Direction: Stuart McKenzie & Miranda Harcourt
BATS Theatre (April 20 – May 1)
Last night I attended the world premiere of TRANSMISSION. It’s a new play by Stuart McKenzie and Miranda Harcourt. It stars Sophie Hambleton, Tom Knowles and Tim Spite – between them they give voice to works spoken by Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson and Michael Baker. The words come – verbatim – from interviews Miranda and Stuart conducted right through our lockdown. The result is a piece of art which captures the mood and the history, looks at the science and the politics that drove the decisions; factors in the emotion and even gives us back-story, behind-the-scenes anecdotes around decision-making or just the mood of a particular day.
This review originally appeared (in slightly different form) on my Substack – Sounds Good!
TRANSMISSION plays at Wellington’s BATS Theatre until May 1 – and its entire season is already sold out. Not a ticket left before the first show. Such was the build and anticipation – an expert social media campaign, the reputation of all involved and the fact that this is New Zealand Theatre’s most relatable storyline (we were all in it together, recent history re-contextualised) all combined – so as much as this is a ‘review’ and absolutely a recommendation, this is also not really a proper review. I can tell you that it’s a must-see but then unless you already have tickets for its short season you can’t exactly get to it.
But I can tell you that the opening night was amazing – of course there was a standing ovation. But the first person to stand was our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. She’s very much the star of the show – and Sophie Hambleton is absolutely incredible when delivering her words. She acknowledges in the show’s very funny prelude (where the actors bicker amidst the rubble of the fourth wall about who is best positioned to play which particular person) that she neither looks nor sounds like Jacinda. But that’s not quite right. Because when she delivers the lines, particularly the behind-the-scenes stories of vulnerability, of frustration, and then of preparing the country for a type of new war backing herself that being armed with conviction and the right advise would be the things to see us through it, we are transported to Jacinda’s pattern of patter. The rhythms of the speech, pauses, the empathy. And when you hear someone’s empathy and feel their rhythm you see them.
Tom Knowles has Grant Robertson’s voice down. So much so that if, in that character, he hasn’t spoken for a time, when the drought eases and Grant’s flow re-emerges, slightly hunched over and ready to amuse himself always, the audience howls with laughter. Among the audience and sometimes leading the charge in the laughter stakes is of course the real Grant Robertson.
It always seems cruel to single out one performer or performance – particularly in a play where the roles all work in support of each other and the performers skillfully integrate on-set tech changes and furniture moves, but as superb as Hambleton and Knowles are the real star of the show on a technical level is Tim Spite. He impersonates both the show’s writer Stuart McKenzie (presented here as the interviewer gathering the source material) and epidemiologist Michael Baker. His ability to conjure mannerisms, to integrate them with voice, is so specific, so winning, that he has one line early on pretending to be Miranda Harcourt. He accents it with a tiny pinched-nose, eyes-closed smile. The full house erupts, it’s so instantly recognisable.
As Baker he manages to supply us with a nearly dizzying amount of information, but also brings the humour and heart into the situation of an academic mind thrust into full public life and duty. A breakdown during a TV news interview is particularly affecting – especially when the news reporter (Mei Heron) was later interviewed about the incident and her words are presented via an actor (Michelle Ang) on a video screen.
Real lives. Reeling. And live.
So, in and around the action of Covid happening and the country going into lockdown we learn about the emotional and clerical journey – how much went into those decisions. It’s frequently very funny, thanks to McKenzie’s extraordinary facility with language, and the cast’s great skill at communicating that. Add in the knowledge that these are real words by real people and it makes for such a strangely specific and ultimately uplifting tale.
TRANSMISSION’S unspoken final act is that the play gets to take place. We are ‘free’ to see it. We are there in our mini-droves, for the next two weeks there won’t be an empty seat and it’s unlikely there’ll be a dry eye. That’s the play’s power-punch coda.
While I was watching it I wanted to see it again! As it was playing out I checked my watch a few times, not out of any boredom, quite the opposite – I knew it had a 90 minute run time with no interval before I went in. So as the words spilled from the stage and the laughs were punctuated only by sneaking a peak at when the real (and very honourable) PM and her Deputy were first to laugh or were sharing a knowing chuckle of self-reflection, their personal stories so beautifully woven into the text, I also would take a quick look at the time – because I wanted it to hang still – it was that thing where, child-like, I didn’t want it to be over. I was both enjoying it in the moment and being cautious in my hopes that the moment wasn’t moving too quickly. Michael Baker’s words and mindset made so funny by Tim Spite. And then me elated that the play had only been running for some 20 minutes. Grant Robertson’s homespun and heartfelt and hard-fought exuberance so brilliantly captured by Tom Knowles. And then, even better, it’s not even halfway through! Sophie Hambleton living the words of Jacinda Ardern, so deeply invested in conveying the empathy of the various tough situations – can you imagine what it was like to be sitting at that table and pondering that set of questions? – well, now we can. Somewhat. Plus, also, there’s still half an hour to go thrillingly!
This was the feeling – one unlike any I’ve had watching theatre over the last quarter century. This is what happens when skilled writers, directors and actors combine. This is what happens when the source material is of value and impact to everyone in the room. You could not watch this show and come away unmoved. You had to learn something. About character. Grit. Heart. The battle between correct medical advice and then selling that as a wisdom to be communicated in a message to an entire country. The ethics of journalism. The philosophy of community – actual community. The meanings behind and in and around all of this. And more. So much more.
This is why I’m obviously still thinking about TRANSMISSION. And will for days. And weeks.
I need to mention that the still photography is heartbreaking and beautiful. Montages of real people in real situations plays as the backdrop to many of the monologues. I immediately spotted Peter Black’s work because he is my favourite living photographer. But as well as Peter we were treated to photos by Mark Smith, Luke Pilkington-Chin, Kevin Stent and various Dominion Post photographers.
The people from the NZ Festival – the decision makers that pick and book and plug the gigs – were there. So one hope is that they’ll celebrate this show by programming it for the next festival. There will of course be other seasons. This show could be played on any stage in the country – small community theatres and the biggest stages we can find. But for its launch into the world it was so perfect at Wellington’s BATS.
A bigger and better stage would be to see it filmed – so it could be shown worldwide. But I don’t mean adapted into a film – I mean filmed as it is. I believe in it as a Netflix show; film the stage play and send it out to the world. Our example should be studied forever. This example of art will be of equal interest to writers, filmmakers, dramaturgs, actors and fans of great art.
This was the thing. Sitting there. Knowing I was lucky. Lucky to be alive. Lucky to have lived in a place where the Government of the day had my back. Was doing their very best to react to information and news and do what was best for everyone in the most manageable, efficient way; being open to criticism 24/7 by citizen journalists and social media’s vast wasteland of trends replacing rules. And succeeding.
But also the thing was sitting there. Knowing I was lucky. Lucky to be in this audience watching this very performance. Lucky to know that there are people out there like Stuart and Miranda. Tom and Sophie and Tim. The incredible support cast (Michelle Ang, Lahleina Feaunati) and technical crew (Andrew and Rufus Thomas with the original music, set designer Mark McEntrye, lighting designer Wendy Clease, AV designer Robert Larsen, graphic design by EightOne and Andre Caraco, production manager Karena Ketham, stage manager Tyler Clarke and operator Bekky Boyce).
And saved by people like Jacinda Ardern, Grant Roberston and Michael Baker. Well, this play shows – through their very words – that there’s actually no one like them.