IF YOU WANT SHOCK AND AWE, DON'T MISS IT
OTHER PEOPLE’S WARS
Adapted by Dean Parker from the book by Nicky Hager
Directed by David Lawrence
at BATS, Wellington
From 17 Apr 2012 to 28 Apr 2012
Reviewed by John Smythe, 18 Apr 2012
It's nearly five years since Dean Parker's adaptation of Nicky Hager's The Hollow Men premiered at Bats, with a tight cast of six directed by Jonathon Hendry. Last year The Bacchanals brought us Parker's life story of Robert Muldoon, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, with 11 actors directed by David Lawrence (and a cast of 13 toured Julius Caesar as a closely-related pre-election stir-up).
Now 10 Bacchanals actors – Diana Aurisch, Kirsty Bruce, Joe Dekkers-Reihana, Blair Everson, Alex Greig, Julia Harrison, Brianne Kerr, Hilary Penwarden, Jonny Potts and Paul Waggott – directed by Lawrence perform Dean Parker's adaptation of Nicky Hager's Other People's Wars in their characteristic no-budget, rough theatre style.
There is no 'make believe' stuff here. They mill about the stage as we take our seats, introduce themselves and the main roles they are playing then proceed to act out the play.
Throughout the 90 minute performance we are constantly reminded we are watching a bunch of rag-tag actors in a roughly-dressed theatre telling us things we should already know, but probably don't, about New Zealand's activities in other people's wars; specifically the 'war against terror', waged largely in Afghanistan and Iraq even though the Taliban and Al Qaeda have no nationality.
Then suddenly they shift from telling to showing, through simple theatrical devices, and the shocking and awful reality of it all strikes home. Judiciously inserted lighting (Uther Dean and William O'Neil, who also operates) and sound effect (Lawrence, who does not give himself a programme credit for it) add visceral impact to the drama.
The most eloquent truth comes to us in a foreign language as Blair Everson's generic Mohammed Mohammed sings what I take to be his daily praise to Allah. It recurs as a pure and simple voice amid the cacophony of high-level politics, low-level soldiering and all the politicking and attempting to live an ordinary life in between. His searching for his missing wife – played by Kirsty Bruce – is poignant.
By way of establishing his personal perspective, Parker writes himself in as 'The Playwright', played by a joint-toting Alex Greig, revisiting his first 1970s experience of Afghanistan (redolent of Kiwi backpacker Kyle from Napier in Iraq on his OE, in Parker's 2005 play Baghdad Baby!) and intrusively commenting on the bizarre behaviours of those now imposing their wills and values on the ancient civilisation.
To tell the stories and raise the questions, 35 named roles and countless extras – including politicians; military personnel; diplomats; SIS, CIA and other officials; journalists; villagers and goats – are employed. It is a remarkable achievement that we are rarely in doubt as to who is who, where they are and what they represent.
Jonny Potts' US Ambassador Charles Swindells – arriving to his own rendition of 'Born in the USA' – brings NZ politicians face-to-face with the 'super power'. But as the play progresses, via army v air force infighting through military upgrades brought on by the '9/11' attacks (themselves evoked with splendid simplicity) to the actual participation of NZ forces in the Coalition response, it becomes apparent the government is neither in the know or in control: a major point of Hager's exposé.
An inspired scene has George W Bush (Potts again) mouthing platitudes about 'justice' to Congress as if they were the nursery school children he was with on '9/11'.
The role of the SAS, including Willy Apiata (Joe Dekkers-Reihana), and their relationship to the US forces, comes into strong focus, first with the official v real stories about their encounter with a goat, then concerning 'Operation Anaconda', where Apiata earned his VC. A comparison with Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt on St Crispin's Day is aptly and subtly made.
Although an undoubted act of bravery occurred under fire, the question is: who exactly was 'the enemy' in that particular situation? As usual the truth is not what fed the political, media and public appetites for heroes. And on that note, the official v actual case of US Private Jessica Lynch (Kirsty Bruce) is also covered.
Although I applaud such devices as sticks for rifles, I could do without the silly wigs and masks that cheapen the satire. Some scenes involving Afghani woman seem simplistically twee to me, although the evocation of a village – Band e Timur – suddenly under attack from the Coalition Forces, and their subsequent treatment by US forces after the NZSAS handed them over, is profoundly powerful.
But even if we feel moved to quibble over specific details, perspectives or theatrical treatments, the inevitability of how wars play out in this day and age is clear for all to see. They will never be true to the propaganda that attempts to justify them. They will always involve the collateral slaughter of innocents. And truth will always be the major casualty, even if redressed somewhat, though never completely, by the brave efforts of such as Hager, Parker, Lawrence, The Bacchanals and Bats.
The abiding question is where does New Zealand stand – and where should we stand – in relation to other people's wars? If the key objective of our military infrastructure is to secure and defend this isolated group of islands that border no hostile countries and offer no geographically strategic value to anyone else, then why do we cede our sovereignty and intelligence (in all senses of the term) to morally questionable superpowers?
These are truly the sort of questions and issues contemporary theatre has always existed to address ever since it was invented, as Parker notes in the programme. But whereas in the UK the National Theatre commissioned David Hare to write a play – Stuff Happens – about Iraq, followed by The Vertical Hour at The Royal Court which Wellington's Circa Theatre produced in 2009, there is little evidence that our own major theatre companies see themselves as having the responsibility to initiate plays that interrogate our position in the world.
The Bacchanals treatment of such themes is very effective but singularly uneconomic, given no funding or sponsorship and a huge co-operative playing a short season (11 shows) in a small theatre (84-91 seats). Hare's play has a cast of five; Hager/Parker's The Hollow Men has six. We have to assume that if Parker was commissioned by a major professional theatre company to write a play about our defence and security policy and practice, he'd be equal to the challenge.
Meanwhile we must be extremely grateful that the forces enumerated above are willing to commit their time, talents and energies to addressing such crucial themes. If you want shock and awe, don't miss it.
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