life is ugly, brutish and short ... like me

Slouching Toward Bethlehem photo (c) The Bacchanals

slouching toward bethlehem
by dean parker
Wednesday 31 August - Saturday 10 September 2011
Bats Theatre, 1 Kent Terrace, Wellington

The true story of New Zealand’s most evil prime minister ever!
He turned the NZ National Party into an outfit dominated by a single leader bent on imposing regulation that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Eastern Europe under Stalin but Robert Muldoon believed without a shadow of doubt that if he needed to know what the average kiwi felt, all he had to do was look into his own heart.

 

 

cast (in order of appearance):


Rob Muldoon Phil Grieve
Thea Muldoon (his wife) Brianne Kerr
A Tamaki Young Nat William O’Neil
Amie Muldoon (Rob’s mother) Kirsty Bruce
Jerusha Brown (Rob’s grandmother) Jean Sergent
Wally Brown (Rob’s uncle) Andrew Goddard
A Pastor Jonny Potts
Dick Fickling (Rob’s best friend) Alex Greig
A Doctor at Wolfe’s Home Psychiatric Hospital Elle Wootton
Jim Muldoon (Rob’s father) Salesi Le’ota
Go-Go Dancer Kirsty Bruce
Television Host Jonny Potts
Make-Up Assistant Jean Sergent
An Alternative Publisher William O’Neil
A Satirical Editor Andrew Goddard
A Protestor Dasha Fedchuk
George Gair (a National MP) Alex Greig
Frank Gill (another National MP) Elle Wootton
Faye Gair (George’s wife) Jean Sergent
Jack Marshall (Leader of the National Party) Andrew Goddard
Brian Talboys (National MP) Jonny Potts
Speaker of the House in the 1970s William O’Neil
A Dean at an Anglican Cathedral Salesi Le’ota
Tom Skinner (president of the Federation of Labour) Andrew Goddard
Interjectors at the television debate Salesi Le’ota, Kirsty Bruce, Jean Sergent
A Woman in the audience of the television debate Dasha Fedchuk
Athol (Rob’s driver) William O’Neil
Police Sergeant at the Peter Pan club Alex Greig
Barry Reynolds (Brierly Board Member) The Company
Barbara Muldoon (Rob and Thea’s oldest child) Kirsty Bruce
Jenni Muldoon (her sister) Elle Wootton
Gavin Muldoon (their brother )Andrew Goddard
Norma Holyoake (wife of Sir Keith Holyoake) Kirsty Bruce
A Female Guest at a 1974 Christmas party Jean Sergent
A Poet on a Brian Edwards TV show William O’Neil
Colin McLachlan (National MP) Dasha Fedchuk
Hugh Templeton (National MP) Salesi Le’ota
Colenso (an advertising agency man) Salesi Le’ota
A Figure in an underground carpark William O’Neil
Speaker of the House in the 1980s Dasha Fedchuk
Colin Moyle (Labour MP) Jean Sergent
A Man From Treasury Salesi Le’ota
The Red Flag Bush Band at the Sweetwaters Music Festival The Company
Jim McLay (a young National MP) William O’Neil
An Older Couple at Hatfields Beach Dasha Fedchuk & Andrew Goddard
A Nurse at North Shore Hospital Jean Sergent
Children, Congregation, Journalists, Backbench MPs, Asylum Inmates, Animals, Protestors, Constituents, Advertising Executives, Television Audiences, Function Guests, Party Guests & Meat Puppets played by members of the company
 
Publicist Brianne Kerr
Graphic Design Santa’s Little Helper
Signsmith & Doghandler Jean Sergent
Head Mechanist Alex Greig
Head Researcher & Punster Jonny Potts
Producers In Absentia Fiona McNamara & David Goldthorpe
Monsters and Muppets Elle Wootton, Andrew Goddard
Chief Electrician William O’Neil
Production Photography Vanessa Fowler Kendall
Directed by David Lawrence
 


Sir Robert Muldoon I remember once yelling at the television when Robert Muldoon was on either the six o'clock or late news. "The prime minister is an idiot!" I ranted. "He doesn't know what he's doing! He's ruining this country! Everything is terrible!" My normally reticent father quite uncharacteristically looked up from The Evening Post and reprimanded me sternly for my simplistic left-wing politics and my failure to fully understand what I was ranting about. (I was seven years old!) From an early age I was very aware of the man who became prime minister a month after I was born.

