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April 23, 2012 | by  | in Arts Theatre |
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Review – Other People’s Wars

ADAPTED BY: Dean Parker from the book by Nicky Hager
DIRECTED BY: David Lawrence
PRESENTED BY: the Bacchanals

CAST: Diana Aurisch, Kirsty Bruce, Joe Dekkers- Reihana, Blair Everson, Alex Greig, Julia Harrison, Brianne Kerr, Hilary Penwarden, Jonny Potts and Paul Waggott.

VENUE: BATS, 17 April, 8pm

The Western dramatic tradition has many faults, but grovelling humility is not one of them. Ever since Shakespeare remarked how nice it would be to have a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention, playwrights have demanded the privilege of addressing the biggest themes in the political life of nations: war, corruption, tyranny, and the abuses of power. This desire to tackle weighty subject matter creates a problem, however: no playwright – then or now – can boast a kingdom for a stage, princes to act, and monarchs to behold the swelling scene. Somehow, the sweeping action must be scaled down to fit into the space and medium of the theatre. Playwrights and directors need to curb their ambitions in order to reduce military and political maelstroms to intelligible human dramas. Unfortunately, producing an intelligible human drama does not seem to be the main priority of Dean Parker’s play Other People’s Wars, which prefers to use the stage as a pulpit and a platform to expound a particular version of the history of New Zealand’s involvement in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.

Other People’s Wars is freely adapted from the book of the same title by investigative journalist Nicky Hager (who was among the audience on opening night Tuesday). When it was released last year, Hager’s book attracted a storm of controversy and denials –John Key described the book as “a work of fiction” – which largely eclipsed serious discussion of the actual claims Hager made. Strangely, most of Hager’s claims don’t actually make it into the play either: his intriguing assertion that “the military and bureaucracy used the war on terror to pursue private agendas, even when this meant misleading and ignoring the decisions of the elected government” is barely touched upon.  Instead, Parker has used the play format to present a kind of pantomime-history of American imperialism in the era of the ‘War on Terror.’ Director David Lawrence compares this production to a “medieval mystery play,” and surprisingly he’s not far wrong. Like the popular drama of late-medieval England, this one has stock-villains – for ‘Herod’ read ‘George W. Bush’ (boo hiss!) – and all the predictable litany of trite moral instruction. Unlike medieval miracle plays, however, Other People’s Wars is not a meditation upon the great mysteries of human existence, but simply an examination of the sordid realities of imperialism and warfare.

Any complex subject adapted for the stage inevitably requires a certain amount of simplification, but here this becomes a pretext for extravagant stereotyping. Americans are all obnoxious Foghorn Leghorn-esque blowhards; Afghans are muezzins, burqua-draped women, or goat-herders (goats actually crop up quite a lot in this play – I’d like to think that a comparable production in Kabul would feature lots of jokes about how much New Zealanders love sheep). All the clichés, as Umberto Eco would say, are having a ball. The scene shifts bafflingly between Wellington, Washington, and Afghanistan, with figures like former US Ambassador Charles Swindell and Private Jessica Lynch drifting in and out for no discernible reason. These are not characters so much as shadow puppets, who are used to make the playwright’s point – and in case you failed to get it the first time, a Greek chorus of narrators hammer home the moral message with sarcasm slightly less subtle than a suicide-vest.

The scenes set in Afghanistan are by far the least successful: they included ludicrous staged battle scenes, replete with flashing lights and tinny sound effects, which should have been excised from the start. As Sophocles and Shakespeare knew, there’s much to be said for keeping the most dramatic action off-stage: when you’re trying to make a serious moral point about violence and human agency, it helps not to reduce the conflict itself to the level of bathos. Unfortunately, this really establishes the level for much of the play. I’m sure many of the actors in the Bacchanals are highly talented, but the tenor of this production is reminiscent of nothing more than the preachy, well-meaning ‘Stay off Drugs, Kids’ skits that highschool students are doubtless still forced to endure at the hands of manically grinning evangelists of good health and clean-living. In fact, if you substituted the word ‘Jesus’ for ‘Afghanistan,’ you really could believe you were in the grip of some terrifying sect of squinty-eyed fanatics.

But perhaps the worst – the very worst – thing about the play is that it never makes it clear when it is quoting verbatim from real individuals and when it is freely adapting their words (or, in plain speech, just makin’ shit up). This is simply dishonest. If you’re going to mix words that were really spoken by living people with fictional dialogue, the least you should include is a big fuck-off flashing sign carrying the words: MAY NOT HAVE HAPPENED.

Believe it or not, I really wanted to like Other People’s Wars. I’m sympathetic to its political outlook. Moreover, I suspect there’s a really good play buried in Hager’s book. With the right degree of ironic detachment and moral nuance, the tragic farce of New Zealand’s involvement in Afghanistan could make a really compelling show. If the action of the narrative were focussed on the political intrigues in Wellington (and superficially fictionalised), we could have our very own In the Loop – the best, angriest, truest, funniest screen-play about contemporary politics I’ve ever seen. But sadly good politics doesn’t necessarily make for great entertainment. Other People’s Wars is sententious, scatter-shot, directionless, and dismally uninspiring. That’s not the greatest tragedy of our involvement in America’s wars, but it’s a lost opportunity and it’s one to be mourned.

Other People’s Wars runs until 28 April (no show 23 April), 8:00pm. Tickets: $20/$14

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