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Burning darkly

Burning darkly

Burn Her
Until 31 August
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

Compromise is the essence of politics. But which compromises are beyond the pale – are, in fact, compromising? To what extent does our purity rely on the compromises of others? And do women in politics have to make compromises very different to those of men?

These questions swirl around the heart of Burn Her, a play transferring to the capital after a much-lauded debut in Auckland last year. Its story of the rise and struggle of the fictional Aroha Party has echoes of past events – those surrounding ACT, or Mana, or even the Greens at the height of l’affaire Metiria – but also resounds in the present day, as the Labour Party battles allegations of badly mishandling complaints about inappropriate staff behaviour. For it is a case of sexual misconduct that puts the plot into motion in Sam Brooks’s brilliant play – that, and the inevitable cover-up, so often more damaging in politics than the thing itself.

The set, like everything else in this play, is finely wrought, its sharp diagonals thrusting the characters into our faces and exposing them mercilessly. Especially striking are the hanging clusters of white squares, later to become TV screens, which perform the dual role of a blank canvas onto which the all-important images can be projected and the battleground on which the media war is fought.

Central to the play is the relationship between Aroha Party leader Aria and her chief spin doctor George. In their respective roles Kali Kopae and Sophie Hambleton are both excellent. The former furnishes an understated but utterly compelling portrayal of a woman facing the familiar dilemma: whether to swap principles for power, or power for principles.

But it is perhaps Hambleton’s performance that is most memorable. In her hands George becomes a character all the more hateful for being entirely recognisable (almost banal, to recall Hannah Arendt) – the manipulative person entirely convinced that they are in the right, that they are just doing what is required given the cards they have been dealt. Kopae and Hambleton’s scenes are pitch-perfect, regardless of whether they are expressing genuine warmth, extreme anger, or sheer bafflement at the political ups and downs for which no one can truly be prepared. The Bechdel Test, by the way, is not so much passed as smashed: the play consists mostly of women talking about anything except a man. If only more plays – and films, and TV shows – had such strong female characters! And Brooks’s dialogue is at its scintillating best here, relentless without ever being frantic.

There are a few false – or at least ambivalent – notes. The jokes, usually at the expense of rural or conservative New Zealanders, smugly play to the audience’s likely prejudices; they would not go down well in Gore. (Though that is unlikely to bother most Circa-goers.) The stage’s upper level, meanwhile, works well at times, allowing Aria to try to float above the tawdry mess of politics. But the scenes that take place there inevitably feel slightly distanced from the audience, and occasionally Hambleton is obscured from view behind the central pillar while delivering her lines.

Elsewhere, Andrew Laing’s Richard, the man at the heart of the scandal, initially feels like he’s acting in a different play to the others, one in which every line needs to be delivered with portentous weight. That said, the desperate sadness of his fall from grace is beautifully done, and genuinely moving. A counterpoint, by turns comic and menacing, comes from Lara Macgregor as Labour’s equivalent of Malcolm Tucker, a role she takes to with a robust relish, while Jean Sergent (Harriet) and Danny (Dryw McArthur) are equally good in their supporting roles.

Throughout, the play’s overarching theme is the discrimination against women in politics. There is absolutely no doubt of the extraordinary double standards female leaders face: just think about Jacinda Ardern’s facing questions about her child-bearing intentions and supposed inexperience, or the vicious rumours about Helen Clark’s relationship, or even Julia Gillard’s being labelled ‘deliberately barren’ by a fellow politician.

Brooks ably points out the incredibly fine line female leaders have to walk, the almost infinitesimally small space in which they have to land to be judged to have successfully handled a crisis, neither too smart nor too dumb, too tough nor too weak, too ‘masculine’ nor too ‘feminine’. His sharp, glittering dialogue takes on a darker hue here in George’s impassioned speeches. At times these set-pieces go on just a little bit too long; they could have done with a little less tell and a little more show.

But they nonetheless pose a range of important questions. How far, for instance, can one insist on not ‘playing the game’ of politics, especially as a woman? How far, conversely, does one become irremediably tainted if one does play that game? Until some far-off point when gender fairness is genuinely realised, these questions will continue to haunt us. And this play, though tied closely to current events, will continue to bear valuable and brilliant witness to the appalling double standards that fracture our politics.

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