The Truth Game

Fortune Theatre, Dunedin

07/10/2011 - 29/10/2011

Production Details

Last great snorting warhorse of print journalism lashes out

In the news of this world, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear… 

Committed to developing and presenting new New Zealand work, the Fortune Theatre is thrilled to stage Simon Cunliffe’s timely contemporary play, The Truth Game. Set in the newsroom of daily newspaper, The Advocate, this vigorous drama confronts head-on the conflicts and contradictions of a world in crisis.

In his debut full-length play, Cunliffe who is also a working journalist – at present Deputy Editor (News) of the Otago Daily Times – places his characters in a milieu increasingly under pressure, not only from economic reality, but also from an inexorable tide of new digital media. 

Frank Stone, an irascible and charismatic long-serving journalist, is a natural choice for promotion to the editor’s chair, but will he compromise his standards and values to meet the demands of the paper’s new corporate owners? And, if he does, how will this affect his deeply entwined personal and professional relationships? 

Embracing the demanding role of the bombastic Frank Stone, the “last great snorting warhorse of print journalism”, is actor Greg Johnson. Greg joins the Fortune after a sell-out season of Calendar Girls at Auckland Theatre Company. He is one of New Zealand’s most recognisable actors, having made numerous appearances on film and television: The World’s Fastest Indian, The Piano, Outrageous Fortune, Go Girls, and Shortland Street. 

Rounding out a stellar ensemble cast is: local actor, writer and presenter Peter Hayden, actor and presenter Phil Vaughan, Anna Henare, Michele Amas and Kathleen Burns.

Artistic Director of the Fortune, and director of The Truth Game premiere, Lara Macgregor says: “Nourishing and developing new work and artists is an imperative part of the Fortune’s vision. It’s a great privilege to have programmed Simon’s vibrant script in our 2011 Season. The timing of this play’s premiere is eerie. We couldn’t have wished for a more relevant story to reflect our times.” 

Writer Simon Cunliffe says: “This play’s beginnings were in Dunedin and I’m delighted it is to have its premiere at the Fortune Theatre.” 

“In the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandals and the continuing rise in influence of digital media in this country and elsewhere, its underlying themes have never been more urgent.” 

“But I’m also thrilled to have such a talented director and cast bring to life the colourful, idiosyncratic and all-too-human characters of a once-indispensable but fast disappearing world.’’

In conjunction with its 150th Anniversary celebrations, the Otago Daily Times is proud to sponsor this new work.

The Truth Game 
Production Dates: 
7 October – 29 October, 2011
Venue: Fortune Theatre, 231 Stuart Street, Dunedin 9016 
Performances: 6pm Tuesday / 7.30pm Wednesday – Saturday / 4pm Sunday (no show Monday)
Tickets: Early Bird (first 5 shows) $32, Adults $40, Senior Citizens $32, Members $30, Tertiary Students $20, High School Students $15, Group discount (10 +) $32,
Bookings: Fortune Theatre, 231 Stuart Street, Dunedin; (03) 477 8323 

Michelle Amas          Belinda Barnes
Greg Johnson           Frank Stone
Peter Hayden            Rafe Jones
Anna Henare             Sam Hunter
Phil Vaughan             Bill Singer
Kathleen Burns         Jo Pointer

Stage Manager                      Jennifer Aitken
Set Design                              Matt Best
Set Build                                 Matt Best and Peter King 
Wardrobe Design                  Maryanne Wright-Smyth
Properties Master                  Rebecca Tapp
Lighting Design                     Stephen Killroy
Lighting Operator                  Sid Nambiar
Sound Design                        Andrew Todd
AV Design                              Andrew Todd
Rigging                                   Joe Worley and Brian Paavo
Poster Design                         Nikki Kidd
Production Photographer      Aliana McDaniel
Headshot Photographer        Aliana McDaniel
Programme Design               James Higgs, Marti at Speedprint
Video Trailer                          Miguel Nitis / James Higgs / Lara Macgregor 

Truth will out in newspaper game

Review by Barbara Frame 10th Oct 2011

“Chad who?” asks Belinda. She doesn’t know that Chad is a country. A “Group Strategy Leader” for an international media company, she uses words like “synergies” and “paradigms,” and is keen on “giving our customers what they want to read.” She represents the worldwide trend for packaging news, selling it as a commodity and keeping shareholders happy. 

