It's been a fortnight of near-solitude - our household has had the flu. For me, stuck home alone, this rapidly progressed to cabin fever. I had to get out, so took my former Parliamentary press secretary to opening night of The Hollow Men - Dean Parker's play of Nicky Hager's book named after T.S. Eliot's poem which also inspired an English comedy troupe. Is nothing original these days?
To attend theatre in Wellington is to step back in time. Where was my duffle coat, my beret, my hand-knitted woolly jumper - clothes to make me at home among the patrons pouring in to fill Bats Theatre to capacity? Alas, shoved in a clothing bin back when the 1970s ended.
Act leader Rodney Hide looked sharp in a suit, but then Lindsay Perigo (who makes a cameo appearance in the play - or at least one of his emails does) used to say Act members go to bed in their suits. I wouldn't know, having never been to bed with an Act member but Perigo is better connected than I am.
It was a cold night, to be fair, and Mt Ruapehu was chucking a lahar down its front. If the world was about to end, then these Wellington urban environmentalists would be rescued in hand-me-down recycled clothing. Or do the fat folk in the Capital wear numerous layers of clothes as protection in case of earthquakes?
We sat in the second-to-front row - eschewing stage side in case the play called for audience interaction. There's nothing more humiliating than being dragged up to hula in front of a crowd sniggering with schadenfreude. Hide, a man of considerable pluck, sat with three children, right up the front. One of these baby-Acts, whose hair bore a remarkable resemblance to the caricature of Ruth Richardson who appeared later in the play, took notes, perhaps to send to Diane Foreman, whose lawyers had been unsuccessful in obtaining a script prior to production.
Foreman could have saved her panic and her money. She only makes a brief appearance, and looks more like Donna Awatere-Huata when she first started to turn waka blonde. If there was any defamation committed, it's purely against Foreman's vanity.
Actually, this play is worth attending. The production is snappy and slick. Director Jonathon Hendry says it's not about taking political sides, and it doesn't, though some of the more lame lines sneering at the new right got the predictable guffaws from the audience and an excruciating scene, where Don Brash tries to sing the New Zealand national anthem in Maori, rendered one woman, obviously fluent in te reo, horizontal with laughter. Perhaps she'd been in bed for three weeks.
And the acting is extremely good. You could single out Stephen Papps (Brash), but the others who make up the small cast are all extremely talented, in particular Lyndee-Jane Rutherford (Foreman, Richardson, Katherine Rich, Sue Wood, Ronald Reagan), who has the most mobile face I've seen. She could go from sweetly smiling Foreman to scowling Richardson in a second.
At times the script veers dangerously towards the unsubtle humour of a university revue (when this audience whooped with laughter), but there are great moments of understatement, such as when Brash delivers a speech to party faithful and, looking straight at Foreman (whose company owns private hospitals), says National would speed up surgery by using private hospitals to perform publicly funded operations.
Writer Parker calls this play a "straight-from-the-horse's-mouth" example of the duplicity of politics, which took his "breath away". That shows how little those outside politics know about what goes on. Spin, scripting speeches, managing interviews, direct appeals for money, isn't exclusive to National. It goes on in every political party. Yes, even the Greens - remember the careful but insistent instructions that Green members not get filmed at conferences indulging in square dancing?
You could write the same play about Labour if someone leaked enough internal emails (and I'm sure these were leaked, not stolen), just substitute the names of union and knowledge-wave bosses, Brian Edwards, Heather Simpson, Mike Munro, for those who advised Brash. But Labour's been around long enough to know you don't commit anything to email which might fall off the back of a truck. Brash, like those named in the play who were in his ear all the time - Roger Kerr, Catherine Judd, Michael Bassett - was naive, had emails printed off and copied for others to read.
I've seen the minders scurrying around with focus group results (Act doesn't appeal to women), crazy stunt proposals (planting a tree on Auckland's One Tree Hill), unwelcome advice (don't get known as the paedophile lady), cheesy lines (where do I start?). So it doesn't take my breath away, but it did get me off my sick bed. The Hollow Men? It's good for a laugh.