I grew up believing all politicians were evil, because when I was little Muldoon ran New Zealand, the UK was in the iron grip of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan was president of the US. I assumed that, while presumably someone out there must have voted for them in the first place, all prime ministers and presidents were publicly and thoroughly hated by everyone in the countries they were in charge of, because 'Piggy' Muldoon certainly seemed to be. And I also took it for granted that when politicians retired, they remained larger-than-life public figures, self-effacing themselves on game shows and in TV shows and onstage or hosting the Friday Frights, because that's what Muldoon did. In May 2011, several Bacchanals had been in the first season of Public Service Annoucements, a political satire by James Nokise, and some reviews complained that we weren't doing decent impersonations of the politicians we were playing—but it was a deliberate choice to not do impersonations, because a big part of the problem with New Zealand's political leaders in 2011 was that they had no personality. They had no larger-than-life characteristics to impersonate or caricature or mock, not in the way that Muldoon and David Lange and all the political greats of the 1970s and 1980s had. They were uninspiringly bland whether you were left or right, and as a kid growing up howling with laughter at the kind of political satire I'd see on McPhail & Gadsby it was so disappointing to see such middle-of-the-road people running the country. Muldoon was divisive, yes, but he believed in holding firm to your extreme opinions rather than sit on the fence or water down your views so as not to cause offence and therefore get more votes. Muldoon believed in entrenching the support you had rather than trying to win over people who'd never vote for you. I never knew what my father's politics actually were; but on my mother's side of the family I always found it a mystery that my grandmother was a fierce Muldoonist despite being married to a card-carrying Labour Party member (when my mother was young, the MP and trade unionist Mabel Howard used to stay at their house!). I have always been fascinated by people so inherently contradictory as Muldoon—that while the public perception of him was as a Stalin or Mussolini-in-training single-mindedly and single-handed running NZ as a dictatorship (or at least that's what I thought as a naïve seven-year-old, sorry Dad!), many of his ideas were left-wing and socialist in accordance with his left-wing socialist upbringing. Possibly it's that Libran bi-polarity where the scales are often tipped to one extreme or the other. The National Party has always had a traditional stance of 'gangs are a major problem in NZ and we must stamp them out' (as I write this vile Judith Collins is spouting that very rhetoric in her campaign to lose the 2020 election), and yet at Muldoon's funeral the country's biggest gang formed a guard of honour for him. And let me reiterate this because it's still one of the most mind-boggling things of my childhood—can you imagine telling John Oliver about this?—after his retirement from politics, our most vilified prime minister was in a touring production of The Rocky Horror Show, had a recurring role as a gangster boss in a children's TV show, and dressed as a vampire to provide interstitial links before and after the regular Friday late-night horror film on TV2. I'm not sure if this says we are the greatest country ever to have existed, or that we're just a bunch of rubes, but I think it's brilliant and to me it suggests that maybe everything Muldoon ever did was an act, including cultivating his despised political persona.

Count Robula hosting the Friday Frights Despite the blandness of John Key's National-led government and the then-appalling mess that was the Labour opposition, there was a real charge in the air about the 2011 election and it was a year full of political theatre in Wellington. I think our growing awareness of the underhanded way that National had started employing US-style attack politics—that it was no longer about policy so much as it was undermining the credibility of your enemies—mobilised people in arts communities to try to make work that was designed to interrogate views or expose otherwise-unspoken corruption. I had begun the year knowing I wanted to do a touring community hall production of Julius Caesar in election month, and then I got a surprising e-mail from Dean Parker: "Would you be interested in a large cast expressionist biography of Robert Muldoon? It has about 40 characters in it and covers from his childhood to his death, using Shakespeare's Richard III as a template for his rise to the leadership of the National Party. It might be a good piece to put on around this year's election." In all honesty, I didn't need to read beyond that first sentence to decide I was going to do it. For a moment it seemed like it was going to foil my plans to do Julius Caesar but Jonny suggested "Why don't we do them both?" The brilliant Martyn Wood was in his first year as programme manager of BATS, read Slouching Toward Bethlehem very quickly, and then offered me two weeks in August/September that he could squeeze the show into. It all came together very quickly: we'd do the Muldoon play at BATS in August/September, and then the same cast would do Julius Caesar in November. It was the closest The Bacchanals had come to a repertory season since the trilogy of Renaissance plays in 2001.

