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September 12, 2011 | by  | in Arts Theatre |
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Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Rob Muldoon, you bastard. What a rotter!

There is a lot of pressure on a play that endeavours to tell the story of New Zealand’s most hated politician (ever) in an election year, but National-bashing to a BATS audience is a bit like preaching to the choir. Thankfully, Slouching Towards Bethlehem doesn’t pick on Muldoon, but rather Dean Parker has done an amazing job telling the story of a man, and capturing a bygone era of political and social relevance.

David Lawrence has gifted his audience a real treat. The play is divided into three acts, ‘Pretender’, ‘Prince’, and ‘King’, signifying his ascension to the political throne. We move through Muldoon’s life rapidly; characters and years are introduced with signs held by the cast and are disposed of as fast as they change costume. Personifying political cartoons through boxing matches, song and puppet shows, Lawrence creates delightful images that the audience lap up.

Phil Grieve, who stretches his politician muscles even as we enter the theatre, is an impeccable Rob Muldoon. The play opens to “Now is the winter of our discontent…” from Richard III, and indeed we are treated to Muldoon growing into a figure not unlike the unlikeable, manipulating monarch. Grieve plays an unapologetic and confident bully with relish, insulting audience members with minimal effort, and yet is thoroughly engaging, even to one of ‘those university types’. Parker has crafted a Muldoon who thrives in front of an audience; he has a way with words, a confidence, and a self-assurance that deserves our respect (if not our affection) by the play’s end.

If Grieve is the leader of the National Party, the young and enthusiastic company are the army of researchers, speechwriters, and makeup artists that make a leader look good. Kitted out in the latest Chuck Taylors, these actors work incredibly hard playing 50-odd characters. Period and character are indicated minimally, but their characterisation is delightful. Jean Sergent is lovable as Jerusha Brown and Kirsty Bruce is particularly memorable as Norma Holyaoke.

Set, props and costume adorn the stage and music is seamlessly integrated. The houselights stay on throughout. I am curious why the stage right wall is dominated by a banner advertising The Bacchanals, a bit too much verfremdungseffekt for this reviewer.

In an election year political diatribes are inevitable. Facebook statuses, Dom Post headlines, 3 News picking up on every bit of dirty laundry in politicians’ laundry baskets: people have a multitude of ways to convince the fence-sitters of which box to check. Slouching Towards Bethlehem’s political point is to remind us what it is we’re voting for and what leadership is.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem
By Dean Parker
31 August – 10 September at BATS

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