"killing taliban is my business and business is good!"

Other People's Wars photo (c) The Bacchanals

other people's wars
adapted by Dean Parker
from the book by Nicky Hager
Tuesday 17 April - Saturday 28 April 2012
BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Terrace, Wellington

Award-winning company The Bacchanals reunite with award-winning playwright Dean Parker (Slouching Toward Bethlehem) to present the stage adaptation of Nicky Hager’s controversial 2011 book.

The so-called ‘War on Terror’ has been the longest foreign war in NZ history, yet most New Zealanders know almost nothing about our part in it.  Since 9/11 the NZ military have successfully duped both public and government over the true nature of our involvement in America’s illegal invasion of Afghanistan, hiding behind a cloud of bogus PR tales of ‘peacekeeping’ and ‘humanitarian aid’.  As much as John Key wants to dismiss Hager’s book as “a work of fiction”, the fact is throughout history whenever America calls, the NZ military answers, regardless of public opinion, morality or even the express commands of government.

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cast
Diana Aurisch (Second Afghani Woman, News Presenter); Kirsty Bruce (Air Marshall Carey Adamson, Air Vice Marshall John Hamilton, Private Jessica Lynch, Third Afghani Woman); Joe Dekkers-Reihana (Richard Armitage, Willie Apiata, Steve Mahoney, Jerry Mataparae); Blair Everson (Shaukat Zamani, Mohammed Mohammed, Commander Frank Wierscinski, Mike Davidson); Alex Greig (The Playwright, Pat Tilman, ‘Hots’ Hotaling, Lieutenant-Colonel Antony Shaffer); Julia Harrison (Phil Goff, Zarghunah, Captain Helen Murphy); Brianne Kerr (Major Louisa Parkinson, Mrs Hamilton, Warren Tucker); Hilary Penwarden (Colonel Tommy Franks, First Afghani Woman); Jonny Potts (Charles Swindells, George Bush, Kandahar Police Chief, Darby Allen); Paul Waggott (Richard Clark, Commander Martyn Dunne, Air Marshall Bruce Ferguson, Wayne Mapp, Christopher Startinsky)

Publicist Brianne Kerr
Associate Producer Charlotte Simmonds
Stage Manager Salesi Le’ota
Lighting Design Uther Dean & William O’Neil
Sound Design Walter J. Plinge
Technical Operator William O’Neil
Cartographologist Jean Sergent
Graphic Design Santa’s Little Helper
Original Choreography Julia Harrison
Dance Captain Salesi Le’ota
Photography Benny Vandergast
Head Mechanist Alex Greig
Directed by David Lawrence


A couple of months before the 2011 election, investigative journalist Nicky Hager's book Other People's Wars was published. Other People's Wars detailed the extent to which, since the events of 11 September 2001, New Zealand's military had lied to the government, and New Zealand's government had lied to the public, about the true extent of our country's contribution to the United States' 'War on Terror' in the Middle East. We had repeatedly been told that NZ troops were only in Iraq and Afghanistan 'supporting' allied forces— we were peacekeepers, digging wells and building schools and liaising with the local people—but what Other People's Wars revealed, through leaked e-mails and documents supported by interviews with confidential sources within the NZ Defence Forces, was that the reality was very different: NZ SAS troops were leading missions, raiding villages, bombing civilians and shooting children, often because of the sort of biased and inaccurate intelligence that had enabled the US and UK to manipulate the rest of us into joining their war in the first place. The underlying accusation of the book was that historically, the main function of our army, navy and air force has been doing our masters' bidding whenever US and UK governments bully NZ governments into participating in the oppression of other foreign cultures.

