Review: Wild Bees

Theatre

19.09.2014

Review: Wild Bees

 

Written by Phil Ormsby, Wild Bees takes us into an anonymous (but which we assume is Telecom's) boardroom in the early '90s. The company had recently been privatised, the Employment Contracts Act had just been introduced, and the negotiations taking place between senior management and union representatives represented one of the first real litmus tests of the Act. Through the two-hour show, we witness hours, days, weeks of intense back-and-forthing as financial and social imperatives are pitched against each other.

Joseph Harper

Did you know about that stuff before going?

Rosabel Tan

Nah. I had to research it after. I didn't know anything about its wider political atmosphere, and the ambiguity around it made the first half more difficult than it needed to be. At times it felt like you were expected to know that stuff.

Eddy Dever

Regardless of how much background we went in with, I think the issues were more 'real' for some of the audience.

Joseph

Definitely. I'm certain this play would have hit harder with a particular audience, though I don't mean to say it wouldn't appeal to everyone. I knew when it was set but knew very little about the late-80's economic reforms, and I didn't feel that lessened my understanding in any way.

Rosabel

Neither, though I would've loved to have learned some of that onstage.  The negotiations were nicely dramatised, but it would've had more of a punch if I'd understood their wider significance - though I thought this was captured with delicacy in Alexander Campbell's character. As the manager, he was the only character forced to undergo a drastic transformation through having to reject his public-sector community values for profit-driven ones.

Joseph 

Yeah a wee history lesson in the programme would have been useful.


And so:  primer to Wild Bees
Courtesy of resident Pantograph Punch lawyer Joe Nunweek:

Telecom emerged when the old NZ Post Office was split up and deregulated in 1987. It was sold in 1990, roughly around the same time that the Employment Contracts Act was introduced, so you had a newly privatised company that used to be an enshrined public monopoly service, the kind that was a bit sclerotic but guaranteed jobs for life and a gradual rise through the ranks. Suddenly there was a lot more incentive to casualise and outsource the workforce. The effect of the ECA was to enable Telecom to better negotiate with individual workers (and contractors), and to restrict union access to both workplaces and the negotiating table.

The cut in staffing was drastic. Between 1987 and 1990 employee numbers had already reduced from 24,500 to 16,000. By comparison, total employment at Telecom fell from 16,000 in 1990/1991 to less than 8000 by the end of the decade. They were able to more than halve the number of people they directly employed. That wouldn't have be possible if unions weren't suddenly robbed of their legitimacy and effectiveness. Without having seen the play yet, I imagine the story here is about employees who suddenly find the union ineffectual, of middle-men who held managerial roles and are wracked with guilt about the changes, and of the new executive consultant class swooping in. Things happened fast. The main union involved in negotiations, the Communication and Electrical Workers Union, was in liquidation by the end of the decade, and the remaining unionised workers in the industry will have scurried into First and EPMU.


Eddy

I thought Jordan Blakie's character had an interesting arc, growing from the timid newbie into a hard-nosed negotiator. I definitely felt like his character was being set-up as the hero in the first half, though - which  never really came to fruition.

Rosabel

The naive idealist who becomes disillusioned by bureaucracy.

I found the pacing imbalanced, too. The second half felt far more alive than the first. Though after seeing The Moment of Truth the night before - in all its surreal circus-like aspects - it felt strange being in the theatre, in a different kind of political space. There were more lever-arch files, but it was no less sinister. And I thought it was fantastic that a play had been made about this really crucial time in history that I'd never have learned about otherwise, but I found I didn't learn about it, and that I didn't trust the characterisation, necessarily - or that I wanted the characters to have more depth, more sympathy for each other, more transformation, something asides from playing their roles in the negotiation process

Joseph

I reckon that was probably symptomatic of the play's circumstance though.

Eddy

I would say that was the intention, but the ultimate result was just not having much to cling to.

