[Like a Mallet to the Face]
Polo is a dangerous sport. When one considers the combination of horses and mallets, it’s easy to see how strains and sprains, muscular and ligament tears, fractures and dislocations, concussions, and even death can result. I suffered a concussion once – not from polo, mind you – and while I count my blessings that it lead to nothing more than six stitches in the back of my head, I couldn’t help but envy the time my past self spent in a black abyss as I sat through the first show in Auckland Theatre Company’s 2016 season.
The “hilarious” teaser trailer to the premiere production of Dean Parker’s Polo is actually an excellent summary of the show. No, it doesn’t convey any plot (and the only similarity between the characters in the teaser and those onstage is that Harry McNaughton’s appears to play polo and Lisa Chappell’s is a politician), because Polo has no story to offer. There’s a multi-million dollar Gold Coast project that threatens political disruption, there’s an affair, there’s a breakup, there’s even a ménage à quatre, but none of it is of any relevance other than to sling horse apples at the far right with the subtlety of a shotgun blast to the temple.
From his adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Enemies to Midnight in Moscow, Parker is known for infusing a strong political voice in his scripts, so why doesn’t he bring anything new to the conversation about Auckland’s elite? The dialogue is largely constructed of a barrage of jokes that are so obvious they’re seen coming a mile away. Without a plot or Parker’s signature burning dialogue imbuing the script with a sense of purpose, perhaps we’ll find something with which to connect within the characters themselves? No. There is no lifting of “the lid on Auckland’s outrageously fortunate and filthy rich”, because the people with whom we are presented in Polo don’t actually exist. They’re inaccessible caricatures that pontificate at each other at best and vomit stereotypes at worst.
Mungo Hancock (Adam Gardiner) has a dodgy property development firm. His wife Gillian (Chapell) is a National Party electorate MP. Their relationship and the situation in which they find themselves is like a role reversal of Frank and Claire Underwood’s from House of Cards – if it was watered down with pure New Zealand blandness. The stakes are so low they’re flatlining, but that doesn’t stop these characters’ indulging in the most vocal overreacting I’ve heard in years, regardless of how limited the actors’ motivation is. Their daughter Harper (Hannah Paterson) and her best friend Annabel (Katrina Wesseling) carry Country Road clutches (a missed opportunity to have the far more suitable Deadly Ponies) and talk about, surprise surprise, nothing of any importance. Even Harper’s rejection of boyfriend Kerrisk (Taylor Barrett) for his lack of goals and ambition is hypocritically weak.
The only one who is able to bring any truth to the play is McNaughton, because he’s reacting to the ridiculousness of it all, but even then he has to play the comedy angle to get the dialogue through, because there are no others available to him.
Then there’s the flat in Grafton where Matiu (James Maeva) and Amber (Kalyani Nagarajan) reside, the bizarre antithesis to the world to which we’re supposed to be gaining insight. He works at the polo club (but don’t let that fool you into thinking he’s an everyman through which the audience can interpret the true nature of the polo league). She’s 17 and does nothing all day, so she has a lot to talk about, and Nagarajan uses every accent she has to do so. It’s as if Parker has tried to make a satire, but couldn’t decide whether to focus on a political statement or a social one, and when he exhausts every cliché in the book in the former, he uses the latter to employ an absurd ending, which drowns the entire play in a shallow, murky puddle.
Has Parker tricked ATC into believing this diatribe was satire? Or have ATC tricked their audience? It’s unclear, as director Colin McColl treats the play as a farce and offers little originality in stage craft, constantly placing the cast in a line, downstage centre, facing out towards the audience. It completely destroys any suspension of disbelief we might have of the given circumstances, and ignores the depth which John Parker’s set offers by literally framing the play to draw us in and away from the fact that we’re sitting in a theatre.
Asides from one brilliant moment by Paterson illustrating class elitism, the entire script comes across as nothing more than a mean-spirited attack on the very people laughing in the audience. Racist jokes are met with howls of laughter, not because they expose the true nature of such despicable people, but because those responding to them tell those very jokes themselves. Polo offers no insight, revelation, or even genuine commentary on the upper class. I struggle to find anything that can be taken away from this play. If geography really is destiny, stay away from the SkyCity Theatre.
Polo is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays at SkyCity until February 28. For details see Auckland Theatre Company.