Our then-idiot prime minister John Key dismissed it as a "work of fiction" and branded Nicky as a crazed left-wing conspiracy theorist. If you've ever met Nicky, you'll know he is just about the calmest, sanest, most rational and moderate human being it is possible to meet. What probably irked John Key was Nicky's habit of releasing new books that exposed the fundamental corruption at the heart of the National Party just before an election—and yet if it hadn't been for Nicky's book The Hollow Men which detailed via leaked documents and e-mails the machinations of National Party leader Don Brash and his collusion with the Exclusive Bretheren, John Key might not have become Prime Minister. Dean Parker wrote a stage adaptation of The Hollow Men which toured New Zealand in 2007 and 2008 in a blatant attempt to influence the result of the 2008 election. Don Brash threatened legal action but the problem Don found was you can't allege libel or slander if everything being represented is actually true!

A fortnight after Other People's Wars was published, Dean Parker e-mailed me to say he'd already negotiated the stage adaptation rights—did The Bacchanals want to do it? This was a great vote of confidence in us, but also understandable given the huge success we'd just had with Slouching Toward Bethlehem. I think Dean even mentioned we'd be doing his adaptation of Other People's Wars when he accepted his award at the 2011 Chapman Tripps, and we had a reading of the first draft in my living room before Christmas. Whereas Slouching Toward Bethlehem had been written and revised with no thought to who would stage it and how—Dean sent it to me as a completed play—the process of writing and rehearsing Other People's Wars was a collaborative one. Dean's first draft was sketchy in places: the original format he had in mind was that we'd all just sit on chairs and deliver the text, which was a combination of information from Nicky's book intermixed with Dean's own joyous reflections on his time backpacking through Afghanistan in the 1970s. I'd read Nicky's book quickly and a lot of the things in it that appealed to (and appalled) me, particularly around how different NZ governments had funded the military, weren't originally in the play, but Dean willingly wrote them into the next draft. And as other people read the book, other unexplored elements that piqued particular actors' interests would be brought up, along with other angles on how to look at certain content, and again Dean took on our feedback so that the script was ever evolving. And because several of the allegations in Other People's Wars had prompted public outrage, some incidents (such as the NZ SAS leading attacks on villages in which children were killed but no insurgents found) were under official investigation while we were making the production, so some text and scenes were altered as new facts came to light, or new opinions on what had happened were proffered.

As with Slouching Toward Bethlehem, the needs of the script could be met by a larger or smaller cast. I would have liked 15 actors, but knew I could do it with 10. My original hopes that it would feature the same cast as Slouching Toward Bethlehem and Julius Caesar were thwarted—I wanted to get the show on as soon as possible and when Martyn Wood at BATS offered April dates that coincided with Anzac Day—meaning we'd be performing a play critical of NZ's ongoing participation in foreign wars on the very day our country commemorates all of the New Zealanders who have died participating in foreign wars—I felt I had to take them rather than wait until a time that was ideal for everyone. Phil