonsensical claptrap; Phil Goff barracking in the house about the nuclear policy stance; and Ron Hickmott of the Exclusive Brethren with excessive enthusiasm and pleading eyes.

The extremely adaptable Lyndee-Jane Rutherford plays all the female parts and Ronald Reagan in a mask. She briefly portrays Dianne Foreman, who is hardly in it, despite her public protests – perhaps she’s just not as interesting as she thinks she is. When National believe they need to be seen as more caring to appeal to women voters, they call in Sandy Burgham to organise a focus group. As the men line up against the wall like lads at a school dance, Rutherford makes full effect of her expressive facial features to wring every ounce of emphasis out of the fact that National is seen as a boys’ club.

Under scrutiny and bright lights, the men are positioned around the stage as interchangeable suits. Politicians become actors, held in freeze frame while introductions are made. The set works well with illuminated screens stretched between a grid of flats, allowing the actors to stand behind them and cast their shadows and silhouettes. One character lectures Brash, ‘Politics is war – choose your terrain’ and the flats are like a chess board. They resemble celebrity squares as Murray McCully insists “It’s a game!” and are employed on more than one occasion as a television screen.

The play is all about the presentation of image. There are no real people so we do not see the implications of any of the policies. Despite Brash’s increasingly hysterical insistence that his wife is from Singapore, she is never seen. There is no need to get personal, as his legacy is ephemeral. This could have been a dull presentation of talking heads hashing over old policies, but Barker’s adaptation is riveting, including loud bursts of music between scenes, which make it much more appealing as a play than a book. It is sometimes hard to separate facts from drama, but it is well worth seeing.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


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The deep resonance of hollowness

Review by John Smythe 27th Sep 2007

To a large extent The Hollow Men wrote themselves, given Nicky Hager’s 2006 exposé of the rise and fall of Don Brash as National Party leader – subtitled ‘a study in the politics of deception’ – is based on leaked emails and internal reports, as well as appointment diaries, meeting minutes and face-to-face interviews.

Of course it is Hager’s clarity of purpose in organising of the material and adding his editorial commentary that make it a riveting read. But its great strength as a political history lies in the extraordinary credibility of the source material brought to light, Hager suggests, by principled insiders "willing to blow the whistle and expose the inner workings of their own party … out of a deep wish for the politics of this country to be different."[1]

Now the sure hand of playwright Dean Parker – abetted by director Jonathon Hendry, six actors, four designers and a committed production crew – brings those four and a half fraught yet fascinating years to life on stage at BATS, in a form as compelling as any thriller, punctuated by well-judged comic relief.

In revealing the workings of the machine that propelled Brash into the leadership then master-minded the National Party campaign for the 2005 election, The Hollow Men distils human ambition and folly in ways that allow it to transcend its immediate context. Like any Shakespeare history – although I hasten to add it’s funnier than most of them – this play has enduring value as an enquiry into the nature of politics itself.

Treated more as an object – a device – than as a person by his advisers, Stephen Papps’ bemused Don Brash barely gets a word in edgewise initially, as they mould and manipulate him into becoming the mouthpiece for vote-winning messages spun in the political equivalent of a candyfloss machine. At best, he is a good listener and learner. At worst, he is a hollow man allowing himself to be used as a vessel to carry hidden agendas while winning favour with populist sound bites: "Simple, big, bold!"

But far from being a victim, when he does speak he owns the words (like any good actor). And there are times when his political innocence and principled integrity offer touching insights into his true nature. Inevitably, then – as with most villains and anti-heroes given their full dimensions on stage – there is pathos in his inevitable demise.

Papps marks every shift with a depth of truth that is a sound rejoinder to the shallowness of the exercises in which his character is so often obliged to engage. There’s a hint of the classical clown in this distillation, not least in a relatively silent sequence involving a dust-buster and rubber gloves (although the inadvertently untucked shirt-tail should have been corrected by one of his staff on opening night), and an excruciating moment in Queenstown when US patriot Dick Allen (Will Harris) obliges Don to join him in the New Zealand national anthem – in both languages.

Will Harris also threads through the play as a sawn-off Richard Long, media adviser, while turning in superbly-pitched cameos as ex-Labour politician turned historian and columnist Michael Bassett (who secretly writes speeches for Brash them praises them in his Herald column), Phil Goff (in full debating chamber flight), ultimate spin-doctor Murray McCully ("It’s a game!"), Exclusive Brethren emissary Ron Hickmott and a frustrated TV journalist.  

