A new play about the lead-up to the first lockdown, built from interviews with Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson and Michael Baker, is a window into the unfathomable responsibility of political power.
It felt pretty surreal to be sitting in a packed theatre for the opening night of Transmission, Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie’s new play about the lead-up to New Zealand’s first national lockdown, back in March last year. That’s partly because of the obvious: there are so few places in the world right now where 80-odd people can gather in a small room to watch a live performance without risking a super-spreader event. Even before the lights went down, Transmission was a testament to the government’s Covid-19 response.
But it was also surreal for me, personally, because the lockdown this show is about was not my lockdown. I’ve been in London for the last 12 months, weathering the British government’s blundering, corrupt response. My partner and I celebrated Christmas on FaceTime, attended funerals via livestream. We were able to get back to New Zealand last month, but even after we’d confirmed our return we knew that at any point we might end up trapped in the UK for reasons that were out of our hands: cancelled flights, travel bans, MIQ slots snapped up like tickets to My Chemical Romance.
I (and everyone else in the UK) spent those 12 months watching New Zealand’s pandemic response with a mix of envy and frustration, knowing this was the kind of leadership we wanted but could not have. Transmission picks up on that global obsession, asking its own questions about what it means to be a leader in a time of crisis.
Transmission is a verbatim play, which means it is a work of dramatic non-fiction built from the real words of the people depicted. This particular 90-minute play has been built from over 20 hours of interviews with people who led New Zealand’s Covid-19 response, specifically the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern (played by Sophie Hambleton of Westside), deputy prime minister Grant Robertson (played by Tom Knowles), and epidemiologist Michael Baker (played by Tim Spite).
For Harcourt and McKenzie, Transmission marks a return to the trails they blazed back in the 1990s. Harcourt co-wrote New Zealand’s landmark 1992 play Verbatim, the story of a burglary gone wrong told by the people who had to live with its consequences. Later, she and McKenzie collaborated on its 1996 follow-up Portraits, a haunting and heart-wrenching investigation into a rape and murder in a small New Zealand town.
Both plays, which were given a long-overdue revival back in 2013, are remarkable for their sensitivity, avoiding the breathless, lurid voyeurism of a lot of true crime storytelling. Harcourt and McKenzie bring that same sensitivity to their questioning here. Rather than trolling for controversy, they mainly ask Baker, Ardern and Robertson about their intentions and reactions, about the ways that the burden of leadership has affected them and the people in their lives.
The responses are often surprisingly candid and provide a valuable insight into the personal cost of this kind of public service. Ardern tells us about the difficulty of being present for her family during the lockdown, even though it was the first time in 11 years that she had stayed in one place for that long, due to the round-the-clock demands of her role. Baker talks frankly and in detail about the toll that being New Zealand’s Covid Cassandra took on his mental health. And Robertson opens up about his father, jailed for embezzlement in the early 1990s, and the complications of loving someone who has hurt you and hurt others.
Transmission weaves in and out of each story, bouncing between each of its “characters” as they talk about the days and weeks leading up to the fateful decision. Rather than using this opportunity to run a victory lap and uncritically celebrate the government’s response, Harcourt and McKenzie work to complicate the popular narrative.
Baker’s uncompromising advocacy for an immediate lockdown is contrasted against the government’s reticence to move too fast or too aggressively, and Harcourt and McKenzie skilfully interrogate the ways that these public communicators actually communicate. At one point, Ardern critiques everything Baker’s been telling us about his experience on the Covid-19 technical advisory group, about how he was banging a drum that the government didn’t want to hear. As a science communicator, she argues, Baker has the luxury of being able to call for action without considering how the public will react; as a politician, she simply cannot be so strident.
That perceived tension between speed and practicality, between consensus-building and decisive leadership, runs through this play like a faultline, always threatening to undermine the government’s response. This is good drama, especially when the disconnected interviews are threaded together to create sharp responses and heated conversations. It’s also great journalism, providing a real insight into the monumental difficulties of devising an all-encompassing public health policy on the fly.