was in a show at the Court; Elle was going overseas; William was moving to Australia for work; Dasha, Jean and Andrew all had university commitments; Salesi had just started at Playmarket and was finding working for a much smaller organisation than Toi Whakaari made far greater demands on his time. Alex, Jonny, Kirsty and Brianne were in, and Julia Harrison was making her Bacchanals return for the first time since Romeo and Juliet in 2004. Of the other five actors, Paul Waggott was a Victoria University graduate and close friend of Jonny's, Blair Everson of the band The Eversons had been in my Summer Shakespeare productions of Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor, as well as The Bacchanals' joint venture 1 Henry VI with the Victoria University Shakespeare Club, and Diana Aurisch was an American-German friend of Julia's currently living in Wellington. The last two actors to join us become immediately permanent and important Bacchanals despite the unusual circumstances in which both of them joined the company. I'd taught Jamie Penwarden at university and loved their work in my ex-girlfriend Melanie's production of Twelfth Night that summer. After the first rehearsal of Other People's Wars I tweeted something like "Great to have rehearsals underway! Next task: to actually find a cast!" Jamie tweeted at me "Need another actor?" to which I facetiously asked "Can you play the guitar and/or do an American accent?" not knowing that Jamie could indeed play the guitar and had dual NZ-US heritage so, like Diana, felt more keenly some of the issues in Other People's Wars. Jamie came to the next night's rehearsal, plunged in, and besides being an excellent and instinctive performer—the Erin Banks of this era of The Bacchanals for speed and emotional openness—Jamie became an integral part of the company's management, working as a sort of hybrid producer-production manager-problem solver on subsequent shows. Joe Dekkers-Reihana had, for medical reasons, left Toi Whakaari only a couple of weeks before I taught a module with his class in 2010—I hadn't met him but had seen him in McKenzie Country at BATS, playing the role Alex had played when I'd directed the Playmarket workshop of the script, while Alex played the role that had been Allan's in my staging. We knew that Other People's Wars needed a Māori actor given Willie Apiata was a character in the stage adaptation and when I hadn't found anyone by the first rehearsal, Alex suggested Joe. Anyone who's worked with Alex knows how rare and unusual it is for him to ever offer to the group a strong opinion about anything or anyone—Alex will always keep the peace and abide by the mood of the group in general, which makes him an amazing barometer because it means on the extremely rare occasion he says no to something, then you know it's a really bad idea—so his endorsement of Joe as an actor and potential company member was good enough for me to send Joe an e-mail. I outlined the project, the dates, the rehearsal process, said Alex had recommended him, and wondered: was he available or interested? did he want me to send him the script or meet me for a coffee to talk about it? I never got a response from him, but the next night a mysteriously quiet and skinny guy just turned up in the rehearsal room about ten minutes after we'd started, put out a cigarette and took off his hat, grabbed a script from off the pile by the door, and as unobtrusively as possible joined the other actors on the floor pretending to be goats and got on with it. And like Jamie, Joe would be in the next eight Bacchanals show as though he'd never not been a part of the company.