I'd worked on Dean's play Baghdad, Baby! in 2005 and what struck me most was that he was the only person my theatrical mentor Jean Betts, herself a formidable playwright, was in awe of. I didn't get Baghdad, Baby! as a script and was frankly confused by why Jean thought it such a big deal, but in front of an audience at its first preview I suddenly realised its impact and importance. There were, to my mind, two kinds of Dean Parker plays (I'm writing this in 2020, less than six months after Dean's death, so forgive the absolutism of my categorisation here which I know won't do justice to his prolific output): first was the multi-character expressionist political epic where I'd usually said yes to directing it—such as Slouching Toward Bethlehem, his adaptation of Nicky Hager's Other People's Wars which The Bacchanals did in 2012, and Once We Built A Tower which he wrote for us in 2014—before I'd even finished reading the whole thing; second was the small-cast naturalist play with people in a room complaining about the failures of socialism where I'd read draft after draft not getting it, finally pass on directing it, and then see the opening night of someone else's production and, like Baghdad, Baby! go "Of course! now I get it!"—which was also the case with The Tigers of Wrath which I read about six versions of, and Polo. Dean must have sent me 20 different plays in the twenty-teens, including an adaptation of Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year a fortnight before he died. He worked incredibly quickly, and across all mediums—Slouching Toward Bethlehem had originally been a TV project; I remember reading other scripts that never made it to the stage but became successful radio plays. Multiple drafts were not uncommon: as a nuts-and-bolts, workman writer, I don't think he thought of playscripts in terms of great works of art; he thought of them as the template from which theatre-makers would stage the show, and he was constantly revising and amending as he came up with better ideas, new information that interested him, or saw what worked or what he didn't think worked in performance. The script was never a finished thing—he sent me a post-production draft of Slouching Toward Bethlehem after the season was finished that was in many cases a wholesale rewrite rather than a slight amendments version, and the published edition of the play in 2016 is a very different play to the one we performed in 2011. What I found most interesting about his workmanlike approach was that it gave me much more autonomy as a director to reshape things that didn't work, and this was so different to how I'd worked with playwrights up until now: directing new plays by Paul Rothwell, Phil Braithwaite, Sonal Patel, Charlotte Simmonds, Albert Belz, Simon Vincent etc. in the two thousand and noughts, I had always sought to honour the script. Text, punctuation, structure etc. was sacred. If a scene or moment wasn't working, it was because my direction or the actors' performances hadn't solved the complexities of the writing, never because the playwright had more work to do. This rigour was part of why playwrights liked having me direct their plays: they always felt I was on their side and would prioritise their vision over my own—but it also meant I sometimes failed to employ my own not-unsophisticated understanding of structure and dramaturgy to save some flailing moments because I felt I'd be violating the sanctity of the playwright to take directorial liberties that might actually make the play better. Two things changed this: first was a conversation with one of my all-time favourite playwrights, David Geary, when he was visiting NZ and saw my production of his play A Man Walks Into A Bar and, rather than give me the "This is the first time a production of one of my plays has looked exactly as I'd imagined it when I wrote it" praise I'd come to expect because playwrights often gave it me, he opined that it was impossible for me to be able to visualise what he was thinking writing the play on the other side of the world, and ridiculous of me to think that I could. The other thing was directing a Roger Hall pantomime at the Fortune where he openly acknowledged that the script was a template for collaboration between playwright, composer and production; that whereas it had originally been written for Circa Theatre in Wellington, the topical jokes and references obviously could and should be amended to suit Dunedin audiences; and that structurally there were all sorts of things that might need to change depending on casting, design and the theatre itself. Essentially we had licence to do whatever we wanted, so long as we ran it past him and he owned the finished script (indeed, when Circa Theatre revived that particular pantomime a few years later I was surprised by how many of my jokes were still in it). What this taught me was that some workman writers aren't so precious about refining their masterpieces; sometimes they just want to fulfil the terms of the commission, get paid, and move onto the next job. And in the case of Dean Parker, the whole reason he seemed to write plays was so he could enjoy seeing theatre-makers take his good ideas and make them into something even better. I'll talk about this more when I come to write up Other People's Wars and Once We Built A Tower, but a great joy of our collaboration became seeing how thrilled he was when we took what might other writers might have considered liberties but he saw as us solving what he considered to be deficiencies in the script.