Harcourt and McKenzie fill out their telling of the March lockdown with two other interviewees. In two memorable segments, TVNZ journalist Mei Heron (played by Michelle Ang) discusses the personal cost of taking on an adversarial public role in a crisis. And then there is Moira Sa’imoa – no public figure, rather a woman whose mother, a well-loved figure in Christchurch’s Samoan community, died during the pandemic. Sa’imoa’s story is referred to early and hangs over proceedings like a storm cloud. That cloud breaks near the end, as Sa’imoa, played by Lahleina Feaunati, gives a heartbreaking recollection of her mother’s death and the memorial she deserved but could not have. That recollection is delivered with great power and dignity by Feaunati in the play’s most memorable and most affecting scene.
These stories help us “glimpse the humanity behind the headlines”, to use Harcourt and McKenzie’s own words. But they’re not much more than that, and few other people get name-checked alongside the central trio. When we do hear someone’s name, it’s often because they’re an obstacle (like Siouxsie Wiles, who is mentioned only when she disagrees with Baker about whether schools should be closed) or a vessel for dramatic tension (like James Shaw, who shuttles between cabinet and Baker like a Shakespearean messenger). New Zealand’s been told over and over again that we’re part of a team of five million, but Transmission makes that team feel so much smaller.
The rest of the world is only mentioned in horrified or disparaging terms: grim references to Italy’s death toll, a Newstalk goon blathering on about the Swedish response. If the swift and effective responses by countries like Vietnam, Taiwan, Mongolia and South Korea were ever considered by the advisory group, we don’t hear about it. Instead, we hear about the Plague of Athens in 430BC, as told by ancient Greek historian Thucydides. An extreme metaphor for the timeless violence of a virus like Covid-19, this moment is jarring. It almost feels like the playwrights are wiping the sweat from their brow and saying, “boy, we really dodged a bullet with this one, eh?”
Transmission does make a point of calling out the worst excesses of pandemic parochialism, particularly the political fandom around leaders like Ardern and “Saint” Ashley Bloomfield. But the lack of a real international perspective is disappointing, though, and feels cut from the same Kiwi exceptionalism that has plagued so much of this pandemic. Sitting in that theatre, watching another story about New Zealand’s “unique” success, I recalled every argument I’d had with my family about MIQ charges; every abusive, self-righteous Facebook post I’d seen from proud members of the five million; every time I was told that I “should have come home already” and that I deserved this for being overseas at the wrong time.
What’s most frustrating, though, is Transmission’s narrow focus on the lockdown itself. The politicians, Robertson in particular, give us a lot of stump speech rhetoric about seizing this opportunity to “fix what made normal less than good for people”, but we don’t actually hear a lot about how they’ve seized it. The lockdown stands alone, standing in for the entirety of the government’s pandemic response. We hear about almost no other policy decisions made during this period, some of which were arguably not consistent with the values that Ardern and Robertson express in their interviews, and Harcourt and McKenzie offer little resistance to some of the most self-congratulatory rhetoric.
So what is the purpose of a verbatim play like Transmission? If a play like this is built on the words of politicians and policy-makers, do its devisers have an obligation to challenge their subjects as well as humanise them? If they do, Harcourt and McKenzie don’t seem to have acted on that obligation. Some challenges would have been infinitely preferable to the creaky comedy that we end up getting. I know that I groaned through the opening scene in which Hambleton, Knowles and Spite bicker over who gets to play Ardern, establishing the rules of verbatim with all the energy of an Air New Zealand safety video.
Transmission provides us with remarkable access into the inner lives of Baker, Ardern and Robertson, and it is sensitive and frank about the challenges of being responsible for the lives of five million people. At its best, it is a window into the unfathomable responsibility of political power, humane and complex and difficult.
But these three “dreamers” are not the only people who helped New Zealand navigate this nightmare. From the policy-makers to the community leaders, from the good neighbours to the essential workers, there are many voices missing from this document. Some pointed slideshows and occasional digressions do not make up for their omission. Our lockdown is not just the government’s lockdown; it is every individual lockdown experienced by the five million people in this country, and by another million New Zealanders overseas. The humanity behind the headlines is more than the humanity of our leaders. We cannot truly understand our lockdown without understanding that.
Transmission runs at until May 2 at BATs Theatre in Wellington. A livestream performance on April 27 will be available here.