Once We Built a Tower

Once We Built a Tower, a new play from award-winning socialist playwright Dean Parker, has just opened at Bats in Wellington. Socialist Review caught up with the play’s director, David Lawrence, to get some sense of this production.

The Bacchanals have quite a history of putting on political plays, and have worked with Dean Parker before. Could you tell us a little about this coming production, and about the company’s sense of its place and purpose?

This is our third time working with Dean – last election we did his Muldoon bio-play Slouching Toward Bethlehem which was both a lot of fun but also hugely rewarding in terms of being able to revisit the political history of our childhoods, and in many cases we found what we thought was going to be a simple anti-National Party play was actually much more complex and ambiguous.  In 2012 we staged his adaptation of Nicky Hager’s Other People’s Wars which was a very different experience since there wasn’t the same sort of straightforward linear story to work with, nor familiar characters to grasp onto.  The mission of Other People’s Wars, as I saw it, was to convey the revelations and allegations of Nicky Hager’s book to audiences who were unlikely to sit down and read the book themselves.  Last year Dean sent me a first draft or the first act of Once We Built A Tower saying “This might be a good play for you guys for the next election.  Let me know if you like it and I’ll write the second act!”  Halfway through Act One there was a scene in which characters lamenting the state of New Zealand in the early-1930s were having exactly the same conversation we’d been having in the bar at BATS a few nights earlier and I knew we had to do the play without seeing the second act.

The story of the play is the building of the Waitaki dam in North Otago in the 1920s/1930s, and how the dam’s health insurance scheme provided the 1935 Labour government with a practical basis for the welfare state.  We’ve done a raft of anti-National plays in recent years and a big part of the appeal of Once We Built A Tower is that, at face value, it’s more of a pro-Labour play and we thought that would be a more positive message in 2014.  But as with Slouching Toward Bethlehem, as soon as you get the play on the floor its political ambiguities become much greater than you’d thought they were.  The play is both an endorsement of the achievements of the Labour Party last century and an indictment of its current state by comparison with what it once was.  The idea of any MP fighting for the needs of working people to the detriment of their own health is a pretty alien idea today.  We’ve realised how naïve our original plans and hopes for the show are – we dreamed of taking it around community centres and church halls and small town New Zealand and having audiences say “My god! you guys are right, we’re all going to vote Labour now!” – and that the purpose of both the play and The Bacchanals as a company isn’t to provide answers or explanations.  The purpose is to awake debate and question rather than a call to arms – it seems to me there are incredibly thick layers of apathy and self-interest to get through in terms of engaging people politically these days.  That John Key can wander a university campus during Orientation Week shaking hands and taking selfies is incredible – when I was an undergraduate there would have been a riot. 

I was struck, though, attending your production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well – not on the face of it the most accessible play – by the energy and determination with which the Bacchanal’s tried to break out of that sense of theatre as something staid, respectable, happening elsewhere. The production was obviously based on a huge love of Shakespeare’s writing – and it made no compromises to a false sense of ‘accessibility’ – but also there was nothing reverent about it. You don’t bother with illusions of a fourth wall; you welcomed members of the audience by name in the opening night; you expected us to do our jobs too. If answers or explanations aren’t what theatre provides, what is it the Bacchanals give us? Dean Parker’s written for TV as well as theatre – what is it about this experience in live theatre that matters to you?

I think one thing about us is that while there won’t always be answers or explanations, there will be very firm opinions – none of the current Bacchanals have any patience for sitting on the fence and while it can lead to some quite combative differences of opinion, something we’re always all firmly united on is a distrust of indifference or complacency.  We work from the attitude that presenting a firm opinion, even when dealing with material that can be received subjectively, gives the audience a place from which to form their own opinions, be they agreement or disagreement.  I’ve never had any time for the “make of it what you will” school of theatre-making where the work is being deliberately ambiguous instead of deliberately subjective.  The relationship with the audience is probably the single most important thing about our shows and certainly the thing that matters the most to me about the experience of live theatre.  Something we strive for with every performance of every production is to be present and immediate and alive every night, to adjust to the needs and mood of each individual audience, rather than hoping each individual audience will adjust their needs and mood to us delivering the same ‘product’ each night.  I tend to be very reactive in the way I work as a director and a performer so often I have no idea of what a show is until I see and hear it in front of an audience, so our shows can change radically from night to night as we sort out what we think works and what doesn’t work.  Some people find this a terrifying and destabilising way of working but for me it’s the safest way to ensure that we are always completely in the moment.   When I was working at the reconstructed Globe last year I found it amazing that some of my colleagues could come offstage dissatisfied with their performances.  It was inevitably because they cared more about how well they were playing their character than how well they were engaging with their audience. 

Once We Built a Tower runs at Bats until March 15. Tickets are available here.