While a few of the 2011 Bacchanals were on the bench for this show, they still wanted to remain engaged with the company. Salesi stage-managed the season, fulfilling a new BATS requirement that there always had to be someone backstage that wasn't one of the actors; William, in the middle of a move to Australia, somehow found time to do a lighting design in collaboration with Uther Dean, that fulfilled my requirements of "all the lights on all the time except for explosions!" and we had a few big decent bomb blasts, me having learnt from when I sound-designed Dean's play Baghdad, Baby! in 2005 that a sub-speaker is really worth the hire price. Jean made a bunch of giant maps of the Middle East for us to hang on the walls of BATS so that we had a visual reference point for the various locations being talked about. Charlotte Simmonds had also offered to help in any way possible and ended up with the task of costuming the show. Some aspects of this were easy enough given The Bacchanals already had a decent stock of army boots and camouflage pants in the costume crates in my spare room, but others were slightly more show-specific and Charlotte taught herself how to make burqas for all the women to wear in the sequences set in Afghani villages. Whereas once upon a time I'd have always been behind the lighting and sound desks during a BATS season, I was generally out front with the audience, trying to be less invisible and more available to engage in discourse. And for one night during the season, I was onstage covering Blair's roles while his band played an important gig in Auckland.

While I had a really clear premise for how it would work, Other People's Wars was a really hard show to rehearse. It was on many levels anti-theatrical and more like a lecture with the occasional dramatic vignette. Dean had intended a single narrator figure the whole way through, but we divvied up the narrator lines so that all ten actors shared in the factual side of the storytelling. Slouching Toward Bethlehem had been about iconic historical New Zealand figures, whereas the real people that appeared in Other People's Wars were (aside from former US president George Bush) not recognisable names and faces; Slouching Toward Bethlehem had been about huge dramatic clashes of political ideology, whereas Other People's Wars was about the much more seemingly-mundane daily lives of our intelligence workers and soldiers; and perhaps most crucially in terms of dramatic engagement with an audience, Slouching Toward Bethlehem had been about events from 30 years ago—in some cases before many of the actors and audience members' births—whereas Other People's Wars was about events many people knew about. And this is the problem putting on political theatre to a largely-left wing theatregoing audience in a largely left-wing town like Wellington: very few people who came to see Other People's Wars at BATS in April 2012 were coming in ignorance of the material they were about to receive, or to hear viewpoints opposite to their own. I'm sure we all felt good and socially conscientious sitting there thinking "How terrible that our country has been involved in all of this!" but I'd be highly surprised if we changed anyone's minds or had an impact on the way people went about their daily lives—although I do remember my mother calling me the day after opening night to say, "Thank you for last night's show. I realised that I really need to take more notice of the world I live in," so perhaps it wasn't all in vain. Of course I'm writing this with the hindsight, eight years after we made the show, of knowing that most attempts at staging political theatre in Wellington are really just preaching to the converted. By contrast in 2016 I had the great joy of seeing the opening night of Auckland Theatre Company's production of Dean's play Polo, which I'd read several early drafts of (under the title Fear and Misery in the Third Term in reference to our then-National government) and passed on because I knew a left-wing Wellington audience would sit there on opening night saying "We already know all this stuff, great as it is to hear it given a voice!" What was great about seeing it in Auckland, done by ATC no less, was that the audience was full of many of the kinds of politicians, public servants, business leaders and property developers that the play itself was scornful of and there were some electric moments when certain jibes hit home. That never happened in Wellington productions of Dean's plays.

Things that had happened by accident or eleventh hour realisation in Slouching Toward Bethlehem were a core part of the intention behind Other People's Wars. We knew from the outset that the house lights would remain on for the whole show, that we'd be greeting the audience as they arrived at the theatre, that everyone would formally introduce themselves and explain who they'd be playing at the top of the show, that all prop, set and costume items would be onstage throughout and that the actors wouldn't leave the performance space during the show—if not in a scene or sequence, they would be relaxed in a chair or on a stool on the sidelines. We'd even got into the habit of leaving taped to the side wall not just the running list 'cheat sheets' normally up backstage so that everyone knew which scene came next, but also the numerous A3 sheets of paper on which all the production week to-do tasks were listed and crossed off. And I think Other People's Wars was the first Bacchanals show to end with us explicitly saying to the audience "Give us a couple of minutes to get changed and clean up, and then we'll see you all in the bar!" and some of the most exhilarating nights were the ones where the majority of the audience did. Much as I loved all the work we did to remove any trace of artifice from the show, it couldn't solve the main problem of Other People's Wars not really having a proper or compelling narrative.

