Satirising the polo tariat

By Dionne Christian

Play sends up Auckland's horsey A-list in sharp and funny social portrait
Lisa Chappell and Harry McNaughton  star in Dean Parker's play Polo.  Photo / Michael Craig
Lisa Chappell and Harry McNaughton star in Dean Parker's play Polo. Photo / Michael Craig

Playwright Dean Parker likes to say there are 10 characters in his latest work - nine actors and the city of Auckland; not that the verbal jabs and jibes are restricted to the city. He's an equal opportunity kind of playwright, so the whole region comes in for some ribbing.

It's called Polo and, as the name suggests, the satirical comedy involves a fair bit of horse play. Is anyone likely to be offended?

"No, nobody at all," he says. "I'm friends with a cartoonist [Tom Scott] and he tells me that one of the most depressing things about his job is that no matter how vilely you represent someone, within five minutes of the drawing appearing, they'll be on the phone wanting a copy. Not that anyone is vilely represented here..."

Polo opens with Auckland's A-list clustered in Clevedon - that's in Auckland's south-east and home to some pretty impressive polo grounds - for a glorious weekend of passes and pony shots and, of course, a little polo.

There's National MP Gillian Hancock (Lisa Chappell) and her loud-mouthed property developer husband Mungo (Adam Gardiner), their private school educated children and friends (played by Hannah Preston, Katrina Wesseling and Taylor Barrett), PR maven Sally Hunt (JJ Fong) and handsome polo player Jaap Du Plessis (Harry McNaughton).

Armed with a six-pack and a smile, handsome young waiter Matiu (James Maeva) sees it as a golden opportunity to get a leg up in the world. It's at odds with the down-at-heel flat he shares with his unemployed girlfriend Amber (Kalyani Nagarajan). Having drifted into Eden Terrace from her home turf in Papatoetoe, Amber provides much of the comedy but she's actually a serious girl on a kind of quest, says Parker.

"I needed a character that was at odds with the polo world, a character who takes a very deep meaning out of life, so I came up with Amber who looks at Auckland as a creature, a mentality, a region and sets out to map it internally."

A politically-minded journalist and social commentator, Parker says the characters aren't really archetypes and aren't based on anyone in particular.

"They're all parts of me," he jokes but, given his motivation for writing the play, perhaps Amber is the character closest to him.

"I wanted people to think about the National party and its connections to the business world, about who runs this town."

He says it's a play about the Auckland "ruling class" and those characters - Gillian and Mungo, their children and the people around them - came first. About halfway through writing, Parker decided there needed to be a contrasting voice so Amber was born.

"I got to wondering what the waiter did after he finished work. He'd nick a bottle or two of wine and head home. To where? Cheap flat in Eden Terrace, say. This gave me the second layer I wanted plus a ninth character, a girl, Amber."

So why polo? Parker says it's all to do with an earlier play where, midway through, a horse was wheeled onto the stage and the audience loved it.

"I made a mental note to myself to write something else where I could get a horse on stage."

Parker says he read an Herald column about polo and decided it would be a convenient setting to bring together the type of characters that populate Auckland's A-list. He only went to the polo when he started writing his play and actually enjoyed it very much indeed. "The people treated us really nicely and were a lot better behaved than you might see at some footie grounds."

What: Polo
Where and when: SkyCity Theatre, February 11-28

- Weekend magazine

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