Friday, May 24, 2013

Prime Time

Prime Time produced by Shortis & Simpson, with the Worldly Goods Choir.  Director: Catherine Langman; music and lyrics by John Shortis; writer/dramaturg: John Romeril; set and costumes designer: Imogen Keen; audio visual production: Robert Bunzli and Evan Croker.  The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, May 23 – June 1, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

The trouble with history is that themes (or ‘tropes’, as they are termed nowadays) are only apparent in hindsight.  What happens in reality is mostly accidental.  Writing a show with 27 main characters, each one of whom is unpredictably replaced by the next, is true to history, but makes for somewhat disjointed drama.

The series of songs, from Julia Gillard to Edmund Barton, form the bones of a skeleton, for which John Romeril provides some ligaments via a story of a couple who married in the Rose Garden, while travelling when young, and years later have returned to find that Old Parliament House is now the Museum of Australian Democracy.  On tour, they discover not only stories about our Prime Ministers, but even something of their own histories.

Without this back story, the songs would make something like a revue rather than a drama with a spine, but I thought the ligaments and bones needed a lot more fleshing out to turn this show into a full living history.  Though Romeril’s writing is effective in creating the relationship between John Henry Stahl, of German origin, and Roberta Quinn, of Irish background, and these roles are played skilfully and sensitively by Nick Byrne and Kate Hosking, their fictional story remains peripheral to the non-fiction history.  Their story is not of sufficient significance to take the dramatic lead.  Perhaps something like a fictional Who Do You Think You Are? could connect characters in their family stories to the stories of the Prime Ministers.

The strength of Prime Time is in John Shortis’ songs, based on research which reveals events, characteristics and quirks of each of the PMs, though necessarily with a bit of a skip through the very short careers of Francis Forde (1945), Arthur Fadden (1941) and Earle Page (1939).  Of special note, in my view, were the letter written by Joe Lyons to his wife Edith about the horrific scenes he witnessed travelling around the nation in the Great Depression years, and the final scene showing Edmund Barton huddled over his billy and frypan, cooking all alone on a tiny kerosene stove in his attic room, while presiding over the first years of Parliament in Melbourne and establishing the administrative basics of the democracy of the ordinary people which we still enjoy.

And who will forget the women of the Worldly Goods Choir singing of the need for international arbitration in opposition to Billy Hughes’ attempts to introduce conscription in World War I – to send their sons to kill other mothers’ sons.

It was a successful idea, again from John Romeril, to play the history ‘in backwards chronology’ and to use the choir and the principal singers – Byrne, Hosking, Shortis and especially his partner Moya Simpson – as the electorate, rather like an Ancient Greek Chorus, and to have the married couple agreeing to differ in their political positions, based upon a true story of a couple married in the Rose Garden who presented their guests with T-shirts with Rudd on one side and Abbott on the other – which could be worn with whichever one you prefer to the front or back.

For me, the interest finally lay in appreciating something I hadn’t thought about directly before.  As the history moved back in time, the tendency of Shortis and Simpson to make fun of the political figures – for which they are justifiably famous in the Canberra cultural scene – changed to a more serious tone, as we faced up to World War II with John Curtin, the Depression with Joe Lyons, the despair of World War I and finally the demands made of Edmund Barton – “a  learned man with the unenviable task of leading a motley bunch of ambitious politicians, whom he named his Cabinet of Kings”.  Where is his kind of unassuming leadership now?  And what has happened to the sense of commitment to democratic government throughout the community?

This new venture of Shortis & Simpson once more stretches the boundaries of their work, both in a new strength in their musicianship - especially in suiting the music to the historical period of each PM -  and in taking on a study of more than a century of history – and in doing so making their mark in a significant way on our cultural understanding in the year of the Centenary of Canberra.