Went to Simon Cunliffe's play, The Truth Game, last night. House wasn't very full, which was a bit of a surprise, since the play has had very good reviews, and it's new, and it's locally-written (Cunliffe works for the Otago Daily Times, which has sponsored the play, and also provided, no doubt, the mountains of newspapers that litter the stage and the foyer, and which the Fortune is going to have to recycle at the end of the season on Saturday).
The play has an excellent cast: Greg Johnson, Peter Hayden, Phil Vaughan, Michele Amas, Anna Henare and Kathleen Burns - more on them later - and a striking set designed by Matt Best. At first it looked as though the giant screen that dominates the stage (and is used by Belinda as a PowerPoint) is going to clutter up things. In fact, its screen is made up of modern-style Venetian blinds (I'm sure they have their own proper name) and these open up completely to reveal an office within the larger office that takes up the rest of the stage.
The play is basically about the conflict that's going on in the newspaper world between old hacks like the rough-edged Frank Stone (note the name) and his even older confederate Ralph (pronounced Rafe, as he carefully explains to the newbie journalist), and the New Media people who think running a newspaper is all about making money (which of course it is, but news comes into it too - real news, as Frank insists again and again), and the up-and-coming generation who can find reports and articles and tweets and blogs at the drop of a hat. No one wins - not in this play - and probably the competition is going to go on for a long time yet.
Frank may be rough-edged, but he's a very good editor and organiser - when the big story comes at the end of the first act, he's onto it in a flash. Frank is played by Greg Johnson - he was the irascible hostel manager in the movie, The Insatiable Moon. This is a somewhat similar character: a man who's hard-nosed, but has considerable integrity. A man who shouts at this clientele, but loves them dearly. A man with mistakes in his past (as the sub-plot brings to light - a sub-plot that's interesting, but not quite in line with the play as a whole; still, it provides variety. By the way, that use of a semi-colon there is much denigrated at one point in the play, along with a number of other woolly-liberal kinds of punctuation - the end-dash, for one.)
Peter Hayden plays Ralph. Hayden has had a long and successful career both as an actor and also as one of the men at the forefront of the Natural History documentary unit here in Dunedin. In this play, Ralph is a little fragile, past retirement age, but still living in a world where he is safe and snug doing what he's always done. Hayden provides a quiet foil to the noise that goes around him (he writes with large earphones on), and provides some of the more amusing moments with his didactic approach to grammar. Ralph spends his days puttering
around doing the editorial (I always thought the leader was done by the
Editor, says Jo, the newbie), pulling together stuff from his forty plus
years of experience of writing, and also writing the wine column (a
somewhat less-than-journalistic occupation in the eyes of some of the
Phil Vaughan is the fussy little manager; he still has a bit of journalism in his blood, but mostly its been diluted by the need to make money, please the Head Office and so on. The arm-wrestling he and Frank do at one point may be a bit odd, but it's significant in terms of their relationship. Anna Henare (a Fortune Theatre regular) is the up-and-coming editor, an able journalist, still with integrity, and still soft, but heading - it seems - towards being as hard-nosed as Frank has become. She's Frank's current lover, but journalism and truth keep getting in the road.
Michelle Amas (who's a poet as well as an actor) is the brittle Belinda. She opens the play with an almost-too-long seminar 'talk' to an Australian conference (Frank is there, and walks out in disgust). The least likeable character in the play, Amas still manages to give her some warmth - though never too much. Kathleen Burns is the youngest character in the play (meant to be a late teenager, I'd think, while Burns is around 25), and the one with all the Internet skills. Burns has a bit of a difficult role: her character, Jo, brings humour to the play, is meant to be a little gauche but also better-read than her years would indicate, and struggles with the interplay between the other characters. At times I felt Burns was acting the part rather than giving it to us direct; some of her moves had the air of being there to add character, rather than coming out of the character itself. This may be intentional on the director's part (Lara McGregor, who's done a superb job overall - she's also the Fortune's new artistic director) but at times it just didn't seem quite on a par with the other actors' work. Nevertheless, Burns is well-integrated into the cast, and my quibble is minor.
All in all, not only has this play been well worth putting on - and I'd hope there are other companies around the country who'll pick it up - but it's perhaps the best thing I've seen at the Fortune in a long time. Though that may not mean much as my attendance at the Fortune is pretty irregular!