Presented by The Bacchanals; Directed by David Lawrence
Adapted by Dean Parker, from the book by Nicky Hager
BATS Theatre | April 18-28
Over the last 12 years New Zealand’s role in the War on Terror has been spun, molded, distorted, and filtered by the Army, the SAS, the air force, and the media. Nicky Hager’s tell-all book shone a new, albeit controversial light on these events, and Dean Parker’s dramatization promises to finally reveal the truth about just what has really happened. In Other People’s Wars, The Bacchanals present a condensed history of the previous 11 years, clearly and effectively recounting the War on Terror from its origins to the present day.
Their aims are ambitious: to provoke us to review our assumptions and beliefs about the War on Terror and in just 90 minutes. From decisions made under 2001’s Labour government, to events that occurred just yesterday, the play is bursting with relevance, and being reminded of news stories of yesteryear is vital work. The play also taps into wider themes of conflict. Where is the line between justice and revenge? How does heroism manifest in ordinary people? For what reasons should a country like New Zealand ever engage in conflict? How do you go to war with an idea?
Like The Bacchanals previous BATS offering, Slouching Towards Bethleham, we are greeted by the actors as we enter the theatre. They introduce themselves one by one and then: “here goes the play.”
The retelling takes the form of an eclectic series of vignettes. Like the range of sources in Hager’s book, there is a wide reaching collection of theatrical devices used to create a full picture of the past. We are lectured by U.S. Ambassador Charles Swindells (Jonny Potts), who performs ‘Born in the USA’ in the style of Uncle Sam. George Bush (also Jonny Potts), played in neutral mask, pontificates to a ‘congress’ of children on a classroom mat (an allusion to the famous moment he was told about the 9/11 attacks). 2002’s ‘Operation Anaconda’ is reenacted with children’s toys and cartoonish cut-out soldiers. Some of these vignettes are unsettling; ‘Born in the USA’ is backed by eight dancing women in burkas, but some are genuinely thrilling; replaying a short scene several times, each time adding new information is a fantastic theatrical trick to condemn New Zealand’s involvement. The scenes set around the invasion of Iraq are genuinely gung ho (kudos to Uther Dean and William O’Neil’s lighting design). We also follow ‘the playwright’ (Alex Greig) on his OE in Afghanistan in 1973, and Afghani Mohammed Mohammed’s (Blair Everson) search for his wife. The play ends with the company presenting the findings of their own ‘investigation’ in the absence of an official one.
The company work together admirably and are a tightly choreographed group of personable and confident performers. However, the pace is very quick and a few line blanks were disappointing, but the production should even out over its run. In true rough theatre, props and costumes litter the stage and the houselights stay on throughout.
In his program notes, David Lawrence claims “we need to know this stuff.” Nicky Hager agrees; he has said few people outside the military understood what happened in Afghanistan and New Zealand’ part in the War on Terror.
The question has to be asked: how do we know what you’re telling us is the truth? The company appears certain in their presentation of events and asks the audience to accept their record of events as the truth. The text veers in and out of Michael Moore-style didacticism and when any ‘official’ versions are presented, it’s usually accompanied by a slightly sardonic sarcasm. Yet their only claim of authenticity is Hager’s book, the same book John Key dismisses as “fiction.” It therefore must fall to the individual audience member to filter this new information through what we already understand (or think we understand) of the previous 12 years to achieve a semblance of truth.
Regardless of its reliability, Other People’s Wars is doing everything theatre should: it’s asking the difficult and vital questions, it’s making people angry and getting people talking, and it’s doing it all on a shoestring budget. This is a conversation New Zealand should be having, and Other People’s Wars opens it beautifully.