Fresh Approach: A Review of Jacinda (The Play)

Can anyone save New Zealand? New Volumes critic Waveney Russ reviews Jacinda.

Can anyone save New Zealand? New Volumes critic Waveney Russ reviews Jacinda.

It’s September 2017, and New Zealand is hosting a general election to determine the membership of the 52nd Parliament. The centre-right National Party have governed since 2008 in a minority government with confidence and supply from ACT, United Future and the Māori Party. During their nine-year term, wealth and social inequality have skyrocketed. Environmental conservation has been compromised in the name of ‘fiscal responsibility’. Indigenous outcomes have plateaued. Around 3.57 million people are registered to vote, and 2.63 million turn out on the day.

The people have had enough. The country is ready for change. Can anyone save New Zealand?

It’s the weeks following the election. The New Zealand population sits in anxious limbo. Many have identified a heroine in the form of the Labour Party’s fresh new leader, but the polls are yet to yield an encouraging result. People dream of a country where austerity measures no longer fray the nation’s social fabric. They dream of a nation where native flora and fauna thrive, where our unique Māori identity is valued, where all citizens co-exist with the knowledge that they are equals.

People dream of a country led by her.

A young girl sits glued to a television screen while the Electoral Commission counts the votes. A brother and sister, one an open National voter and the other Labour, have a tense conversation in a Westport café. The best violinist in New Zealand sits in hospital, the bones in his hands shattered. His sister accuses him of breaking them on purpose, a perverse attempt to change his career path. A pregnant girl and her boyfriend arrive at a refuge, afraid of the reaction their conservative parents might have to her pregnancy. A refuge assistant butts in, injecting into the discussion enthusiastic facts and figures about Labour’s chance of winning, but her interruptions fall on deaf ears. A strange deity observes these interactions from an otherworldly realm. Two girls wear kilts. Jacinda reveals a country desperate for change, a country so thirsty for hope that it’s turned to an ancient source of indifference: domestic politics.

In Jacinda, directed by Sam Snedden for The Actor’s Program’s (TAP) 2018 graduation performance, playwright Sam Brooks imagines domiciliary discussions born from New Zealand's political void. TAP is a year-long intensive for actors who want to learn more about working in the performance industries; each year, the course concludes with a showcase at the Basement Theatre. Constructing distinctive roles for each of TAP’s 16 actors is a monumental task, and Brooks meets the challenge with great care.

Jacinda captures the anxiety in New Zealand’s collective consciousness during last year’s election

Through the multiple storylines Brooks has constructed, Jacinda captures the anxiety in New Zealand’s collective consciousness during last year’s election and brings many great, individual moments to the table. He strikes a compelling balance of political hope and cynicism. Take, for example, the relationship between the refuge owner (Renaye Tamati) and her assistant (Kate Johnstone). The young assistant is an avid Labour supporter, even wearing a Labour-branded t-shirt during her earlier scenes. Johnstone’s optimism is both believable and infectious, embodying the energy of the election cycle’s ‘youthquake’, while her enthusiasm is regularly doused by Tamati’s character, a jaded ex-assistant to the Mayor of Auckland.

Tamati, meanwhile, gives a tremendous performance. She delivers affecting monologues on the inefficacy of political bureaucracy and the importance of a woman’s right to choose – whether in the realm of politics or life itself – with a rare conviction, and she uses her body as a shield from psychological harm, forcing her way between young girls in her care and the men who threaten and intimidate them. She’s a natural, magnetic performer, delivering her conflicted internal dialogue in a lucid and stirring manner.

Similarly, a series of supernatural exchanges between a bronze-cast demigod, ‘The Land’ (Jen Huang), and her two subjects (Mirabai Pease and Adeline Shaddick) gives rise to an edifying dialogue on the translational discrepancies between the English and te reo Māori versions of the Treaty of Waitangi. These supernatural beings seem to be searching for ‘heroes’ who will reverse the damage to The Land caused by colonisation. Huang embodies the land and performs in both English and te reo Māori with exceptional confidence, including in this dialogue about the Treaty.

However, Brooks fails to include a character that approaches political dissension from a kaupapa Māori point of view. That’s especially relevant to the time, as the dissolution of the Māori Party caused widespread discussion within political and apolitical Māori communities alike. Where it could have engaged its audience with unfamiliar political dialogue, Jacinda leaves empty space.

Brooks and Snedden give the performers plenty of opportunities to articulate our need for transformational change, and how this conflicts with our cultural unwillingness to engage in change – ultimately, a kind of self-sabotage. Characters repeatedly mention that they are satisfied with the way things are, and plotlines highlight how resistant New Zealanders can be to any abrupt, transformational change that could save their deteriorating country.

Set designer Micheal McCabe surrounds the performers with stacks of filing cabinet upon filing cabinet, functioning as anything from a derelict office space to a miniature cityscape. This set creates a dual sense of scope and intimacy, reflecting the role of each story as a single piece of something much bigger. A Tivoli radio set stares at us from a row of storage cubes in the background and occasionally blares a sound bite from the media coverage of the 2017 election cycle, reminding us of the world beyond the show. In these moments we snap out of Jacinda and become immersed in recent history.

Despite this, the stories often lack cohesion, veering away from this overarching theme. The narrative begins to feel like a fragmented soap opera. We jump from a disagreement in a Westport café over a girl choosing to study accident forensics, to a monologue in a politician’s office detailing the intricacies of tax evasion. These transitions are jarring and confusing to follow, and it often feels as though characters are added in without justification.

Take David Seymour, as played by Jared Hill. Seymour is amusing; he occupies the self-conscious, eternal bachelor role in New Zealand politics, and Jacinda leans heavily on him for laughs. He’s an easy enough target, and Hill does a wonderful job of translating Seymour’s eccentric personality onto the stage, but his character doesn’t seem to be carrying weight in any one of Jacinda’s storylines. His role is as uncertain as many other characters; he seems to merely fill the trope of the easy target.

Jacinda’s dialogue also drifts between political relevance and small talk. The dialogue is repetitive, and more often than not focuses on subjects of little dramatic weight. Brooks draws out a top violinist’s circular discussions with his sister, a brother’s justifications of withholding savings from his younger sister. These disagreements, though relevant to Brooks’ inquiry into conflicting opinions, begin to sound juvenile, drawn to the point of a dull did so-did not rhythm.

Jacinda shines when Brooks brings topics such as Indigenous sovereignty, environmental destruction or a brief mention of 1080 protestors into the picture. The urgency, comedy and relevancy of broader political issues builds momentum, and it has a lot of individual moments where what it’s saying is clear, exciting and necessary. In saying this, when taken as a whole, the production lacks the cohesion and thoughtfulness that would make it effective at taking our pulse as a nation – or even at holding our attention as a drama.

Jacinda runs from November 14 to November 24 at Basement Theatre. Tickets available here.

This piece is presented as part of our New Volumes critical writing partnership with Basement Theatre. Basement Theatre covers the costs of paying our writers while we retain all editorial control. You can read more about the programme here.

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