The Cold War was a time of great paranoia with international powers Russia, China, the US, and the UK all vying for political and ideological dominance. In Australia, growing suspicions about communism meant a ramping up of national intelligence and ASIO surveillance of everyone, including everyday Australian citizens.
Martin (Jack Elliot Mitchell) was thrilled when he was approached one day by an undercover government official (Tristan Black) with an opportunity for him to help protect his country against the influence of communism. Now as footy player turned spy, Martin is tasked with infiltrating the local Bendigo branch of the Communist Party of Australia, but what he wasn’t expecting was a rapidly changing political landscape when Russia invades Czechoslovakia. As the intelligence Martin provides begins to garner consequences for the people he called his comrades for years, Martin has to reconcile his loyalty with his morality.
Melissa Reeves’s script is about smoke-screens, facades, the harsh reality working away under the social surface, and this was represented well in Tom Bannerman’s set design which employed literal screens: several along the back as the semi-opaque walls of suburbia and a large one across the entire front of the stage which gave everything going on behind it a nostalgic fuzzy edge. Director Rosane McNamara pulled out not only the political intrigue of Reeves’s script but also the intricate social commentary on the time when the friends, coworkers, or acquaintances you trusted could ruin your life. This duality also came through in the lighting design by Michael Schell which moved between warm washes and deep blue hues with interesting uses of shadow and darkness to create tension and mystery.
Mitchell was excellently cast as the spook for the earnest naivety he brought to Martin’s characterisation as well as his immature up-right physicality which loosened the more serious scenes. Mitchell’s Martin was more awkward than devious which worked well to amplify the stakes of his situation and the people who welcomed him into their lives. Martin’s eager and skittish young wife Annette (Lib Campbell) added equal measures of humour and tension to the story with great energy against the suave and serious Tassakis family. George (Emmanuel Nicolaou) and Elli (Nichole Michel Toum) provided the human face to the ASIO crackdown on suspected disloyal citizens and their performances were appropriately heartfelt and solemn. The rest of the Bendigo Communist Party branch, including the stern and stubborn Frank (Mark Norton), flighty Jean (Laura Munro), and the glamorous Phyllis (Zoë Crawford), were well-rounded collateral characters to Martin’s spy agenda but they were compellingly played and generated a sense of community in the political outcasts of Bendigo. On the other hand, Black as the representative of the Australian government was comical with his inflated ego and all the hallmarks of the stereotypical spy from the trench coat to the vague threats of international importance.
Under McNamara’s direction, the characters and their motives were convincing with a balance between silliness and sinister. Even while watching Martin and Annette stumble through a simple social engagement, the audience remained aware of the consequences of espionage, defection, and war that loomed outside these suburban homes. In Reeves’s references to the real people who made headlines during the Cold War like Kim Philby or the ones who went unnamed like the over 100 Czechoslovakians who died when Russia invaded in 1968, the whole sad history infiltrated the stage. Now, in 2022, with Russia and China back again in Australian news cycles, how much has changed since those days of suspicion and betrayal?
The Spook is running at New Theatre from March 26th – April 9th
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