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Vive la différence

What if the French ruled the South Island?

The first several minutes of Dave Armstrong's new play, Le Sud, are in French, albeit peppered with Maori and English. A conversation between South Zealand premier Francois Duvauchelle

(Nick Dunbar) and his deputy, Dominique Le Bons

(Heather O'Carroll), in a tricolore-enhanced conference room, covers the pending arrival of guests, an argument about whether Ngai Tuhoe are "des terroristes" or "des socialistes",

and Duvauchelle's love of black women.

Given this, you might expect a massive public outpouring of sweat, from an audience unsure when or if the actors will start speaking a familiar tongue. But at the play's Wanaka

premiere, the crowd seemed relaxed and amused as Dunbar and O'Carroll skilfully relayed the punchlines using gesture.

That was the first glimpse we had of the strong, smart direction and confident comic performances evident throughout this production, which was commissioned for the Southern Lakes Festival of Colour.

Set in Wanaka au Lac, the capital of South Zealand, Le Sud ingeniously supposes the French colonised the South Island, while North Zealand, or Le Nord, remained a British domain.

The result is two culturally distinct modern countries, Le Sud being a resource-rich and nuclear-powered socialist democracy with a suave, womanising premier, and North Zealand

being a resource-poor and nuclear-free state in permarecession

thanks to a dysfunctional affair with the free

market. It has an emotionally stunted bloke named Jim Petersen (Gavin Rutherford) for prime minister, and a restive Tuhoe iwi well on the way to attaining sovereignty.

Petersen and two of his coalition partners, from the Maui Party and the Freedom Party, come to Wanaka au Lac to plead with the government of Le Sud for a cheaper per-unit electricity price. (Cue cries of "We wish!" from the real-life South.) This is the basis for all the political manoeuvring and indiscriminate satirical comedy that follows.

The humour comes from all angles, clever translation jokes (cooking the books becomes "simmering ze publication") mingling with unsubtle impotency gags and no doubt giving Le Sud a very broad appeal.

Probably, satire being the theatrical equivalent of cartooning, the characters in this play were always going to be sketched from stereotypes. And with that, two things are

inevitable: a) some in the audience will laugh along merrily as their prejudices are reinforced, and b) knock and Le Sud makes a hollow sound. If you like, consider it the chocolate oeuf of Armstrong's oeuvre.

LE SUD, by Dave Armstrong, directed by Conrad Newport, Southern Lakes Festival of Colour, Wanaka, April 29 and May 1.