The political and the personal

From left, Kate Prior, Heather O’Carroll, Nathan Meister and Neenah Dekkers-Reihana in Dean Parker’s The Tigers of Wrath, which opens at Circa Two on Saturday.
From left, Kate Prior, Heather O’Carroll, Nathan Meister and Neenah Dekkers-Reihana in Dean Parker’s The Tigers of Wrath, which opens at Circa Two on Saturday.

In new play The Tigers of Wrath Kate Prior is a second-term Labour MP who plots to dump Labour Party leader Mike Moore. But Prior makes it clear that her character Trish isn't a thinly veiled representation of Helen Clark, who replaced Moore.

''Early on in the [rehearsal] process I was looking at some female politicians. But it's good not to pick someone and do an imitation. It's tempting, but you can err dangerously near caricature and do a bad Helen Clark impersonation, which I was definitely keeping myself away from.''

Trish instead is part of a cardre of Labour MPs who help Clark get to power. But while The Tigers of Wrath is written by Dean Parker, whose play Slouching Toward Bethlehem on National leader Sir Robert Muldoon won the Chapman Tripp award for outstanding New Zealand play of the year, its focus isn't the history of a political figure or party.

The big focus is the lives of three people over three time periods. The play begins in Beijing in 1974, with Trish and her girlfriend Pauline (Heather O'Carroll) as visiting Kiwi Maoists on a New Zealand Students' Association trip. Also on the trip is a radical and aspiring writer Oliver (Nathan Meister). Later Trish and Oliver marry.

The second act is set 20 years later when Trish is an MP siding with Clark to dump Moore, while Pauline has remained true to her Maoist roots and is a cleaner and union representative.

The third act, 15 years further on, has Pauline and Oliver meet by chance in an Auckland pub.

While the play encompasses changes in China, the Labour Party and New Zealand society in the past four decades, Prior says it's the changes in the characters that are universal and mean little knowledge of history is needed to appreciate and become engrossed in the drama.

''Dean writes about relationships so strongly. What's amazing is that the political arguments of the time are so fused within the relationship debates. You don't need a hugely faceted knowledge of communist China or Labour Party politics of the 90s.''

Prior says Trish isn't present in the third act, although still important. Trish has moved from being an MP to a ''Linda Clark''-style television political journalist, and is shown on film interviewing Prime Minister John Key.

But Prior says one of the challenges and delights of playing the character during three time periods was to play a convincing 20-year-old and then be convincingly the same character at age 40. Prior not only changes Trish's appearance but also the way she inhabits the body of a 40-year-old.

''I started working on older Trish and then went to younger Trish. It was actually clearer for me to work that way than perhaps the other way around. It's that idea that we ground ourselves as we get older. It's how it changes from when you're younger and that energy [of being] in your 20s. It is such a gift to play with that physically ... and, as an actor, to just instantly drop into them.''

Prior, whose biggest high-profile acting role of late has been as Lucy the cumbersome quiz master in television series Nothing Trivial, has had a diverse acting career since graduating from Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School in Wellington eight years ago.

It has included cabaret Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, play The Winslow Boy and the one-woman show My Name is Rachel Corrie. Last year she performed in the Alan Ball comedy Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, a joint production between Christchurch's Court and Dunedin's Fortune theatres.

''That was after the earthquake in Christchurch and the audiences were just gagging for comedy. We were doing these shows to 800 people each night and it was amazing.''

But she says she is drawn to political themes - another reason she wanted to work with Parker. Early in her career she had a part in Parker's 2005 play Baghdad Baby!, nominated for best play in the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards. That play looked at American and New Zealand policies in the Middle East, but again through the eyes of people and relationships. ''I love that play. I really enjoyed it and I loved Dean's [work]. When I saw that Circa were doing this play I was instantly interested.''

And Prior says what's refreshing for her is that while The Tigers of Wrath is not a polemic, Parker is unapologetic about his own political views. In the play's notes he declares: ''I'm with Lenin, I'm with the working class seizing control of the wealth it creates.''

''Those are the great plays,'' says Prior. ''When people come out they are taking it with them and still discussing it and arguing about it afterwards. And they are ones that feel fun to play. They feel really naughty.''


The Tigers of Wrath, directed by Jane Waddell, Circa Two, November 3 to December 1.

The Dominion Post