Slouching Toward Bethlehem (c) The Bacchanals Dean often wrote for variable cast sizes so that professional theatres might be able to do his scripts with smaller casts, while universities and drama schools could have a cast of thousands. We ended up with 11 actors to perform a play that had 49 different scenes in 28 different locations and 70 named characters in the script. While every actor had one 'core' role, only the actors playing Rob and Thea Muldoon wouldn't double as loads of other people in the play. Dean had written Muldoon with the idea that Ian Mune might play it, which may well have been the case had it been put on in Auckland. For me there was no question that, amongst the actors I knew, it should be Phil Grieve and I remember, of all bizarre things, running into him in the tinned foods aisle of Pak N Save and giving him the copy of the script I had on me. Brianne would play Thea Muldoon and, rather than take it on myself which was the norm, I decided to treat this play like the big deal it was and also employ her company, Brianne Kerr Publicity, to do the marketing (I still designed the poster and marketing material and wrote all the copy, but let Bri handle the campaign which she did a superb job of: during the run of the production there wasn't a single day where Muldoon wasn't mentioned in the NZ media somewhere). It being a play about New Zealand history, certain actors had certain people they really wanted to play: Jonny's core character was Brian Talboys, who I think his family knew; Salesi likewise knew his core character, Hugh Templeton. Alex and newbie Elle Wootton played George Gair and Frank Gill, who function as the kind of double act I'd call the 'salads' in a Shakespeare play (named for Salanio & Salerino from The Merchant of Venice); Kirsty played Muldoon's mother and Lady Norma Holyoake, widow of former PM and governor general Sir Keith Holyoake; Jean played Muldoon's fierce and influential grandmother Jerusha and Labour MP Colin Moyle. Andrew Goddard had played a singing hotdog in No Taste Forever! which he probably didn't foresee would lead to playing Jack Marshall, the National leader rolled by Muldoon. Dasha Fedchuk played Muldoon's nameless mistress—meant to be a composite of his various affairs—and after William O'Neil had complained that everyone always asked him to light their shows and never to be in them, I called his bluff and he played Jim McClay, the leader who ultimately rolled Muldoon after National lost the 1984 election. In addition to these core characters, everyone had a stack of one-off and recurring roles through the show as protestors, journalists, parliamentarians, church congregators, advertising executives, office staff and audiences at political rallies and town hall meetings.

The first act of Slouching Toward Bethlehem covers events from 1921 to 1974, looking first at Muldoon's childhood and complex family life and then at his rise through the National Party and his ousting of Jack Marshall as leader. The second act concentrates on the year leading up to the 1975 election and ends with Muldoon victorious. The third act covers in much less detail Muldoon's 9 years as prime minister, his obsession with holding onto power while his disloyal MPs sought to remove him from office, and his conviction that he knew what 'real' New Zealanders wanted. If there was one thing reviewers and commentators expressed disappointment over, it was how little time the play spent on Muldoon's years in power and how many of the major political events of 1975-1984 went unexplored in the last act. But with Dean using Richard III as his structural reference point, the play's focus was on was exploring the machinations behind the rise to power rather than examining all the events that lead to the villain's downfall—most audiences aren't half as interested in the parts of the play after Richard has become king than they are in the three acts he spends obtaining the crown. There simply wasn't the time and scope to also explore the events around the 1981 Springbok tour or him finally facing a worthy adversary in new Labour leader David Lange—those were both entire plays in themselves.

