A production shot from Transmission Beta (Photo: Supplied)
A production shot from Transmission Beta (Photo: Supplied)

Pop CultureJune 4, 2024

Living inside history: Transmission Beta, reviewed 

A production shot from Transmission Beta (Photo: Supplied)
A production shot from Transmission Beta (Photo: Supplied)

Stuart McKenzie and Miranda Harcourt’s second piece of verbatim theatre that tracks the Covid years is a chic and powerful success.

There’s nothing I love more than a sleek theatre set. The physical world of Transmission Beta is created with just six revolving panels (designed by Ōtautahi-based designer Mark McEntyre), set nice and high, which the cast of five can walk through like kissing doors in a Western movie, and upon which projections can be beamed, and lighting effectively bounced. Transmission Beta is a classy production from the get-go: a stylish foundation for a complex web of perspectives to be built on. 

This is the second instalment in McKenzie’s Covid-era verbatim theatre – a documentary format – where the words of real people (taken from interviews as well as existing footage) in the real world are knitted into a script that explores a particular event. It’s a hell of a lot of work. But Stuart McKenzie (creator and writer) and Miranda Harcourt (director) make it look effortless in an experience that closely reads the years immediate to 2020’s attempts to keep Covid from our shores while maintaining a semblance of unity among the population. 

The chic set of revolving panels designed by Mark McEntyre (Photo: Supplied)

It’s weird how the very recent past can feel so far away. As I watched the show unfold it felt like a well-stashed box had been pulled out from under the bed and was being unpacked, each item held to the light. Even while it seems like half the people I know have Covid right now, the dramatic interruptions of the last few years seem a world away from the dramatic interruptions of the present. This is the thing with living inside history: it doesn’t stop to let you reflect. And that’s the inherent value of verbatim theatre: it gives space and time to glance over our shoulders and observe what happened with the ironic gaze of hindsight.

The key players in Transmission Beta are of course former prime minister Jacinda Ardern (played by Sophie Hambleton), and former deputy PM Grant Robertson (played by Simon Leary, whose Robertson accent is uncannily accurate – the people in front of me looked at each other in gleeful astonishment every time he opened his mouth); epidemiologist Michael Baker (played by Nigel Collins, who chameleons into other roles such as Stuart McKenzie, and economist and journalist Bernard Hickey). Sepe Mua’au and Carrie Green inhabit a raft of characters including John Tamihere, assistant commissioner of police Richard Chambers and a frontline police officer. There are Zoom characters too: an MIQ resident, and Rima Te Wiata (playing herself in a beautifully comedic turn). 

The effect of multiple perspectives is a humanising one. A chorus of personal experiences means we get inside a three-dimensional simulation of New Zealand’s “team of five million” fracturing into pockets of mistrust, anger, and frustration. In a sequence called “Telegram” we’re reminded that 250,000 New Zealanders subscribe to the online mine of dark-web misinformation, and find community and ammo there. In another sequence we hear from an anti-vaxxer from Northland who offers her rationale for distrusting the government; we hear from a woman traumatised by her family’s experience in MIQ: “Unless you’ve lived it, you don’t know what it’s like to be locked in a room.”

Simon Leary as Grant Robertson. The voice was spot on. (Photo: Supplied)

The patchwork of perspectives is woven together with conversations with Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson, John Tamihere, Bernard Hickey and Michael Baker. The urgent struggles between science and politics and time are palpable. The memories drawn from Ardern and Robertson remind us that the country’s leaders were having to absorb screeds of information and advice in order to make monumental decisions in impossibly short amounts of time. Every move they made was challenged by journalists (Bernard Hickey’s vehement criticisms are beautifully evoked by Nigel Collins), and the rich (philanthropist Sam Morgan pipes in to reveal how he worked his networks to tell Ardern and Robertson directly that sealing the borders was the only way to go), and the everyday New Zealanders (an Uber driver thinks the government should have made the vaccine’s $1000 dollars a pop to show they were serious). The audience giggles softly at much of this. Because looking at it now it does seem ludicrous: an almost cinematic level of drama. That’s the effect of this kind of theatre: you’re taken inside the intimate spaces of offices and homes which increases the stakes a thousand fold. 

The most confronting moments for me come when we listen to the Northland anti-vaxxer, and when we reach the freedom convoy’s protest at parliament. When the anti-vaxxer starts talking about her fear of nanoparticles in vaccines and the government’s intention to control us, the audience, including myself, gives a collective snigger. I felt bad immediately. Just before that dive down the misinformation rabbit hole we’d learned that this woman’s father had been a preacher in the Rātana movement: her personal context meant she had reason not to trust the government. It struck me hard that the dismissal of the predominantly Pākehā audience might be as distancing as the misinformation itself.

The footage of the anti-vax protest camp at parliament – projected onto the chic five-panel set (what McKenzie describes as “a tangible metaphor of fracture and unity”) – is muddier, sadder, and messier than I wanted to remember. We hear about the unsanitary conditions for children, the ambient violence, the frustration that the politicians wouldn’t front up. We also hear that there were “credible threats to safety” which meant the police commissioner was never going to allow Ardern to do such a thing. We hear from a frontline police officer – learn the intimate details of his life story (his mother was murdered by gang members when he was a child; his father is in jail) – in a sequence that works to humanise the person behind the riot gear. 

Sophie Hambleton as Jacinda Ardern. (Photo: Supplied)

For such an emotionally and politically wrought subject, there is plenty of levity in Transmission Beta. The character of Stuart McKenzie stands in for the wily curiosity of the theatre maker at work: a reminder that art-making is a scrappy and sensitive business, a necessary, living interrogation of collective memory. The affable nature of Grant Robertson and John Tamihere give a bubbling engagement; the earnest and fatigued Jacinda Ardern is soft in moments of recalling the effects on her family life (those rare days when she could bath her daughter, take her to daycare); and a perfectly timed and pitched musical moment in response to Trevor Mallard’s attempt to dissolve the protest through the power of bad music. Barry Manilow’s ‘Mandy’ went to the karaoke song list on my notes app (though preferably with the cast of Transmission Beta to sing it because they’re powerful vocal artists, too). It was a moment that for me that related to the snigger at the nanoparticles: one man’s definition of trash music is another person’s karaoke song. It’s a mistake to bleat down from on high.  

Stuart McKenzie and Miranda Harcourt have woven a deft piece of theatre with a stellar cast, and set, sound and projection design so well deployed you’ll find yourself lost in the orb of the recent past: a cathartic experience that will renew appreciations and aggrievements, no matter what side you’re on. 

Transmission Beta is on at Circa Theatre in Wellington from 18 May 15 June. Tickets and information online here

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