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A TWISTED STRAND IN OUR SOCIO-POLITICAL DNA

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Photo: Daniel Williams
Photo: Daniel Williams
THE TIGERS OF WRATH
By Dean Parker
Directed by Jane Waddell

at Circa Two, Wellington
From 3 Nov 2012 to 1 Dec 2012

Reviewed by John Smythe, 4 Nov 2012


Only in New Zealand … Anywhere else a playwright aiming to trace the history of left-wing idealism over 35 years would contemplate a fairly large cast. Most New Zealand playwrights would work it so that the necessarily small cast could play multiple roles. But in his ironically titled The Tigers of Wrath Dean Parker does it superbly with four characters; four actors playing one character each – in 1974, 1993 and 2009.

Actually, I lie. Neenah Dekkers-Reihana, whose character Simone is a few years short of being conceived in 1974, opens the play with a patriotic dance of the Cultural Revolution in Mao Zedong's ‘Red China', sporting a powder blue suit and brandishing a rifle. The rifle surprises me as in most of the propaganda posters of the time the weapon of choice is Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, with farm implements and megaphones also featuring.

Her ritualistic dance is juxtaposed with the Roxy Music hit ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache' in which a harsh-voiced Brian Ferry intones the loneliness of the upwardly mobile consumer reduced to loving an inflatable doll; an idea that is echoed in various forms, both witty and poignant, as the story plays out.

In a rudimentary dormitory used by the female delegates of a New Zealand university student trip to China, St Cuth's-educated Trish (Kate Prior) needs reassurance from angry young wannabe revolutionary Pauline (Heather O'Carroll) that she still loves her. And lurking where he shouldn't be, in his orange jeans and long blonde hair, is law student and wannabe writer Oliver (Nathan Meister), who certainly does have a way with words, if not necessarily his own.

Parker, Prior, O'Carroll and Meister, with director Jane Waddell, conspire to capture the essences of these three archetypes with total conviction. Trish's ‘bible' is George Eliot's Middlemarch, Pauline's is The Little Red Book and Oliver is still trying to write his.

I need to tread carefully now, so as not to undermine the surprise of where they end up, although the joy for me is not so much in the all-too-credible outcome as in the utter authenticity of the way the characters live within their new realities.

Circa's ‘what's on' blurb reveals this much: that by 1993 Trish is a second term Labour MP (the member for New Lynn while living in Herne Bay), and she is part of the cabal that is plotting to dump leader Mike Moore (in favour of Helen Clark). And in 2009, Pauline and Oliver meet by chance in a pub at Mangere Bridge, which allows a review of what brought them to their respective states to play out quite naturally, with further surprises arising from where Trish and Simone are at.

The growth of Kate Prior's Trish from questing student to Labour Party mover and shaker, who still needs to know she is loved, is totally convincing. Her epic phone call in Act II deserved its round of applause, although it could make its point in less time. And where she ends up in Act III, without a seat in the post-Helen era, suggests a quantum leap in meeting her need to be loved.  

Heather O'Carroll embodies Pauline's suppressed (except when it's not) anger with an intensity that epitomises the rebel seeking a cause. The vulnerability beneath her toughness humanises what could easily seem stereotyped in lesser hands. As for her ‘Ten Guitars' … Well it is Karaoke Night.

It's probably no surprise that as a lawyer Oliver passes through socially compassionate activities to areas more lucrative, except when they're not. Nathan Meister's finely pitched performance ensures he is as lovable initially as he is questionable later. And the trick he does with a cigarette is a bonus that resonates at many levels.

Neenah Dekkers-Rehana has a natural ability to fully inhabit each moment of Simone's progress from horse-mad schoolgirl to … something quite different and unexpected, even though it is not unusual for those in the know.

Apart from the actors' great skill in meeting this challenge, abetted by Sheila Horton's eloquent costume designs, set designer Daniel Williams does an astonishing job of ringing the changes in Circa Two's limited space. The transformations from Peking bunk room to Herne Bay home to Mangere pub are cleverly achieved, with Ulli Briese's lighting design and John McKay's sound and A/V design completing the creative picture.

It is because Dean Parker has committed to his vocation over so many decades that he now has the art to craft such an epic work with such economy, in a way that gives us more from less without a hint of compromise.

The Tigers of Wrath stands as a twisted strand in our socio-political DNA. I would defy anyone not to find something of themselves or their world within it. You have to see it to truly appreciate its many qualities. 
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See also reviews by:
 Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Med (The Dominion Post);
 Paul Maunder