My directorial approach to the play was in part a reversion to my favourite aesthetic, an aesthetic that I'd always wanted to apply properly to a Bacchanals show: a la the John Gielgud-Richard Burton Hamlet of 1968, we would stage Slouching Toward Bethlehem as though the audience were watching our last rehearsal room run-through in a community hall somewhere: that there'd be anachronistic and even abstract rehearsal room props and set items, and various jackets and costume items hanging on racks, so that the metatheatrical artifice was always clear, that character changes merely needed a change of coat or hat, and we could set up new worlds and environments at the click of a finger rather than getting bogged down in transitions and costume changes. I always love the framing device of actors playing characters, but in this case we had a double-framing device, because the structure of the show was us in 2011 watching Rob Muldoon in 1992 looking back on events between 1921-1984. Within this framing device, I wanted each act to have a different mood—I likened the rapid, snippet-nature of many of the Act One scenes to a collage-style film editing like someone had just assembled all the key moments with hard cuts between them instead of a more traditional narrative flow; the second act was the dominant one, and dominated by expressionist staging; the third act needed to feel exhausted and fugue-like, as Muldoon himself was feeling.

Muldoon punching out the Trade Unions Embracing the possibilities of an expressionist approach to staging, especially from Act Two onwards, was hugely liberating. There was a very real danger that, playing it exactly as it was on the page, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, no matter how powerful the content and arguments within that content, might end up being just a long series of scenes in which men in suits argued about politics, and I'd already had enough of such scenes by the toppling of Jack Marshall at the end of Act One. I think we eased into it gently—a chorus of taunting school children when Muldoon was a child, overlaying a visit to his father in a mental hospital with visiting the monkey enclosure at the zoo, and then culminating with staging the fall of Jack Marshall as the assassination of Julius Caesar. And then at the start of Act Two we broke the back of it: I said "What if this fight with the union leaders was literally a boxing match?" and we set up a boxing ring so Muldoon could punch out each combatant as representative of the trade unions. This led to "What if Norma Holyoake were a Roman empress carried in on a bier?" and "What if the Brierley board members were a giant eight-headed monster?" and "What if the deal with the advertising agency was actually a pact with the devil?" and culminated with, when we got to staging of the performance of the song 'The Little Corporal' the Sweetwaters Music Festival, "What if this scene was an episode of The Muppet Show?" Between Acts Two and Three, we had a moment where the whole company dropped their 1970s hues and all changed into grey suit jackets and National Party-blue ties. I knew Dean would be fine with all of this—indeed he got all the credit in reviews for things that were our ideas, particularly the boxing match—but there was one moment I didn't know how he'd feel about: there was a particularly lavish, filmic stage direction around a silent moment in Act Three when Thea Muldoon digests the news of her husband having an extra-marital affair. It felt prescriptive and frankly insane to be micro-dictating how Brianne played the moment and there was some mocking of the stage direction in the rehearsal room. And then we said "What if Brian Edwards narrated the stage direction??" and Jonny entered the scene as the famous NZ broadcaster and spoke the words while Bri was alone onstage. We all found it hilarious but also very effective in a Brechtian manner. My worries that Dean might think we were taking the piss were unfounded—not only did he incorporate narrating the stage direction into the post-production and published versions of the script, but he found other places for the broadcaster to narrate stage directions that illuminated Thea Muldoon's inner life.

