Monday, September 3, 2012

Australia Day by Jonathan Biggins

Australia Day by Jonathan Biggins.  Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company co-production at Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse, August 29 – September 1, 2012.

Review by Frank McKone
August 29

It’s a bit weird, I know, but Biggins’ name always reminds me of Lord of the Rings, J.R.R.Tolkien and English culture.  So watching Australia Day reminded me of an English comic playwright, famous for The Norman Conquests, Alan Ayckbourn.

In 1974, critic Eric Shorter wrote “The latest [Ayckbourn play] is called Confusions and consists of five sketches in a typically jaunty manner which have no bearing on each other but which again exhibit the author's delicious sense of humour in droll abundance.”  In fact, in my view, the second last of the five, Gosforth’s Fête, is not as frothy as this sounds, just as Australia Day is more than a witty spoof of country town incompetency.

The odd thing is that the plot of Gosforth’s Fête is almost the same as the second act of Australia Day (was Biggin’s channelling his English heritage, or borrowing from Ayckbourn?), but the social satire says that Australia is indeed very different from the Mother Country.

Both plays involve a conservative politician, a public occasion in a village/country town, speaking over a public address system which is accidentally left turned on to reveal dastardly behaviour as a tremendous thunderstorm explodes all around.  The details of the two plays are, of course, a little different, but the comic elements work beautifully in both.  The difference is how the central characters – Gordon Gosforth and Brian, the mayor of Coriole (all the Australian characters have only first names) – end up as the forces of nature and human failure reach their last gasp, and the audience’s last laugh.

The English Gosforth turns into a Hitlerian dictator, or at least would like to.  Brian, on the other hand, realises his ambition to micromanage and manipulate everything and everybody is justifiably washed away in the final downpour. 

Ayckbourn effectively warns of the dictator at the core of English whimsy.  And I suspect the Lord of the Rings makes the same point, though Tolkien and Ayckbourn were personally on opposite sides politically (Ayckbourn still is, though Tolkien died in 1973).

But, the Australian Liberal Party Mayor, Brian (played by Geoff Morell) , seeking preselection for a Federal seat, and his political opponent  Australian Greens Party, Helen (Alison Whyte), reach an understanding on two levels as the roof of the marquee caves in: respect and empathy are the keys to a workable community,  and honesty in politics is preferable.

After the laughter, Ayckbourn leaves a nasty taste about English life, which ironically our ex-pat Rupert Murdoch has tapped into since Gosforth’s Fête was written.

Biggins recognises our political game-playing, but leaves us with the good taste of common sense and compromise which can be distilled from the Australian culture.

Theatrically, Biggins’ Act 1 doesn’t match up to Ayckbourn’s playlets which lead up to Gosforth’s Fête in Confusions.  Eric Shorter seemed critical of their having “no bearing on each other”, but Ayckbourn was writing in the days when absurdism had moved on from an esoteric theatre form after World War II to the popularity of The Goons, The Goodies and Monty Python.  When I directed Confusions each of the first three playlets built the mood of impending disaster which came crashing down upon Gosforth, which is followed by a reflective Talk in the Park.

The short scenes in Act 1 of Australia Day, as the Committee meets over the months before 26th January  (or 25th March, or October – who knows?), the characters are introduced and divisions between them are laid out, but there need to be more clues, like an Agatha Christie mystery, which would lead us to talk during interval about the possible developments.  But without enough direction in the plot, we found ourselves over coffee and champagne without much to talk about, though much to laugh over. 

And much to appreciate in the performances.  But we were concerned that the role played by Kaeng Chan as Chester, an Australian born teacher of Vietnamese refugee parents, appeared, in the first Act, as token rather than of equal value.  But when it came to Act 2, Chester comes through as the most rational, the best organised, with the least personal issues and certainly incorruptible (after all, he is a teacher), alongside the rough-mouthed dogmatic, but truthful and practical Wally (powerfully played by Peter Kowitz),  the old-fashioned but genuinely caring CWA lady Marie (Valerie Bader, bravely wearing a “numbat dreaming” costume, who reconciles Wally and the Green feminist Helen), and finally the honest Robert (David James) who stands up to the culture of political manipulation (revealed over the public address system via CB radios which he thoughtfully imagined would make things go more smoothly), and who makes it clear that he is happy being a deputy rather than being corruptly made mayor.

The Coriole Australia Day Committee being democratic meant that all the actors were equal, and they certainly performed as an exemplary team.  The plot, as the Day itself turns to mud, flood, thunder and lightning, enlightens us about the Greens’ agenda.  Helen outmanoeuvres Brian, as Alison Whyte matches Geoff Morrell.  It is fair to say that here is where Biggins goes one better than Alan Ayckbourn, just as Baggins wins honourably against the Lord of the Rings.  (I won’t try to push this envelope too far!)

Rather than the sense of deep absurdity in English life leading to a simple, if horrific, conclusion – the final cynical words, in Talk in the Park, are “Might as well talk to yourself” – Australia Day brings the complex inanities of Australian life to a positive conclusion where we have seen professional give-and-take among the actors, between the actors and us in the audience, and finally among the characters of Coriole.  The play, more subtly than Gosforth’s Fête, represents the life of its culture.  This Australia Day is certainly not a disaster, whatever the forces of nature – human and atmospheric – bring to bear.

Footnote: Alan Ayckbourn went on to write 74 plays so far; this is Jonathan Biggins’ first ‘proper’ play, but he is already famous for the annual Wharf Revue.

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