That Soldier Dave

ARTS, Features, Interviews, Theatre & Performing Arts
The three-time winner of Best New Zealand Play discusses physical education, Chris Rock, Jaroslav Hasek, and humourless lefties ahead of the opening of his new play, Kings of the Gym.

Dave Armstrong tells me he doesn’t trust those without a sense of humour. “Never. The trouble with most people who don’t have a sense of humour is they think they have a far better sense of humour than anyone else. People like that either end up as dictators of small African nations or as executives in charge of comedy in television networks. Though I once had a boss who said, ‘Don’t ask me, I don’t have a very good sense of humour.’ This comment made me respect her enormously for her honesty.”

The friendly basil grower’s TV credits include Skitz, The Semisis, and Bro’town. One of his witty sketches for McPhail and Gadsby noted a shark’s airlift to Southland Hospital after a run in with Jenny Shipley. Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby had many broadcasting complaints (none upheld). A Melbourne critic didn’t realise it was an attack on free market economics and called Armstrong and the Jewish co-writer Danny Mulheron Nazis. “Satire can be easily misunderstood. And the more sophisticated it is the more easily it can be misunderstood. If someone misunderstands my point I often see that as a badge of honour. Even though Gormsby was a satire on free market changes in education, I’ve lost count of the right-wing ACT supporters who absolutely loved it and saw it as an attack on left-wing values. Same thing happened with my last play The Motor Camp. A left-wing liberal critic in Auckland loathed it yet one of the best reviews was from an office-holder in the National Party. I also suffer from the problem of people thinking I agree with what my characters say.”

The left wing columnist for The Dominion Post elaborates on his disappointment with elements of the left’s censorious and humourless disposition. “The left don’t have a monopoly on humourlessness. If you don’t believe me, read a Treasury report. But there are elements on the left that get offended on other people’s behalf. Good humour keeps people guessing and is unpredictable, so to be too doctrinaire can make things less funny. For example, I used the N-word in a play recently, and even though the audience roared with laughter, almost every liberal critic told me off. They saw red at the mention of the word, yet didn’t realise that I wasn’t insulting Afro-Americans, I was laughing at the way white politicians try to get down with black people and usually do a dreadful job. Check out David Cunliffe speaking at the Avondale Markets on YouTube in a cuzzie-bro accent to see what I mean.”

The drole writer of Le Sud wants audience to be entertained and provoked by his new play, Kings of the Gym. “I believe all four characters in this play are likeable, there’s not really a bad guy. Though it’s about PE on the surface, Kings of the Gym is really about tolerance and ideology. Each character is trying to capture the soul of the other characters. They want someone else to think and act like them, and, at the beginning of the play, can’t countenance a different or opposing political, religious or educational point of view. Like most of my plays, Kings of the Gym is hopefully an entertaining and thought-provoking plea for tolerance on all sides, even though it’s initially very intolerant characters who are making it.”

Which is what Niu Sila–one of his three Best New Zealand Play winners at the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards—did so memorably. Any plans to work with Oscar Kightley again? “Living in different cities hasn’t helped, though Os and I have talked about working together on various projects in the future. I’m looking forward to his detective TV series (Harry) that is screening later in the year.”

His grade for the Ministry of Education? “A+ Ms Parata is deeply misunderstood and I am confident that the learnings that she has recently achieved will see her initiate a bold era in New Zealand education, producing cutting-edge excellences and innovations that will see a vibrant and achieving sector emerge that is not beholden to doctrinaire teacher unions.”

A “failed teacher”, the Newtown cyclist loved PE at school. “It was pretty basic but I had a number of teachers not unlike the characters in the play. They were guys who weren’t always good teachers according to inspectors or the senior teachers, yet the kids really liked them and enjoyed spending time in their company. What we learned from them was far more than what they taught. And as we all know, a teacher that kids love is a very dangerous thing in a school.”

Speaking of danger, is Paula Bennett beyond satire? “No politician is beyond satire. Paula Bennett might be a laughing stock for a small elite in Wellington, but most New Zealanders take her very seriously. So when her government gives beneficiaries a ‘whack up the bum’, as John Key said, and give the wealthy a nod and a wink and large tax cuts, many people believe that’s perfectly okay. I believe the job of a satirist is to point out the ridiculousness of situations like that. That’s perhaps why we need satirists—to prick people’s bubbles and show that some people’s normal is not necessarily everyone else’s.”

Although he is an unreliable drinking buddy (“he keeps losing his wallet”), Armstrong enjoys working with Kings of the Gym director Danny Mulheron. “I have been very lucky to work with a number of fantastic directors in my time, and Danny is one of them. Danny understands my writing very well, and he’s a great director for a writer to have, especially for the premier performance of a work. Rehearsals are always fun and he isn’t scared of suggesting structural changes to my scripts or getting me to take risks. This is something other directors who might not know me as well may be too polite to do. No chance of that with Dan. Danny and I also share a common experience. For example, we were in the same PE class at secondary school, so our shared background can be a help because he understands my world and where I’m coming from.”

He’d love to have a drink with Chris Rock. “He’s audacious—not scared to take risks. I love his political and racial outlook and he doesn’t try too hard to be liked. Yet he’s also a warm-hearted guy who’s not scared to diss himself.”

Other formative influences include political satirists Jonathan Swift and Jaroslav Hasek. “I had a very good English teacher at school who introduced me to Swift’s Rules for Servants, which is like a political satirist’s handbook. And I loved Gulliver’s Travels. It’s a great narrative yet fantastic satire at the same time. And I have a soft spot for scatological humour. Hasek, especially in the Good Soldier Schweik and Red Commissar, really understands how authority in institutions like the Army operates. As a leftie, I find Hasek’s ‘party of moderate progress within the law’ very funny as it reminds me of the Labour Party.”

More recent laughs include the cricket. “45 all out was pretty funny. There’s a lot of great comedy out there, but sometimes everyday occurrences make me laugh the most. Stuff people say in passing or stuff I hear on the street or in the bus. People sometimes say how did you come up with such an outrageous line and I have to confess I heard someone say it and nicked it.”

Armstrong is confident about theatre’s future. “Definitely. People have been predicting theatre’s demise for years—talkies, television, Cinemascope and 3D were all going to destroy theatre. But theatre’s still here and I reckon always will be, along with the book and the newspaper. Theatre allows writers to experiment and do things relatively cheaply, which can make it quite a radical and subversive medium. The minute lots of money is involved, people are less likely to take risks. I’ve had far less censorship or people wanted me to change things in theatre compared to other mediums like television. And theatre can be a good living for a writer. Many New Zealand plays make more money at the box office than New Zealand movies.”

‘Kings of the Gym’ premieres at Circa Theatre in Wellington on January 19, followed by Maidment Theatre in Auckland from February 7. Alexander Bisley interviewed Maori theatre maestro Jim Moriarty in 2006.