Saturday, July 27, 2019

The Halfling Laws @ The Alma Tavern, Bristol

still experimenting with workflows and being more spontaneous.

It is the autumn of 2010. New Zealand Actor's Equity has threatened to boycott Peter Jackson's Hobbit series unless Kiwi actors are paid the same minimum rate as their US and European counterparts. Warner Brothers say that if the boycott goes ahead, they will take production of the Hobbit out of N.Z altogether. The camera crews and set designers and caterers who will lose their job if the film is closed down are demonstrating against the actors' union, who even start to receive death threats. But they stand their ground and demand a living wage for their profession. In a back office of the studio where a big battle scene is being hastily rewritten, the union representatives meet Peter Jackson to try to find a solution. 

The Alma Tavern is Bristol's smallest theatrical space. One never knows quite what one is going to get there. Initial portents this evening were a little alarming: I was handed a small feedback form with my ticket ("was there any part of the show you didn't understand"); and there was a slight friends-of-the-cast vibe in the 50-seater auditorium. The action of the play starts with an ill-judged meta-textual cough in which everyone in the cast breaks character and starts to argue about whether the play can really be said to be "based on true story", points out that all but one of the characters is fictitious, that the the play is condensing weeks of industrial dispute into an hour and we could look up the facts on Wikipedia when we get home. This would have been better covered in the programme. (There was no programme.) 

False start over, "The Halfing Laws" -- rapidly retitled from "The Hobbit Laws" for obvious reasons -- quickly establishes itself as a very small but rather special piece of work: just the kind of thing which the Alma's intimate space is so well suited for. 

The actors side of the argument is represented by Hamish Lynes and Millie Walsman. Hamish, the more militant unionist, is (ironically) a Lord of the Rings enthusiast and fan of Peter Jackson; Millie is more willing to compromise but less invested in the material. The script resists any temptation to make Hamish into a stereotypical fantasy nerd. Millie isn't as anti-fantasy as she might have been, although she does describe the men of Harrad as "the evil maori elephant people"; which is fair enough. 

Jackson himself and his (fictional) assistant Charlie Dewberrie remain sympathetic throughout.  Jacskon wants to support the union case but is not willing to further endanger his already faltering production. (The news that the two film series as been expanded to a trilogy comes through during the negotiations.) As a further wrinkle, Jackson brings in Edward Hamilton who plays one of the dwarves ("the one with the beard") as a witness for the defense. Hamilton doesn't want the Union to kill the production -- after a long career it is his last chance to make it big. But he turns out to be bitter at about the endless delays and rewrites and because Jackson has cast Kiwi actors in subordinate roles while giving the big dwarf part to an American actor. 

The best moments are when the personal, the literary, and the cinematic come together. There is a very fine moment -- at least one member of the audience applauded -- when "Sir Peter" admits that the Hobbit is not going to be a very good film. ("It's turning into a Donkey Kong level"). Charlie, the P.A wonders if all the dubious changes of direction -- the extra movie, the dwarf/elf love story, the introduction of characters who aren't in the book at all -- are truly Peter Jackson's dramatic calls, or if they are being forced on him by the studio. Either way, she fears he may be losing his touch.  While everyone is despairing about the Hobbit, Jackson suddenly produces a copy of Mortal Engines and starts enthusing about it like a schoolboy. When it appears that he has stabbed them all in the back, Hamish tells Jackson just how much the Lord of the Rings means to him, and Jackson just replies "thank you".

In the end, the studio steps in and the New Zealand government redefine actors as freelance contractors with no right to unionize, so it has all been for nothing. Jackson starts to say that even this darkness must pass, and when the new days comes the sun will shine out the clearer...and Hamish roundly tells him to fuck off.  

The play doesn't really come to a point or offer any answers -- everyone just shuts the door and walks away. But in the hour we have learned a good deal about New Zealand employment law and the troubled history of the Hobbit; been made to think about idealism and pragmatics; and even seen how a decent person can start sending out death-threats Without being at all geekish, the play seems to "get" the importance that cinema and fantasy can have in all of our lives. Theater too. If we all valued tiny little productions in small rooms over pubs above billion dollar epics, it would be a merrier world.

I'm Andrew. I write about about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

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