[Angels in Aotearoa]
Programming a grad show for any acting program is tricky business, balancing the needs of roles required and finding a suitable showcase, all while crafting a satisfying narrative. In choosing to commission a brand new work by Auckland playwright Sam Brooks, rounding off a knockout year in collaboration with director Sam Snedden (Twenty Eight Millimetres and Burn Her), The Actors’ Program have produced one of their finest grad shows yet.
Taking place over the lead up to the 2017 NZ General Election, Jacinda follows the lives of multiple characters impacted by the pressures of the looming results. The disparate storylines have the scope and range of a Hollywood ensemble drama but set against the backdrop of our familiar shores.
Though the title may feel pandering, there is nothing overly didactic about the play, and our current Prime Minister is ultimately a mere symbol in the play’s vast landscape. This is a piece about people rather than politics (though also about the role politics plays in their respective lives whether they know it or not).
As we bounce back and forth between the ensemble, the first half is unavoidably quite expository, but the delicate balancing act is masterfully handled. It’s a slow burn that pays off with satisfying and believable characters arcs. The scope of it is impressive, covering a cast of sixteen actors in under three hours. Brooks’ writing crackles with wit, but the retorts and comebacks do become diffuse when spread over so many characters. And while not all the characters sit within the same realm of depth – with a couple feeling superfluous to the play – every actor feels well-suited to their roles and does them justice.
Standout performances include Ruby Hansen’s potentially jobless politician, Jared Hill’s sympathetic David Seymour, Erin O’Flaherty’s pregnant teenager and Renaye Tamati’s ex-mayoral assistant. But it’s no coincidence that they are the characters with the highest stakes and weave most organically into the play’s only throughline.
This throughline is embodied with physical manifestations of The State, The Nation and The Land, performed with a pitch-perfect balance of parody and sincerity by Adeline Shaddick, Mirabai Pease and Jen Huang respectively. It’s magical realist touch that pays homage to Tony Kushner’s seminal Angels in America, the play’s most clear and acknowledged influence.
If the first half sits closer to the realism of Millennium Approaches, after intermission we return to Perestroika, and the play embraces its fantastical elements more wholly, thrusting the narrative worlds of the real and unreal together. The result is a deliciously satisfying plea against complacency and a mournful cry against colonialism. While the ending ties things up too neatly with its deus ex machina-like plot device, it never undermines the long, arduous journey these characters have faced, confronting their personal values in an ever-changing political world. Audiences are likely to resonate with more than a few of these struggles.
Also well worth mentioning is Micheal McCabe’s deconstructed office space. A highly efficient, utilitarian design that operates as multiple spaces without overly fussy set changes. Despite being a relatively new theatre designer, his work over the past year is well worth noting, and this is as much a showcase for his talents as well as the actors.
It’s a privilege to witness a playwright flex his muscles in an interesting and new direction with the likes of Burn Her and Jacinda. And, while the former’s taut and tense storytelling is reminiscent of a high-quality television drama made with enviable craft, Jacinda is, for my money, the more resonant and ambitious piece. Full of wisdom, humour and heart.
As a snapshot of a country in constant flux, see it. Jacinda is both a criticism and love letter to New Zealand. One that proposes not blind optimism, but hope as the antidote to our dark and cynical times.
Jacinda is presented by The Actors’ Program and plays at Basement Theatre until 24 November.