Dunedin playwright Simon Cunliffe’s The Truth Game is set in a newspaper called The Advocate and focuses, as its oxymoronic title suggests, on the conflict between Belinda and aptly-named Frank Stone, a senior journalist who believes in intelligence, integrity and punctuation. 

It’s a play of big and very timely ideas, tacking the decline of newspapers in the context of multinational ownership and the twittering, bottom-feeding vacuity that masquerades as information. 

Like any good newspaper, though, the play has its human side, and there is much interest in the complex personal relationships between Frank (Greg Johnson), Sam (Anna Henare), Rafe (Peter Hayden), Bill (Phil Vaughan) and eager recruit Jo (Kathleen Burns). (If I have a quibble, it’s that a small sub-plot involving Jo’s parentage is distracting and adds little to the play.)

Belinda (Michelle Amas) seems almost a caricature, but in a positive way, because her function is to personify the intellectual and moral deficiencies of some media capitalism. 

Commendably, the Fortune Theatre has recognised an important play by a first-time playwright. Lara Macgregor directs a stellar cast on a set, designed by Matt Best, depicting a modern newsroom. The production has been sponsored by the Otago Daily Times and is a significant contribution to its 150th anniversary celebrations. 

The Truth Game is one of the very best New Zealand plays I’ve seen in recent years. The issues it raises are serious and extend far beyond newspapers. Bravo.  


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Myriad issues insightfully explored in slick and gripping production

Review by Terry MacTavish 09th Oct 2011

Fortuitously this review coincided with a visit from an old and dear friend of university days, Michael de Hamel, who just happens to be editor-in-chief of both the Akaroa Mail and the Kaiapoi Advocate. So it was inevitable I would grill him about the veracity of The Truth Game, a play set in the newsroom of a fictional Advocate.  

What for instance, does ‘Advocate’ really mean, in newspaper terms? I now know that an advocate stands up for its community, against everything. The Kaiapoi Advocate has done a good deal of that during the past year of Canterbury earthquakes. The Advocate conceived by Simon Cunliffe for The Truth Game appears more concerned with securing its own existence, threatened as it is by corporate takeover as well as the popularity of the internet. 

Cunliffe’s play, his first, is born of his own experience – he is currently deputy editor of the Otago Daily Times, New Zealand’s only metropolitan daily paper not owned by a conglomerate – and it has a distinctly autobiographical feel. And that is what makes The Truth Game special: it is an insight into an intriguing, challenging world, delivered with wit and authenticity. 

Director Lara Macgregor has more than kept faith with the writer: this is a slick and gripping production which builds to a cracking pace that replicates the genuine excitement of a newsroom in vivid action. The set (Matt Best) is ingenious: sleek grey individual cubicles merge into a central area, with a box that opens above to provide scope for an interesting use of levels. Maryanne Wright-Smythe’s costumes follow the grey theme attractively, with just a few judicious flashes of red. 

We follow the staff through one night, as they initially struggle to come up with an attention-grabbing front page, and then confront the thrilling ‘Stop the Press!’ moment when a gigantic story breaks. Meanwhile myriad issues are explored, from splitting the infinitive to turgid office relationships; though not, strangely, the nature of truth as portrayed by the media. 

Michael and I agree it is curious that Cunliffe opts for a crisis overseas as the climactic scene, when the Earthquake seems such a compellingly obvious choice. Or if the quake was deemed too sensitive, then nearer still to home and alarmingly topical, perhaps a shipwreck spilling oil off Taiaroa Head? 

But war does make for a fantastic start to the second half, with the clever set becoming a screen showing bombing in action, and the stage exploding into ecstatic life as the news team rush to get the latest, most dramatic, headline-grabbing information onto the front page. In a neat twist the despised internet is used to locate a Kiwi in the danger area for a comment, while new staff briefly agonise, “How can you be so callous?” – “It’s what we do.” 