The problems of Other People's Wars, however, were endemic of a lot of Wellington theatre at the time. What seemed to be happening in Wellington around 2011 and 2012 was people abandoning new directions and trying to capitalise on their past successes and replicate them. This isn't necessarily a new idea: what has always happened at Circa Theatre is that when they have a box office success with a particular playwright, the same director will then trawl that playwright's back catalogue hoping to replicate that success to diminishing returns. That's why Circa, after having a hit with Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things in 2004, followed it with the same playwright's The Mercy Seat the following year and Fat Pig a couple of years after that; why Yazmina Reza's accessible hit play Art was followed by the less accessible Conversations After A Burial the following year; why Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House was followed by Dead Man's Cell Phone the next year. Reunite with the same designer and composer, and get some of the same actors back, and you can advertise it as "From the team who brought you ... !" and cross your fingers for success. What we all forget or don't realise about this tactic is this: on the occasions when you somehow make a magic production, it is possible to try and reverse engineer the magic to work out the 'recipe' for what went so well and why the show was a hit; but when you work from the outset to a recipe you think is going to result in you making magic, you sometimes find that the spell is only 50% as potent as it was last time, or worse, you sometimes end up with a cauldron full of sludge. I was used to this approach at Circa and Downstage which were both commercially-motivated theatres, but we'd also started seeing it at BATS Theatre and two shows come to mind almost a decade later—and guys, please don't think I'm trashing other people's work here; I'm just trying to illustrate my examples and I hope the makers of the productions I'm talking about understand the point I'm trying to make (which is that I'm as guilty of this practise as those I'm using as my examples)! Arthur Meek and my old pal Geoff Pinfield had achieved huge success in 2008 with their stage version of Richard Meros' book On The Conditions And Possibilities Of Helen Clark Taking Me As Her Young Lover, a solo show in which Arthur used then-cutting edge PowerPoint to cram scores of ideas, ideology and jokes into 60 short minutes. It was a fantastic show and one that many people ripped off poorly over the next few years (again, showing that thinking you've worked out a recipe for magic can result in sludge). The problem for Arthur and Geoff, as I saw it, was that the Helen Clark show had an extremely limited lifespan because it would lose its topicality after the 2008 election after which she stood down as leader of the Labour Party, and in 2012 they made a second show, Richard Meros Salutes The Southern Man. Like On The Conditions And Possibilities it was an adaptation of a Richard Meros manifesto-novella in which Arthur used PowerPoint to present something was as much a seminar as it was a show which could then tour the whole of New Zealand fitting into a single vehicle and able to be performed just about anywhere. But to me, whereas the Helen Clark show had more ideas, ideology and jokes than its 60-minute format could hold, Richard Meros Salutes The Southern Man was a much simpler ideology with only a couple of jokes stretched out to try and fill 60 minutes. A month before this, BATS had hosted a production of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. The original Tectonic Theater verbatim play The Laramie Project, about the 1998 hate crime murder of Matthew Shepherd in Wyoming, had been produced in Wellington scores of times in the two thousand and noughts, and there had also been numerous rip-offs—The Laramie Project was as responsible for making verbatim plays about tragic events in vogue as Les Miserables is for all modern musicals giving a needless aria about loneliness to the heroine's friend or sister, or sassy-prostitute-ensemble-numbers, or a design aesthetic I call 'generic musical theatre revolutionary'. As the title suggests, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later involved the original company returning to Laramie, Wyoming, to conduct follow-up interviews, the most significant of which is in prison with one of Matthew Shepherd's murderers. But as per my Helen Clark versus Southern Man comparison: whereas the original Laramie Project covers so many events and opinions, offers so many perspectives and viewpoints, and provides huge emotional catharsis on several different occasions, to me the stuff that's worthwhile in The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later (i.e. the prison interview with Aaron Mckinley) would be better as a 15-minute epilogue tacked onto the original play rather than an entire play of its own that struggles to justify its running length with anything that improves on the original play. Again, in trying to replicate the success of the original, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later just diminishes it. AND THIS (he says, finally getting to his point) WAS EXACTLY THE SAME PROBLEM AS THE BACCHANALS' PRODUCTION OF OTHER PEOPLE'S WARS: in fact, we were doubly-guilty because we were trying to replicate and cash in on our success with Dean Parker's Slouching Toward Bethlehem, and Dean was trying to replicate and cash in on his success adapting Nicky Hager's The Hollow Men.

It was a weird season, because we knew we'd made a piece of theatre that was somehow extremely important and also not very good. I didn't mind: we were doing Other People's Wars to get the ideas out there; to provoke conversation and controversy rather than to make a masterpiece. Also, this new incarnation of The Bacchanals was definitely on the way to a form of theatre we hadn't fully worked out—things that had happened organically or accidentally in the 2011 productions were now deliberate, but we weren't fully there yet and Other People's Wars was the show we had to make to get from Slouching Toward Bethlehem to our acclaimed production of Coriolanus in 2013. So I think of it as being our equivalent of Cymbeline or Conquest of the Planet of the Apes where we knew we had a great idea for the next thing, but had to get a whole load of things out of our system in the current one in order to be able to make the next thing. As it turned out, Other People's Wars was the only Bacchanals show for 2012 and the haste with which we undercooked it would be reversed for Coriolanus where I really wanted to take some time to get it right. That said, I'm sure there were a whole load of circumstantial things, like my teaching commitments and some other freelance jobs, that led to such a delay, but it was worth it: 2013 would be, he says writing with hindsight, probably the best year The Bacchanals ever had!—David, October 2020

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