Direction: Katherine McRae (written by Sam Brooks)
Circa Theatre; Circa One (August 3 – 31)
Burn Her is the kind of must-see, thrill-ride, brilliantly written, acted, directed theatre we can now pretty much expect down at Circa. Every aspect of this production sizzles. Debbie Fish’s set-design is magnificent, standing there as if about to deliver a monologue of its own as we enter the theatre. A spiral staircase symbolising both lofty ambitions and the house-of-cards nature of political pillars.
A brilliant cast giving life to a script full of zingers and charged with deep human insight and the sure hand of an experienced director. This is theatre. This is what it is all about.
Burn Her was written by Auckland-based playwright Sam Brooks. And has already had a run in the big city. But by virtue of it being a political story, Wellington is its spiritual home. Which meant that the opening night audience was enamoured with some of the digs, particularly one directed at The Dominion Post, one of its own writers (a character in the play) suggesting the paper was now little more than the Five Minute Quiz. A line that gets to not only live and breathe and strut its hour on the stage but can do so holding a middle finger up and poking its tongue right out given said paper no longer bothers to hold any sort of banner – or mirror – up for culture.
Burn Her is a political thriller. And though it is absolutely that – brilliantly; bristling with tension, cold, dead-eyed satire and almost far too much inside knowledge – it is also a play about women. About women being forced to turn on each other even when trying to fight the same fight; about toxic masculinity, about power structures and struggles. It is searing and energetic and wise. It is so thrillingly contemporary – a rats-in-the-ranks tale that almost feels like a theatrical documentary (and yet this was written in 2016, ahead of the rise of Jacinda Ardern and the Labour party returning to power).
So, to tell you too much more would be to ruin it – obviously. But to set it up a little further than the heapings of praise which I would gladly reiterate, Burn Her tells the story of the fictional Aroha Party, led by charismatic Aria (Kali Kopae). She’s won a seat in a Labour coalition and is excited at the thought that her policy of schools providing breakfast for all kids might now have something more than just hope behind it. Aria’s mentor Richard (Andrew Laing) is a career politician that jumped sides to assist her. George (Sophie Hambleton) is Aria’s comms/PR person. Her counterpart is Lauren, the Labour spin-master (played with scene-stealing relish by Lara Macgregor) and Harriet, the aforementioned DomPost/Stuff scribe (Jean Sergent) is a buddy of George’s.
We open on the party’s victory – Aria’s speech. But shortly after there’s a crisis. It involves intern Danny (Dryw McArthur here backs up the excellent work he showed just recently in The Aliens). This sets so many wheels in motion. All the wheels!
George goes into crisis-management/fix-it mode. Aria stands on ceremony as it crumbles around her.
Burn Her would be a must-see for the efforts of the cast, director and technical crew alone. But that is all in humble service to an astounding, compelling script. Which is so now, so simultaneously heavy with dark truth and fizzing with sharp humour as to be almost overwhelming.
Play of the year. No question. Play for the ages. Sadly. But most definitely. Burn Her is a triumph to – and for – all involved. An utterly brilliant piece of work.
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