From Wattie’s tomato sauce to Daniel Cartier via Tame Iti and Vichy Invercargill, the laughs keep coming in Dave Armstrong’s new play, Le Sud. He talks to ALEXANDER BISLEY about reimagining the South Island as a French colony.

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IT’s TOUGH out there for theatre companies. People lounge at home on their laptops passively consuming material they’ve illegally downloaded. Downstage has responded by programming some bloody good work. Othello Polynesia told the old classic Nesian style, with quite beautiful music and invigorating physicality like the Fa’ataupati (slap dance). As part of a seated Sunday series, foursome Little Bushman performed a terrific, intimate gig. Warren Maxwell remains a charismatic, humorous frontman, Little Bushman delivered some reflective, spiritual and exhilirating moments.

Currently the very funny satire Le Sud is on at Le Stage de Down. Written by Niu Sila’s Dave Armstrong, it imagines the South Island was colonised by the French. North Zealand’s Prime Minister Jim takes a couple of colleagues to Wanaka to negotiate lower power prices with Le Sud’s PM’s trio. As the sleazy, arrogant French PM Francois Duvauchelle, Nick Dunbar performs with complete comic physicality. His dodgy Minister of Native Affairs and Le Tahou Corporation CEO Tama Tonga is gleefully acted by Mark Ruka. “If you are all new age, sensitive and politically correct in the old sense don’t go. I loved it and my old broken ribs hurt from laughing,” Labour’s Trevor Mallard blogged.

Armstrong, a staple of Kiwi TV comedy, is twice winner of Best New New Zealand Play (Niu Sila, The Tutor) and also won Best Comedy Script for Spin Doctors. I asked him about Jenny Shipley and humourless lefties, Raymond Hawthorne and theatre’s immediacy.

ALEXANDER: What do you want audiences to take away from Le Sud?

DAVE: Most of all I want them to leave smiling, but if they rethink their ideas about colonialism and maybe entertain the idea of New Zealand being a republic then that’s good too.

A: I’m sure they enjoyed it in Wanaka and Christchurch, but it seems ideal for Wellington?

No no no no no no no! I thought some Wellingtonians would hate it, but luckily only one or two have. Everyone else seems to have absolutely loved it and it’s doing great business. Wanaka believed it was ideal for them because I set it in Wanaka, and Christchruch thought it ideal for them as they are the sort of ‘capital city’ of the South Island. In fact, a critic in Christchurch liked it but said “they may not like it up North.” I’ve noticed that audiences like the jokes about themselves the most, so the anti-Wellington stuff (and there is a tiny little bit of it in Le Sud) gets the biggest laughs from a Wellington audience.

A: It seems like there’s an abundance of comic material for New Zealand comics at the moment? Christine Rankin – isn’t that almost beyond satire?

D: There’s heaps to laugh at. But big problem, how do you beat the real thing? If someone said to me, make a real right-winger like Roger Douglas suck on the teat on the state, I would say, as a joke, how about he gets a 50% discount on international travel. But in fact, he gets a 90% per cent discount on international travel to visit his grandchildren, and its entirely legal! So yet again Reality 1 Satire 0. It’s the same with Bill English, a satirist would pay Bill a housing allowance of 500 bucks a week and think he was being very funny, but Bill was actually collecting 900. The price differential on satire is currently about 400 bucks a week.

A: This is your fifth collaboration with director Con Newport. What attracts you to him?

D: Con possesses a wonderful sense of humour, he understands my work, and he’s not scared to make me work harder. And he doesn’t hit me if I make a comment that’s really his domain. After Wanaka Con went through the script of Le Sud and wrote little notes like “funnier line here” and “not quite working” and offered little suggestions. I took his advice and the play was much funnier as a result. He also inspires actors as he’s a very good one himself. Also, he is a very good friend of myself and my wife Caroline, who is the producer of Le Sud, so fits into the family of Le Sud extremely well.

A: How did Raymond Hawthorne strengthen Le Sud?