As Peter Keenan, the Wellington economist who becomes Brash’s chief strategist and speech writer (vacillating from "Tell the people what they want to hear" to "Nothing corrupts like lack of power"), Michael Keir Morrisey engages us most as he confronts his own thresholds of integrity, especially when it comes to claiming Mâori are privileged. Despite the odd moment of struggling for lines, it’s a solid performance that counterbalances the relatively amoral enthusiasms of his younger colleagues. 

Arthur Meek brings a bright-eyed passion to Brash’s assistant Bryan Sinclair ("You don’t want advice, you want a campaign!"), who has a clear sense of what should be hidden from the public gaze. As the PR-savvy assistant Matthew Hooton, Sam Snedden invests the sharp-tongued master of the sound-bite with a focussed energy that leaves us in no doubt that these boys mean business.

Taking every opportunity to offer comic relief without losing sight of the import of her scenes, Lyndee-Jane Rutherford plays nine cameo roles. Her multi-millionaire business-woman Diane Forman bookends the play with her smooth-voiced observations, a compassionate moment with Don just after he has lost the election giving the only hint of any other role she may play in his life. Former National Party President Sue Wood (Hooton’s mother-in-law, incidentally) fusses about with a tailor’s dummy as she gives sartorial advice, while TV journalist Susan Wood goes for the jugular in the interview that questions Brash’s relationship with the would-be-clandestine Exclusive Brethren activists.

Her NZ Herald reporter Claire Harvey is an impact player in the game and the real one was there on opening night to write the Herald review. Two other high points are Rutherford’s masked rendition of Ronald Regan’s "Shining city upon a hill" radio talk and her black wigged, silk track-suited Ruth Richardson: "Being in government is worth everything!"

Brian King’s metal framed set, Jennifer Lal’s lighting (I could feel the warmth of that sunlight in Queenstown) and Andrew McMillain’s sound design for bridging between scenes, all serve the forward-moving dynamic of the production, directed by Jonathon Hendry to keep a strong focus on the substantive content through an astute orchestration of pace.

It is a great credit to all involved that the considerable theatrical skills that bring this story to the stage in no way eclipse the play’s powerful insight into politics. Having worked dramaturgical wonders with Hager’s rigorous scholarship, and allowed us to empathise with Don on his departure from the front bench of parliament, Parker makes sure we are well aware than the machine behind John Key’s elevation promises more of the same.

Accolades are due to Dean Parker for writing the script on spec, Nicky Hager for allowing the adaptation to proceed, Creative New Zealand for funding the production, Playmarket for getting it workshopped and BATS for programming it – all with a year. No other theatre in the country could be so responsive, although it is certainly hoped that they will now pick it up (this production tours to Centrepoint in Palmerston North in mid-October) to ensure all New Zealanders get the opportunity to see what fuels and drives the political machine.

Rodney Hide was in the front row on opening night. Let’s hope he expresses loud outrage at public money being used to allow this play to come alive. It’ll be great publicity and will add even deeper resonance to The Hollow Men.

[1] Nicky Hager, The Hollow Men, Craig Potten Publishing, 2006, p280    


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Swimming with the piranhas

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 27th Sep 2007

Documentary theatre is nothing new in our theatre. What is new, however, about Dean Parker’s incisive, often funny, and totally absorbing adaptation of Nicky Hager’s The Hollow Men is that it is set in the very recent past, whereas nearly all previous documentary plays have been set in the comparative safety of long ago.

Dean Parker has described his play as being all about the selling of a particular brand of bourgeois politics and it is therefore, to use the recent words of Don Brash, a flagrantly political play, which, since the death of Mervyn Thompson, means it is a rarity.

Even if the book is "full of crap and innuendo and half-truths and lies", to quote Diane Foreman (she barely features by the way), it has been turned into exciting, relevant theatre showing us what goes on in what used to be called smoke-filled rooms. Here we discover the real meaning of the "lines" written for the politicians by their spin doctors as they maneuver Don Brash into the leadership of the National Party and possibly the Beehive.

With remarkable economy and considerable wit Parker takes us through all the major political events of Brash’s rise and fall – the Exclusive Brethren, the Nuclear fuss, the first Orewa Speech, and so on- as his advisers tell him what to say, particularly after he has made some gaffe.

He comes across as an innocent surrounded by smiling and sometimes not very intelligent piranhas. His final speech in the House, beautifully played by Stephen Papps, makes one sympathetic to him. But what comes across most strongly is the influence of his advisers who are driven by the belief that perception is everything and "nothing corrupts like the lack of power."

Jonathon Hendry’s production is slick, fast, and acted to the hilt by Stephen Papps and a superior supporting cast of Michael Keir Morrissey, Arthur Meek, Sam Snedden, Will Harris, and Lyndee-Jane Rutherford in devastating form covering the distaff side.

If National think they have been unfairly treated I can assure them that most audiences will come away saying a curse on both your houses.


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