Transmission: Beta

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

18/05/2024 - 15/06/2024

Production Details

writer: Stuart McKenzie
co-directors: Miranda Harcourt & Stuart McKenzie
original music: Rhian Sheehan

Circa Theatre

The fight against Covid became a war with each other

From the elimination of the virus to the elimination of a government. TRANSMISSION: BETA is the powerful sequel to Stuart McKenzie and Miranda Harcourt’s acclaimed verbatim play TRANSMISSION (2021). TRANSMISSION recorded the white-knuckle battle to eliminate Covid-19 in Aotearoa.

Now, drawn from ongoing interviews with iconic players, TRANSMISSION: BETA narrates the fallout from the virus. An emotional roller-coaster, this brand new show records the fiery protests and economic turmoil that followed the vaccination rollouts and mandates, ending with the downfall of a Prime Minister.

Starring Sophie Hambleton, Carrie Green, Sepe Mua’au, Nigel Collins and Simon Leary, TRANSMISSION: BETA features the voices of Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson; John Tamihere; economist Bernard Hickey; vaccine scientist Kjesten Wiig; epidemiologist Michael Baker; philanthropist Sam Morgan; Assistant Commissioner of Police, Richard Chambers; MIQ residents; medical practitioners; and anti-mandate protesters.

Featuring original music by Rhian Sheehan.

A major new work, TRANSMISSION: BETA takes the temperature of a nation.

“I felt like I was preparing people for war. In a way, I guess we were.” — Jacinda Ardern

“Gripping, amusing, insightful, unexpected, moving – and needs to go viral” — Theatreview
“a window into the unfathomable responsibility of political power, humane and complex” — The Spinoff”

Circa One
18 May to 15 Jun* 2024
Preview 17 May
Q&As Tuesday 21 May, Friday 31 May and Saturday 1 June
Tues – Thurs 6.30pm
Fri – Sat 8pm
Sun 4pm

in alphabetical order
Nigel Collins - Bernard Hickey,Michael Baker
Carrie Green - John Tamihere, Terina Pihema, Richard Chambers, Anahera Malosi
Sophie Hambleton- Jacinda Ardern, Caitlin Gallagher,
Simon Leary - Grant Robertson
Sepilini Mua’au - Sam Morgan, Kjesten Wiig, Fetu Malosi,
Sophie Lindsay
Caroline Holden
Michael Baker as himself
Rima Te Wiata as herself

set design: Mark McEntyre
lighting design: Will Smith
visual design: Delainy Kennedy
sound design: Marc Freeman
identity design: Chris Bleackley, eigthtyone
graphic design: Geoff Francis, goodeye
publicity: Yael Gezentsvey
original photography: Rob Kitchin, Kevin Stent, Margot White -
stage manager: Morgan Dean
production manager: Mitch Sigley
operator: Gabby Eaton
video programmer: Rachel Neser
production photography: Stephen A’Court
set builder: James Earle

Theatre ,

100 minutes

Living inside history: a chic and powerful success

Review by Claire Mabey 04th Jun 2024

Stuart McKenzie and Miranda Harcourt’s second piece of verbatim theatre that tracks the Covid years is a chic and powerful success.

There’s nothing I love more than a sleek theatre set. The physical world of Transmission Beta is created with just six revolving panels (designed by Ōtautahi-based designer Mark McEntyre), set nice and high, which the cast of five can walk through like kissing doors in a Western movie, and upon which projections can be beamed, and lighting effectively bounced. Transmission Beta is a classy production from the get-go: a stylish foundation for a complex web of perspectives to be built on.

This is the second instalment in McKenzie’s Covid-era verbatim theatre – a documentary format – where the words of real people (taken from interviews as well as existing footage) in the real world are knitted into a script that explores a particular event. It’s a hell of a lot of work. But Stuart McKenzie (creator and writer) and Miranda Harcourt (director) make it look effortless in an experience that closely reads the years immediate to 2020’s attempts to keep Covid from our shores while maintaining a semblance of unity among the population. [More]


Make a comment

Play offers window into unprocessed pandemic memories

Review by Max Rashbrooke 04th Jun 2024

[Note: The image posted in The Post is from Transmission, 2021.]