Joseph 

 For me there were bits that didn't work, sure, but I was drawn in from the start and never felt my attention or empathy really wane. Overall, I was quite moved by the play. I found it sad. It was like a requiem for ideas which aren't necessarily fashionable anymore. And to me the characters represented that. The final image of people clinging to this thing which aren't really there anymore until they're washed away. Either with the seachange or just out to sea completely.

It hit me on the immediate level of the play's context, but also felt relevant in light of the current political climate. The way humanity is kind of rendered impotent when forced up against 'ideas'.

Rosabel

I think Jordan Blaikie's Rich provided a great touchstone for that - halfway through he has a monologue incredulously observing that he's just as smart as anyone else in the room, yet he doesn't know what he's doing - and that struck me as a gentle reminder of how the human element gets lost, refused and suppressed in those environments

Joseph 

Yeah. I also thought the former union man who'd joined management was good too in that regard.

Rosabel

He was the strongest character, representing the embodiment of both ideals.

Eddy

His struggle of trying to justify them against each other was nicely played out.

 

Rosabel

Yeah though (broad, broad generalisation) union = good and management = bad is an easy binary, so I would have been curious to see more encounters that challenged those stereotypes -

Eddy

I'm not sure I agree - I think some of the most interesting points were where we saw the ugly inner workings of the union - the internal squabbles and power-plays. I'm thinking specifically of when we saw Wesley Dowdell's character made effectively redundant from his role as general secretary of the union through an internal management reshuffle.

Rosabel

He was fantastic - his Leo and Kevin Keys' Alan were both great characters.

What's interesting is that often I wanted it to be slicker and quicker. I wanted the pleasure in seeing experts do their job well, with wit, with sharp and ruthless tactics. And I think there were was something beautiful in the way these characters lacked that - as you say, Joe, a kind of sad and unnatural jump into unchartered waters

Joseph

I reckon formally and structurally it struck me as a bit old-fashioned, but necessarily so.

Eddy

The ideas around the play are the interesting bits really. The play itself was more-or-less a fly on the wall re-creation of a union negotiation.

Rosabel

That's a good point, and creates an interesting constraint  - you can't pack a hell of a lot of narrative arc into contract negotiations because the desired outcome on both sides is essentially set from the start.

Joseph

My only real gripes were with some of the directorial choices which I thought didn't work perfectly.

Eddy

Like what?

Joseph

Well I thought Stuart Devenie and cast did a good job with their performances, but there were a few lighting shifts which were a bit clunky and at times the technique of having overlapping dialogue wasn't executed perfectly.

Mainly though it was the direct address sequences.

Eddy

There didn't seem to be a unified theatrical language for those, eh?

Rosabel Tan

They often felt didactic and unnecessary.

Joseph Harper

Yeah, I thought were at times a bit hamfisted, and felt a little bit patronising at times.

I liked Jordan Blakie's final address though.

Eddy 

We haven't mentioned Damien Avery's corporate bogeyman -

Rosabel

 - and Alex Ellis's smiling assassin.

Joseph

They were both made of straw I reckon, but that felt like a choice rather than a weakness.

Rosabel

Totally. In a lot of ways their one-dimensionality was a perfect characterisation.

Joseph

They were both great. Funny and infuriating. Almost clowns.

Avery's blow-up especially was a highlight. When he went fully mental and invoked the wrath of god. Loved that.

Eddy 

Amen.

 Rosabel 

Okay, okay - would you recommend it?

Joseph 

I would recommend it. I thought it was well-written and well performed.

 Eddy

I think I would recommend it for someone who's already politically engaged. It's definitely not the place to be learning about Rogernomics, but it's an engaging script, deftly handled by a skilled cast.

Rosabel

You're right. It's a play that'll be best appreciated by people who have an existing understanding of the political context as that knowledge lends it an additional weight, but it's also a wonderful portrayal of one of the most soul-destroying processes in the corporate world, and they inject some real humanity and pathos into it


Wild Bees plays at the Basement until 20 September
Tickets available through iTicket

See also:
James Wenley for Theatrescenes
Cherie Moore for Theatreview

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