A new play needs an experienced cast to flesh it out, and the Fortune has chosen well. The play opens with a dynamic address by scintillating motivational speaker Belinda Barnes, played with superb conviction by Michele Amas. Ah, Dunedin! Michael reminds me he was the first professionally to photograph Amas,* here in my own production of The Taming of the Shrew.  

While not exactly a shrew, Belinda, who is about to join the Advocate, is an unsympathetic character; a man’s idea of a tough, ball-breaking businesswoman. Amas, however, gives her depth, creating a multi-faceted character who is far more than the conventional, conscienceless marketing executive. Intimidating but credibly right for her job, she sees through old-fashioned crusading journalist Frank Stone. The scene in which Amas delivers his birthday cake is brilliantly realised. 

Frank Stone himself is the protagonist, dealt with more gently by Cunliffe. He is the direct descendant of Lou Grant, role model to generations, the quintessential newspaperman, sarcastic but idealistic, demonstrating integrity in his job if not his private life. Frank is in line for the editorship, but what sacrifices will the Advocate’s new bosses demand? 

As Frank, Greg Johnson tackles a huge role energetically. He has the right hard-nosed, rumpled appearance and shoots out his cynical lines with sardonic pleasure. Much of the play’s sparkle relies on his verbal dexterity and apart from one moment of faltering confusion on opening night, he succeeds very well, with a particularly delightful riff on the abominable semi-colon. [Oops, I just popped one in two pars above – ed.]

It is becoming hard to resist the urge to type ‘Fortune favourite’ in front of Anna Henare’s name, as she certainly has delivered a series of fine, thoughtful performances here. Her Sam Hunter is no exception: a sensitive, intelligent career woman trying to decipher her relationship with Frank. 

Most charming of all, played with gentle humour by Peter Hayden, is Rafe Jones, who must represent, Michael informs me, a ‘mahogany row’ journalist. The mellifluous voice of so many Natural History NZ documentaries, Hayden also has a lovely physical presence, and makes Rafe the sweetest of gentlemanly old duffers.   

The least appealing of the team is the character of Bill Singer (unselfishly undertaken by Phil Vaughan) who seems to epitomise the more tedious qualities of the newsman. 

No matter, the cuteness rating is definitely improved by the addition of blogging star and new sub-editor Jo Pointer. Perkily performed by Kathleen Burns (loved the wild entry on roller skates!), Jo has an agenda of her own, resolved rather too quickly to be plausible, but theatrically useful.

Together the cast achieve a pace at times dizzying, but always entertaining and often very funny, whether gloating over a salacious story or working like a well-oiled machine when the really big news breaks. A newspaper office is made to appear a fascinating place, and in the second half the excitement builds magnificently. The stage seems peopled with far more than the cast and the audience is completely caught up in the thrill of the chase. Oh, to be a journalist in the midst of a world crisis! 

Macgregor hallmark moments are in evidence, like the overlapping dialogue contrasted with sudden moments of stillness, and the pacing of random lines, as when Rafe ambles across the stage murmuring, “The Costa Ricans are the most promiscuous on the planet,” at a singularly inappropriate moment.

The production is enhanced by the impressively substantial programme, laid out like a newspaper and including thought-provoking articles by English lecturer Paul Tankard and ODT editor Murray Kirkness. Kirkness argues that the on-line world is not the enemy of papers, but what will save them. “Good journalism is good journalism, regardless of the delivery platform.” 

Hacking scandals have recently turned a spotlight on the newspaper business, but in The Truth Game how news is obtained appears of less immediate significance than the future of papers facing the digital age. Cunliffe seems to say papers are safe as long as wars and disasters still exist. Sensationalism rules. Not so, thinks my friend Michael the editor. It is local content and dedication to community causes that win loyal readers. Good editorial coverage brings in the advertisers.

So I am convinced. Newspapers are safe, so long as they are community focused and editorially driven, with real news stories that can be found nowhere else. Certainly not on the web. And Michael leaves, amusedly shaking his head over my delusion that anyone will read this on-line review…

It is immensely satisfying to be able to consider and discuss contemporary issues raised by a Dunedin playwright, and given such entertaining form by the Fortune, which deserves praise for producing promising local work. Such relevance can only help ensure the continued survival of the theatre as well!  

*Note infinitive unsplit!    
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