“In a democratic state one must be continually on guard against the desire for popularity. It leads to aping the behaviour of the worst. And soon people come to think that it is of no use - indeed, it is dangerous - to show too plain a superiority over the multitude which one wants to win over.”
- Madame de Stael, On Literature and Society, 1800.
“Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.”
- J.K. Galbraith in a letter to President Kennedy, 1962.
The political situation of the entire planet has altered irrevocably since the first reading of Burn Her at Auckland's Basement Theatre three years ago. While both Donald Trump's presidency and Boris Johnson's premiership have highlighted how constant lies and smears can become politically acceptable, the #metoo and #timesup movements have provided a forum for the global unification of women’s voices. Add the stardust of Jacindamania to this already inflammable atmosphere and the time is certainly ripe for Sam Brooks’ latest play to finally arrive in Wellington. Politics and prove to be an incendiary mix in Burn Her, the latest offering from Circa Theatre, with a searing script about charismatic and idealistic Aroha party leader Aria Robson who has just clinched her seat in Parliament. That same night, an intern informs her about a scandal that could sink the party overnight and she finds herself plunged into the muddy waters of practical politics.
Burn Her exposes the brutal world of everyday politics with which women must engage, articulated especially well in a lengthy monologue delivered by Aria that evokes both anger and pathos. However, it is not a political play in terms of its context, but rather because Brooks never confuses this with its content. Like Jeremy Larner's screenplay for Michael Ritchie's 1972 movie The Candidate the context of the campaign trail provides him with the setting to plough through a rapid sequence of events in the political and media arena. While not up to the standard of either Armando Ianucci's The Thick of It or Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing, Brooks has an undeniable ear for pacey dialogue and cracking wise. His ability to create strong female roles is evident in a script that is simultaneously highly intelligent, confrontational, and funny, reverberating with a musicality that amplifies its sardonic sense of humour.
Burn Her may be a remarkably well-crafted script, but even a great piece of writing requires a skilled support cast and creative team. A timely and whip-smart production from a powerful female creative team, the cast includes some of NZ’s premier thespian talentt. Kali Kopae (Not in our Neighbourhood, La Casa Azul) plays the strong and empathetic political campaigner and Sophie Hambleton (Westside) is her sharp-as-nails publicist George, and both have returned to work with Director Katherine McRae after their critically acclaimed version of A Doll’s House. The rest of the cast are equally riveting - Jean Sergent (Say Something Nice, This Long Winter), The Court Theatre’s Lara Macgregor (Misery), Andrew Laing (Wonderful), and Dryw McArthur (The Aliens).
Burn Her is engaging, witty, and exceptionally sharp, with every line of dialogue inserted for a reason and perfectly delivered by the two leads, who manage to command their space without competing against each other. They have a natural ability to lure audiences into this fictional world in which power, sexual assault, and discrimination all play their part. The script counter-balances elements of both comedy and drama, often at the expense of journalists and news outlets, with multiple jabs being thrown at the Dominion Post, (referred to as “The Post,” or some reason). The audience remained on the edge of their seat throughout the show, alternating between gales of gasping and pin-drop silences. In the same way that Othello is arguably more about Iago, Burn Her is less about Aria and more about George, who navigates the currents of the political ocean with a cut-throat realism, providing the voice of reason and experience at the heart of the drama. It is a balance that is expertly walked by Hambleton, whose words underscore the internal struggle with which she is burdened. As Labour’s Rottweiler, Hambleton illustrates the hardened end of the spectrum and subtly reveals the true nature of a woman who holds her cards close to her chest with little more than a curl of the lip or the raise of an eyebrow. Macgregor gives an honest portrayal of personal and professional integrity as both friend and foe, while Danny (Dryw McArthur) struggles under the emotional weight of a victim.
The balance of emotional dynamics between two central characters is especially well-handled. When confronted with the failings of a confidant, our sympathies oscillate between Aria, a character who appears to have no moral flaws, and George, who at first seems simply another coldly cynical and calculating spin doctor. As the plot develops, however, we begin to realise that the situation is more complex, with Aria revealing not only her personal flaws, but also how systemic discrimination injures everyone. While George’s tactics may be Machiavellian, they are deployed in order to keep Aria afloat amid a political tempest in which she will be disproportionately scrutinized simply because of her sex and where she will only be permitted “one fuck up.” We feel both conflicted and uncomfortable as George tries to turn all the weapons that have been arrayed against Aria from the moment she stepped into the political area. While the play exposes the degree of hypocrisy publicists employ in order to make a politician appear clean, the demise of the relationship between the two central characters is also dismaying. The dilemma for both these ambitious women - each trying to navigate a world riddled with inequity, one taking the moral high ground, the other just playing the game - raises the question of how a sense of mutually supportive feminism can survive under the crushing weight of institutional sexism.
Over the last few years Brooks has solidified his position as one of New Zealand’s most eloquent young writers, including being named “Auckland’s Most Exciting Playwright” by Metro Magazine. As Dionne Christain observed in the New Zealand Herald ,“This is a wryly observed dissection of where humanity comes into politics - and life in general - with women at the centre. Brooks has shoved the male characters aside and by focusing on strong and complex women, highlights conflict and contradictions.” He effortlessly throws around one-liners that sum up the conflicted position a professional woman finds herself in supposedly enlightened times as Kopea's idealistic politician buts heads with Hambleton's pragmatic spin doctor. If Brooks can create such a substantial and prescient drama at the tender age of just twenty-seven, he has a promising career ahead of him.