‘Well, the state of the country’s pretty ropey, if you ask me,” says Dean Parker, socialist and scriptwriter; cajoled into being interviewed, he emails vengefully an avalanche of snigger-inducing observations on life and theatre. Wry griping is what you expect from Parker. With scripts, too, he’s prolific: “It’s what I do. (I was going to say, it’s a living, ha ha.) Some people are cleaners. ‘He was a prolific cleaner.’” And prickly. Vigorously political, Parker goes on marches, holds up banners, writes leaflets, hands them out, tries to get articles into the New Zealand Herald, change opinions. “But that’s not what writing plays is about. I don’t have designs on the audience.
“When you write a play like The Tigers of Wrath, you start with something you’re interested in, and you people it with interesting characters you want to spend the time of day with – I keep regular office hours – and you see where it might lead and what it might tell you about yourself. But what you do, basically, is you take a leap and maybe there’s an audience that wants to follow. “Of course, there are plays and plays. The last play I had on had a largely young and engaged audience. It was an adaptation of Nicky Hager’s brilliant polemic Other People’s Wars, documenting our involvement in the farce of Afghanistan. It was a documentary play that illuminated the society we live in and the seat prices were $15 and people went. (The English stage director Peter Brook was once asked what he saw as the future of theatre and he replied, ‘Seat prices.’ Absolutely.) “Writing polemics like that, you do have to produce a play and not just a pamphlet. I was once at a Marxism teach-in weekend in London. Ages ago.
On the Saturday evening, I was having a beer with some people I’d met and a young woman came up to us selling tickets for the play that night. Bloke near me asked, ‘What’s the play?’ The young woman replied, ‘Socialism or Barbarism.’ The bloke near me immediately responded, ‘Two tickets to Barbarism, please.’” Joking aside, Parker’s The Tigers of Wrath is a treat. Essentially, it’s about life’s twists and turns. There’s humour, pathos – and politics. “I wanted to do a play that looked sideways at the left in New Zealand over a period of time. I wanted it to have a bit of perspective, using the same cast to portray characters at different stages in their life. The most practical way was to start with three 20-year-olds in the mid-1970s and bring them through close to the present. So I figured I could start off with one of those 1970s China trips, that last great burst of idealism in the left here. “Of course, the other thing about Red China in the 1970s is the irony of where it’s ended up now, propping up the US economy and the global capitalist market and disciplining its workforce as its economy slows down.”
One character has inevitably joined and risen in the Labour Party. “And what was happening in the Labour Party? The toppling of Mike Moore by the group around Helen Clark.” So that became the background of the second act. The play is packed with gossip; whatever the truth of what he’s told, no doubt Parker has a mole. “I am the recording angel. Labour Party people feel an obligation to confide in me … when someone tells you, ‘Helen went to bed for six days, mate. Six f—in’ days! Wailing and weeping, wailing and weeping … It’s called rejection, mate, rejection,’” it’s hard to ignore. Unlike his fellow travellers, Parker didn’t go to China (“I’m a Trot”). “I went to London in 1969 and returned at the end of 1970, taking a Magic Bus overland to Afghanistan and India. While in London, I was alternating between acid-dropping hippy-trippers and hard-edged and extremely drunk Irish civil rights activists.” What finally sorted things out for him was Northern Ireland.
“It was like the blackest of satires of the counterculture … And after a while the penny dropped – there was no counterculture, everything ended up being sold across the bloody counter.” Money and frustration trigger Parker’s frequent shifts from TV scripts to plays. “In the 1980s, Greg McGee and I were paid a retainer of $1200 a week to write TV for South Pacific Pictures (SPP) – the highest wage I’ve had. We seemed to be mainly developing stuff, but most of what I was developing didn’t get made (probably a good reason for that!).” So he drifted back to the stage – “although I had a TV feature on a couple of years ago”. While he was there, TV2 wanted a soap. “Greg suggested we do a series about the new private accident and emergency clinics that were springing up under Labour. I got on my high horse, said I didn’t want anything to do with privatised medicine. So Greg let it drop. Meanwhile, TV2 and SPP went to Australia and picked up a medical clinic formula from Grundy’s, and Shortland Street appeared. The result is Grundy’s now gets a fat royalty cheque every time SS is broadcast. Why Greg hasn’t put me out of my misery with an axe through my head is beyond me.”
Another blow came when the Christchurch earthquake rumbled his play Midnight in Moscow after two nights. “I went to the opening night at the Court. The young son of a friend of mine had just arrived from Belfast, so I got him a seat in the front row. He was wearing a hoody and shorts and had his hair dyed the colours of the flag of the Irish Republic and lots of piercings everywhere. I told him there’d be a feed and booze at the end out in the foyer and to go for it. I watched the show from the back and saw him later. He said he got into the food and booze, which was great, but he said he was puzzled at the Christchurch people who came up to him and asked where he got his ideas from.”
THE TIGERS OF WRATH, by Dean Parker, directed by Jane Waddell, Circa Two, Wellington, November 3-December 1.