The show opens with Aria (Kali Kopae) lifting yet another glass to her tiny left-wing political party’s first victory in parliament: getting in. Against all odds, The Aroha Party has one glorious seat, from which they’ll provide a voice for the voiceless, pushing back against big business and those who just don’t care. Communications advisor George (Sophie Hambleton) smiles wryly at the tipsy Aria from a safe distance, while the political veteran Richard (Andrew Laing) calls a late cab. And so Aria finds herself alone in the office when a young intern, Danny (Dryw McArthur) slips in and drops a bomb on her victory.
The central performances Kopae and Hambleton give are extraordinary. George in particular is a remarkable character, given room to be both the scarily professional bitch and the smoochy, hungover friend at brunch. She’s like an amalgamation of all the sassy political women from The West Wing and The Thick of It, only with a Kiwi accent and a dislike of brushing her hair.
In the third act, George hisses at her boss that women like Aria stand on her back. Together, the pair circle the central tension of Burn Her: how people - and especially women - have to roll in the muck to achieve their ambitions and get things done. Good things, too. In the end, George and Aria need each other, much as idealism and pragmatism work best hand-in-hand.
Although Burn Her’s electrifying script takes centre stage, the design team also should be commended. I’m a sucker for a two-storey set; this take on a stylish wooden office designed by Debbie Fish even has a spiral staircase. Blank canvases hung from the ceiling effectively become screens of different sizes at points of tension, reminding audiences of the ubiquity of digital news in 2019 without being Black Mirror about it. Charlotte Forrester’s lovely score plays during the transitions between scenes, utilising cello to
Burn Her grapples with the festering sores of white colonialism under a very specific lens, telling a very particular story. It’s rare to see New Zealand theatre so unafraid to tackle this country’s biggest problems, and moreover, in such an obvious way. Burn Her doesn’t give a shit if you think sexism and white supremacy should be left out of art, or if you think audiences should work a bit harder to uncover what a show actually means. It wants to tell you this story, provoke a whole mess of emotions, and in the end, it wants you to find the universalism in its specificity.
Burn Her runs at Circa Theatre until Saturday 31 August. Times between nights differ, so for more information about the production or to book tickets, visit the Circa Theatre website.