Slouching Toward Bethlehem (c) The Bacchanals I found myself in an all-too familiar position the night before the show opened. As per I.D., King Lear, my Fortune production of Jane Eyre, and several other productions I'd worked on, what had been magic and transformative in the rehearsal room suddenly looked shit onstage. I'd thought in employing a rehearsal room aesthetic of 'found' set and prop items where anything could be anything, and the actors performing in rehearsal clothes with changes of jackets and hats and ties rather than properly 'curated' costumes, I would avoid this loss of magic. And then, thinking about my most transformative theatre experience of recent years, Thomas Sainsbury's production of his own play The Mall which had played at BATS under halogen work lights, with no tech elements, no costumes, and a couple of those gross white folding tables from Bunnings as the only set items, I realised what I'd got wrong: you can't on the one hand deliberately have rehearsal room props and frocks intended to avoid artifice but then have a comprehensive lighting and sound design: in trying to light it like it's a proper show, you're just making the artifice look like shit instead of deliberately artificial. With I.D. I'd stripped out most of the tech elements and opted for a warm wash for a lot of the show; with Jane Eyre I'd sent everyone home after the dress rehearsal, taken down the whole lighting rig, and started again from scratch. With Slouching Toward Bethlehem I felt like I finally had clarity on what the problem was, and ten minutes before the final dress rehearsal I asked the company, "Would you guys be okay if I left the workers and the house lights on, just to see what happens?" Phil was okay with it which was the key thing, but in terms of consensus I don't think I'd encountered such uncertainty from a cast since the moment in Jane Eyre's production week when I played them the Sparklehorse track 'The Most Beautiful Widow In Town' and said "I think this is going to be the show's final piece of music!" The idea of performing with the house lights on is a polarising one for a lot of actors—you can't hide from an audience if you're always lit, and it means you can see exactly who's having a great time and who isn't which can be enormously disconcerting. But Jonny said: "Hey, it's your show; you should do what you want. It's not like this production's gonna win Chapman Tripps or anything!" So the house lights stayed on and suddenly there was that same magical transformative show I'd seen in rehearsals again. Like the experience of seeing The Mall, what I was watching and what I was seeing became completely different things. I should have known from The Mall and from our 2006 Hamlet: you can have no artifice, or you can have complete artifice, but something in-between where some elements are fully realised while others is ignored doesn't work. If you make no concessions towards illusion, then the mind's ability to conjure illusion is set free. If you're prescriptive and literal with design, you limit the mind's ability to see beyond what it is watching. I know some audience members weren't into it, and some people found it very jarring, but for me the change was incredible. Never again would a Bacchanals show be performed with the audience in the dark.

The short season was phenomenal and within a few performances I'd realised that I hadn't ever made a piece of work I was more proud of. Such was the interest in the play and so polarising a figure was Muldoon that every night, every seat was full and every performance had a massive waitlist, and in the audiences themselves were political figures aplenty. While I had initially approached Slouching Toward Bethlehem thinking that in an election year we would expose New Zealand's most evil prime minister for the monster he truly was, what was bewildering for all of us as a company was that he was the hero—or at least the antihero—of the story we were telling, and that in our masses of research through rehearsals (we watched a pile of old footage the NZ Film Archive assembled for us, and as well as the excellent Barry Gustafson biography and numerous other books about Muldoon, I actually read the four books Muldoon wrote himself while in office—do we have any other prime ministers who had the discipline to write four books in their spare time while running the country?) we found ourselves on his side as we re-examined some past events. What our research threw up was that many of the writers and journalists and politicians and biographers with the most reason to hate him were actually more sympathetic to him than he was to himself in his own books. I suddenly understood why my beloved grandmother, who had died only two years earlier, wouldn't hear a bad word said about Muldoon and how a tyrannical bully could also be a complete man of the people able to have a beer with virtually anyone. The single best illustration of this dichotomy I can offer is being introduced to one of Muldoon's former senior aides who said to me, "I was worried that this was going to be a hatchet job, but thank you for portraying him as the good man he really was" at the very same performance as a former Labour MP said to me, "I was worried this was going to be hagiographic, but thank you for showing him as the c*nt he really was!"

Slouching Toward Bethlehem (c) The Bacchanals Within a week of finishing Slouching Toward Bethlehem we were back in the rehearsal room working on Julius Caesar with no time to dwell on how well it had gone. As it turned out, Jonny was wrong: at the 2011 Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards, Slouching Toward Bethlehem won Outstanding New NZ Play of the Year, and Phil won an Outstanding Performance Accolade for his portrayal of Muldoon. I was nominated for Director of the Year but didn't win. But the lesson I took from all of this, after The Bacchanals' 'Wilderness Years' when I strove for acclaim and success to no avail, was that as soon as you stop caring what the industry thinks and stop trying to be successful, and just focus on making work that matters to you personally and projects that you love, suddenly you achieve acclaim and success again. Never again would I care what the industry thought about The Bacchanals or me—if anything, I took the lesson from Muldoon that you entrench the support you have instead of worrying about winning over people who were never going to vote for you in the first place. Slouching Toward Bethlehem was, as I saw it, a crucial turning point in my work and the lessons I learnt from it would be reapplied in Other People's Wars, Coriolanus and Once We Built A Tower, shows which to me cemented and perfected the kind of theatre I had always imagined The Bacchanals could make, combining the political, the social and the theatrical experiences into one.—David, September 2020

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