28 Apr 2024

Sir Roger Hall and the end of summer time 

From Culture 101, 1:07 pm on 28 April 2024

Sir Roger Hall remains Aotearoa New Zealand’s most popular playwright. Since 1976 his plays have often been box office gold. 

Now 85, and continuing to write plays through retirement, he recently told The Post he’d be happiest to die in front of the keyboard. He talks about his newly completed play - about an investment art club - to Culture 101.  

Over half a century, Hall has chronicled the anxieties and follies of his Pākehā middle-class generation. In so doing, he popularised going to the theatre for all those writers who have followed. 

Sir Roger Hall is one of New Zealand’s leading playwrights.

Sir Roger Hall is one of New Zealand’s leading playwrights. Photo: Chris McKeen/ Stuff Ltd

Hall’s first stage play was 1976’s Glide Time for Circa Theatre in Pōneke Wellington. It went on to become the popular TV series Gliding On, which lovingly lampooned the office foibles of the civil service, long before The Office became a global sensation.

Hall’s latest play, End of Summer Time, opens at Circa on 4 May, and is directed by longtime collaborator Ross Jolly. According to playwright agency Playmarket, it will be the 59th stage play Hall has had produced or available for production. 

Like all good works of fiction, the play has elements of autobiography, particularly in relation to its setting.  

End of Summer Time is the third in a series featuring rugby fan and loveable grump Dickie Hart (first seen in the late ‘90s in C’mon Black). Dickie is now retired and to be closer to grandchildren has shifted, rather unwillingly, with his wife to an apartment block near Takapuna Beach - as has Hall. 

Body corporate politics and Auckland traffic gives Dickie plenty to be grumpy about, and the play demonstrates Hall’s ability to hone in on the minutiae of modern life that cause howls of recognition for his audience: the increasing use of te reo Māori, say, or restrictions on cutting down a pohutukawa. 

Adding to the drama is the play’s setting during several Covid lockdowns. Dickie faces everything from extra hand washing to the cancellation of the NZ Listener.

Sir Roger Hall conceded to Culture 101’s Mark Amery there were similarities between Dickie's and his own life. 

"There are considerable parallels, yes. When you get to your 80s, you don't rush around as much as you used to getting [material for plays]."

Dickie - who is used to doing the lawns, or the veggie garden - struggles to adjust to apartment living, where everything is done for him.

"He can do none of those things now, and that's where the grandchildren come in ... He has to look round, and one of the things he looks round is Auckland, and discovers it is far bigger and more interesting than he ever suspected."

Among other things, Dickie complains about Auckland's traffic, lack of community and crowds. Hall has come to appreciate the City of Sails, however.

"I liked it from day one... Aucklanders don't realise what a great arts city it is... Theatre has a wonderful scene here, and all the art galleries. They've got the best outdoor sculpture places in the world... and the council never acknowledges it. They should be boasting how good Auckland is."

 Pre-Covid times, and inspired by NZ Music Month, Hall launched NZ Theatre Month, but it crashed and he was "very stressed" by it and the lack of media interest.

These days, you'll often find him on a public bus into the city - and it's this sort of minutiae of daily life that he hones in on in his plays.

Despite it being about Auckland, End of Summer Time  is being premiered at Circa in central Wellington.

"Many of my plays have opened there... the Wellington audience has always been very loyal to me, and if they don't like the Auckland subject, they won't go!"

His first play, Glide Time, was written while he was working for the government in the school publications division, and became Gliding On, a TV satire on office politics - prescient in these times of cuts to the public sector.

"In those days it was very hard not to be a public servant. If you worked for the hospital or the railways, you were a public servant...

"Wellingtonians will remember the Public Service Investment Society, which was a big shop packed out every lunchtime with public servants taking full advantage of their 12 percent discount.

"And if you worked for a bank or insurance, the working conditions were almost identical, and I still remember people coming in to Circa and looking at the set, and seeing the Government Life calendar on the wall, and starting to laugh, because this was the world they knew... You could see the shock of recognition."

Hall looks back on his writing career with few regrets or complaints, although it took him 15 years before he enjoyed success.

"I'm not complaining. I still enjoy going to the computer and writing dialogue."

End of Summer Time runs 4 May to 9 June at Circa Theatre. 

Publicity image of Gavin Rutherford as Dickie Hart, with Rangitoto behind.

Publicity image of Gavin Rutherford as Dickie Hart, with Rangitoto behind. Photo: Circa Theatre