Make a comment

Primal, beautiful, must-see, have-to-feel theatre

Review by Simon Sweetman 24th May 2024

In 2021 Stuart McKenzie and Miranda Harcourt debuted TRANSMISSION. As you can see by the way I titled my piece about it, I was enthusiastic:

The Verbatim Play About NZ’s Covid Response That Deserves To Be Filmed For Netflix, And To Tour The Country Endlessly, If Not The World

TRANSMISSION told the story of the decision to put New Zealand into Lockdown. In keeping with the tenets of a “Verbatim” play, the dialogue and monologues in the play were taken directly from interviews carried out over ZOOM and Skype, with actors performing the roles of Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson. And other key characters, including epidemiologist Michael Baker.

I loved TRANSMISSION, and if, in hindsight, it played out a bit like an ad for the Labour Government of the time, there can’t be the same luck in this sequel volume, Transmission: Beta.

It’s important to say that you don’t need to have seen the first volume of the play, it’s all recent history we lived through of course. But Transmission: Beta tells a new story, and starts with enough of a recap before it picks up the thread in 2021, and moves through to 2023, its immediate focus the Auckland lockdown extension; its ultimate finding — Jacinda-mania was replaced by a rage that festered online, the pandemic being usurped by an “Infodemic” — misinformation becoming its own infectious disease.

Through interviews again with Jacinda, Grant, Michael Baker, and new players — including John Tamihere, Bernard Hickey, police officers dispatched to deal with the Parliament protests, and a range of antivax voices, Transmission: Beta updates the situation. [More]


Make a comment

Confronting, enlightening, comedic, tragic – and essential in every respect

Review by John Smythe 19th May 2024

On 21 March 2020, prime minister Jacinda Ardern stepped up to align New Zealand’s ‘team of five million’ to the Four Alert Levels of Lockdown strategy. Just 13 months later the way it all unfolded was played back to us at BATS Theatre by way of TRANSMISSION, a verbatim play. My review, headlined ‘Gripping, amusing, insightful, unexpected, moving – and needs to go viral’, opened thus:

“It takes a special combo of creative minds to even think of making a theatre work like Transmission – about New Zealand’s response to Covid-19 from political, scientific, journalistic and very personal perspectives – let alone bring it to fruition within the most unpredictable year any of us are likely to live through. And it’s not over yet!”

It certainly wasn’t.

Now the sequel, Transmission Beta – also researched and written by Stuart McKenzie from more interview recordings, and co-directed by Dame Miranda Harcourt and McKenzie – has opened at Circa One. “The fight against Covid became a war with each other,” the promo reads. “From the elimination of the virus to the elimination of a government.”

An on-stage cast of five – Sophie Hambleton, Carrie Green, Sepe Mua’au, Nigel Collins and Simon Leary – recreate 12 interviewees, and they all get brief shots at being Stuart-as-interviewer. Three other people have their says on screen: epidemiologist Michael Baker and actor Rima Te Wiata as themselves; Sophie Lindsay representing one Caroline Holden, skyping her frustrations from MIQ.

The Mark McEntyre-designed ‘cinemascope’ screen, made up of six pivoting panels that break apart then unify again through multiple comings and goings, stands as a dynamic metaphor for how the ‘dance-with-chaos’ plays out, including Jacinda’s ‘hero to zero’ story. Rihan Sheehan’s musical score serves the drama well.

A spark that burns a big hole in the screen brings us the play’s title. A quote from Leo Tolstoy – “A king is history’s slave” – heralds a text summary of how, in 2020, Covid 19 was ‘eliminated’ and Labour was re-elected in a landslide before a new variant (Delta) saw cracks of anger and dissent disrupt our equilibrium …

The action opens with deputy PM and finance minister Grant Robertson (Simon Leary) revealing how he medicates stress: a microcosm of the macro drama. John Tamihere (Carrie Green), chair of the Waipareira Trust, confronts Jacinda (Sophie Hambleton) over Māori needing agency in managing the outbreak. Sam Morgan (Sepelini Mua’au) pens an op-ed insisting the PM must shut the borders. “I can’t shut the country down!” says Jacinda.

This is a recap of early 2020, marking the commonalities from the polarities of our more vulnerable citizens and rich-lister power-brokers. As I work through this review, my appreciation of McKenzie’s dramaturgical skills in organising his source material grows. 

Being a dramatisation of very recent history, Transmission Beta benefits from its audience having personal experience of these times and therefore needing minimal reminders of who these people are. The actors’ transitions from character to character are also deceptively minimal, given the skills involved in embodying the essences of their voices, physicality and psycho-emotional ways of being in each moment. Harcourt’s way of working with actors is the key to how well this alchemy works.