D: Structure, structure, structure, structure. In a two-week workshop Raymond pulled the structure apart (in the nicest possible way) and made me rewrite. Raymond is a hard taskmasker but he is also a lovely man and was a real mentor for me. People think of me as a hardworking writer, but in a sense, Raymond made me feel lazy so that when I went to rewrite, I did it with heaps of application. And of course, most of all, Raymond is enormous fun. Like a very good play, a rehearsal with Raymond is full of comedy but also intense drama and conflict. He’s also the only person I know who can call me peachy-pie and get away with it.

A: What are the strengths of theatre as a medium over TV?

D: No network to tell you you can’t say certain things. And it’s immediate. You don’t have to wait a year to see your work performed and audience feedback is immediate. One of the greatest pleasures in my life is going to somewhere like Downstage, and listening to a sold out audience laugh at my work. I love TV but I don’t get that immediate feedback that is so wonderful in the theatre. And every audience is different. One night the audience looks both ways before laughing then another night they roar straight away. And the buggers laugh at different things on different nights. That’s what keeps it interesting for both the actors and me.

A: What is ‘political correctness’? I have to say I find this term irritating and so cliched.

D: I hate it too. Nowadays people use the term ‘political incorrect’ simply to say something is funny. I think I am called ‘political incorrect’ because I’m not scared to make jokes about things like the anti-smacking bill, Maori political issues, gay rights and Barack Obama, even though I’m politically left-wing and live in Newtown in amongst the basil plants and ride a bicycle. The term ‘political correctness’ is usually leveled at the Left, but it was invented by the Pentagon in the 1960s when they used terms like ‘pacifying enemy sympathisers’ instead of saying they’d killed 1000 Vietnamese women and children. That said, progressives and liberals can be awfully censorious and boring so I don’t lose sleep if I piss them off when I’m simply having a laugh.

A: Who would your three ideal, all-time comic drinking buddies be?

D: There’s so many. At the moment I’m one of the many finding Chris Rock very, very funny. Whoever wrote All in the Family would have to be up there. As for political satirists Jonathan Swift and Jaroslav Hasek (Good Soldier Schweik) would have to be up there – is that pretentious enough for you? Real life comic drinking buddies include writers Danny Mulheron, Kris Hermansson and Paul Yates.

A: A lot of top Kiwi comic talent – John Clarke, Flight of the Conchords – have had to go overseas to earn a decent crust. How can New Zealand enable its comics?

D: Shit I hate the word enable. It’s what right-wingers would call politically correct. [Mon mauvais, I was meaning to be a bit flippant —AB]. But New Zealand could help its comics by providing more work in TV and if more theatres did what Downstage is doing right now and planning whole seasons of New Zealand work.

A: Since you were a youngster, with that cartoon in the school magazine involving Joseph and Mary heading towards a sign saying “Bethlehem Abortion Clinic”, you’ve been causing comic trouble. (Credits include Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby, Skitz, The Semisis, McPhail and Gadsby and Bro’town). What’s the most pissed-off response your comedy’s provoked and how did you respond?

D: Don’t you hate a journalist who does their research? It’s so rare nowadays. The ‘pissed off’ count so far: two defamation suits (neither went to court), countless letters to TV companies I wrote sketches for, and a nasty article in the Herald when one of my sketches for McPhail and Gadsby years ago said that a shark attacked Jenny Shipley while she was swimming at Campbell Island and that the shark was being airlifted to Southland Hospital (there had been a real shark incident at the time). Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby had many broadcasting complaints (none upheld) and a Melbourne critic didn‘t realise it was an attack on free market economics and called me and the Jewish co-writer Danny Mulheron “Nazis”.

A: What’s next?

D: I’ll turn the corner yet again and do something different. Next on the plate is something very arty and involves classical music and is about national identity, sexuality and art amongst other things. And I know you’re smirking but just you wait...

‘Le Sud’ performs at Wellington’s Downstage Theatre until August 22.