Australia has the Great Australian Play just like America has the American Dream and England has the Great British Bake-Off. These iconic stories endure as myths of national identity and minimised imperialism that keep the masses rallying around idealised, constructed figures of power and triumph. But pretty soon the truth will crawl out from where it’s been buried to wreck havoc on the artists and audiences still buying into the centuries-old lie.
The script is structured across three parts, beginning with a prologue monologue from the Australian gold hunter Harold Lasseter (Kurt Pimblett) lit by a tight warm spotlight and performed with a persuasive colonial swagger. The impact of Lasseter’s legacy, his strong belief in a “reef” of gold awaiting discovery in the desert which he mysteriously died trying to find, stretches into the modern day as a group of young screenwriters (Lucinda Howes, Rachel Seeto, Idam Sondhi, and Mây Trần) clutch onto his story in the hopes of securing funding to produce the next great Australian mini series. During their professional and ego-driven squabbles, the group grapple with notions of national identity, colonialism, and the expectations of modern Australian audiences while Lasseter literally haunts their writers’ room. As the deadline looms and tensions flare, a sinister energy infiltrates the modern day, eventually dragging the writers into the third part of the script, a cyclical repeating scene from a classic Australian colonial drama, which strips them of their progressivism and threatens them with the fears that underlie all settler-colonial relationships with this land.
Kim Ho’s script is cynical and cool, wringing every golden drop out of colonial narratives and nostalgic Aussie battler narratives to expose the thick black sludge pulsing through such figures’ veins. Under the direction of Saro Lusty-Cavallari, the atmosphere of Ho’s writing came to the fore with pronounced production design and slick characterisations that forcefully placed the colonial and the modern in opposition. The set and costume design by Kate Beere was utilitarian for the writers’ room setting with a large tv screen, used for visual presentations and a fraught video call with Shari Sebbens, and OH&S notices attached to the walls pulling the majority of the focus in the space. After the interval, the staging transformed into the bare dining room of an early 20th century home with a fluttering candle and dingy floral frocks to complete the settler tableau.
This shift in setting, as well as a drastic shift in the lighting design by Kate Baldwin from florescent white to deeply shadowed, also greatly impacted on the interpretation of the sinister energy permeating the Great Australian Play. In the modern day, flickering lights and eerie surveillance video signalled its presence whereas, in the pseudo past of the colonial stage play, the energy was embodied by a masked, Scarecrow-esque figure stalking his screaming victims. Other elements additionally seem to carry the source of this energy’s power as told in a ghost story retold as a play written by Trần’s character, a famed but fading playwright, or in a little golden box handed across timelines and placed prominently on stage or in Lasseter himself as he hypnotised the characters in revelry about their deepest dreams and desires. A late scene in which Howes’s character staggers on stage covered in a blood-like substance was shocking and recalled Australian gothic slasher films like Wolf Creek, which have their own collection of criticism for centring whiteness as the (deserved) victim of a vicious and violent landscape. While the source, manifestation, and intention of the energy were unclear or inconsistent throughout the production, the production design, including use of reverberating echo in Lusty-Cavallari’s sound design, constructed a convincing atmosphere of a haunting; a fitting rebuttal to conventional representations of colonialism in Australian theatre, if a bit muddled.
Similarly, the majority of the performances were also convincing for the way they straddled the tense divide between the meta-narrative of national identity construction and the product of its previous decades. Seeto and Trần stood out for the rounded and complex portrayals of their characters, though with opposite approaches. Seeto played a meek, cowed new writer relegated to note-taker because of her presumed status as a nepo-baby while Trần was brash and outspoken, often appearing like a caged animal with a desperation in her attempt to claw back relevance after her successful play’s debut. Both characters were counting on their reception from producers and audiences to determine their careers’ futures which came through in the thin tension of Seeto and Trần’s physicality and tone. Howes’s and Pimblett’s characters were positioned as a kind of duo with Pimblett’s Lasseter championing his desert gold expedition in the same way that Howes’s modern screenwriter championed the mini serialisation of that life story. As such, they both possessed a swagger and self-assuredness that quickly transformed from galvanising to off-putting. Unfortunately, Howes’s character was also devised as the comic relief for her sarcastic quips and hungover lifestyle which largely didn’t land as humorous due to a stiff and overly professional manner of delivery. Whereas the script could have used a tighter focus, the direction of the performances may have benefited from a softer, looser touch, a “she’ll be right” attitude.
The intention of the Great Australian play is pertinent and valuable; pernicious narratives about whiteness and colonialism must be identified, interrogated, and dismantled. It’s particularly refreshing to see that work being done within Australian theatre through Australian theatre. The cleverest scene in the production was constructed from lines lifted from Australian classics like Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, decontextualising in order to more closely examine the attitudes and myths at play. However, the ambitious amount of narrative elements involved in the script, a self-serious spirit in the performances and direction, and the simple length of the thing at over two hours made for an exhausting demonstration cynicism, dis-ease, darkness.
The Great Australian Play ran at the Old Fitz Theatre from September 17th – October 8th
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