Carrie Green inhabits the personae of John Tamihere, anti-mandate protester Terina Pihema, Assistant Commissioner of Police Richard Chambers and far north anti-vaxer Anahera Malosi*. Sepe Mua’au becomes philanthropist Sam Morgan, vaccine scientist Kjesten Wiig and frontline policeman Fetu Malosi*.

Sophie Hambleton contrasts her Jacinda Ardern with parliament grounds occupier Caitlin Gallagher*. Simon Leary’s sole role is Grant Robertson (apart from a popup Winston Churchill). The subjective experiences of Jacinda and Grant, as shared with Stuart, form the heart and spine of the story – not only in their public roles but also in their respective relationships with Clarke and Neve, and Alf.  

Nigel Collins manifests epidemiologist Michael Baker – who also appears on screen as himself – and economist Bernard Hickey, the Newsroom journalist who perhaps most represents the way responses can change in the light of new understandings. Hickey’s progress from overt antipathy to a deep appreciation, via his and Jacinda’s shared experiences of Murupara, is salutary. The account of his niece’s fear of needles and Jacinda’s response to his appeal is deeply moving/ It speaks volumes about the innate humanity of the globally admired leader who became so vilified by an extremist minority whose abusiveness and threats hounded her out of office.

Yes, I’m revealing my bias here in a way that McKenzie avoids, noting in the programme, “this is a play about listening”. Everyone’s point of view is accurately recorded and revitalised, with the odd nod to the imperatives of dramatic licence. The viewpoints of anti-mandate protesters and keyboard warriors are fairly represented for our consideration, counterpointed by Dr Sanjana Hattotuwa of the Disinformation Project’s on screen warnings about ‘Telegram’ and other dimensions of the ‘Dark Web’. Choose your conspiracy.

Very personal stories are threaded through the ‘big picture’ as micro/macro reflections of each other. We are often challenged to consider self-interest versus the greater good. Moral dilemmas are ever-present whether or not individual characters are aware of them at the time. Ironies also abound, as with the assertion that the vaccine infects our brains with nanoparticles which are the means by which the PM receives instructions from overseas – postulated by someone who is apparently unaware that such conspiracy theories are (in my opinion) fed to them by subversive global forces.

In the first Transmission, Michael Baker mused on the infectiousness of laughter; how it, like anger and anxiety, is socially contagious. This time he notes how the real life virus has become a virtual virus and likens the pandemic experience to a horror film: just as we think it’s all over, we hear a distant rumble and glimpse a pterodactyl swooping on a piwawaka … There will be a sequel.

As the occupation of parliament grounds builds to the inevitable showdown with the law – where the balance shifts between right to protest and public safety, not to mention credible threats to politicians – Jacinda and Grant take to the aisles of the auditorium to share their perspective from the Beehive, as the conflict escalates below. And of course there will be differing opinions among the audience as to how all that was managed.

Transmission Beta presents us with what happened and how, while a lot of the why is left for us to figure out. Inevitably we get to recall how we felt about things back then – and now, in the light of the insights the play offers us, we may reconsider how we feel about some aspects – as do key players in the drama. For my partner and me, the way Jacinda was treated and her resignation are truly tragic. But wherever you stood or stand now, this experience will undoubtedly be variously confronting, enlightening, comedic, tragic – and essential in every respect.

Given the purpose of theatre is to hold the mirror up to nature, what does this say about our nature as a nation? As Dr Hattotuwa observes, “You are looking at a splintered society, it is like a glass shattering on a hard surface, it’s not a neat half and half, it’s alternative realities.”

In classic mode the show ends with a spin on the Elizabethan jig, borne of speaker of the house Trevor Mallard’s decision to blast the occupation with Barry Manilow songs in order to drive the occupiers out. Rima Te Wiata recreates her Facebook protest at his misguided choice and expresses her hope he doesn’t include ‘Mandy’ on the playlist – whereupon the cast delivers a superb rendition of it:
  “Oh, Mandy
   Well, you came and you gave without taking
   But I sent you away
   Oh, Mandy …”
Is this an intentional play on ‘mandates’, I wonder, to offset the ‘pivot’ pun in the set design?

As a coda we get to share a quiet and very special moment with Sophie’s Jacinda. On the way home we agree a profound result of witnessing this exceptional production is realising how much we miss Jacinda.  


*Fetu Malosi, Anahera Malosi and Caitlin Gallagher are pseudonyms, chosen by the people Stuart interviewed.


Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council