Friday, February 4, 2022

Smokescreen - Bare Witness Theatre Co.

Review by John Lombard

Most of us accept that climate change is real and terrifying, but somehow nothing is done, despite the catastrophic cost of inaction.

In Smokescreen writer/director/actor Christopher Samuel Carroll explores the inertia of humans confronting an existential threat, by digging into how the amoral strategies of the tobacco lobby enabled the cigarette industry to thrive for decades despite selling a product that was known to kill its customers.

Satire like Thank You For Smoking or The Founder explore how greed trumps concern for the health of others with transcendent cynicism, but this is a darker story of how madmen run amok while we are prisoners of our own freedoms. Written with support from an actsACT COVID-relief grant, and staged at The Q as part of 'The Locals', the production has Canberra talent coming together to tackle the great issue of our time.

The play imagines a tragic, pivotal moment: a networking encounter where a cunning cigarette PR guru (Damon Baudin) infects an old school oil ad man (Carroll) with the ruthless tactics that Big Oil will deploy to corrupt and doom the world.

The meeting is a framing device for a fascinating history of the tobacco lobby, narrated by Baudin, where faced with damning health studies the industry evolved to embrace insidious soft power: forging creative alliances, nurturing doubt, and even sucking the anti-smoking movement of mojo by funding intentionally flabby awareness campaigns.

Rather than showing the banality of evil, where ordinary people make indolent choices, the play has Baudin as an energetic sociopath and Carroll as a doomed whiskey priest unable to do what he knows is right. Both are over aware of the historical importance of their actions, like actors who know the end of the play, but follow the script with tragic inevitability.

Carroll is always excellent, but here restrains himself to serve the story in a Gray Flannel Suit part. Baudin is a convincing sociopath, with an animated zealotry that hinted at a warped psychology. The best trick of the plot is setting up Carroll as an experienced devil and Baudin as a gormless ingenue, then flipping the roles early as Baudin outlines an encyclopedia of marketing shenanigans that horrify the older man. More could have been done to show characters jockey for status, which would have made them feel like real people, rather than mouthpieces for the journalism of Naomi Klein and Georgie Monbiot. The play dips into the complex values that drive Carroll, but Baudin is too much of a cipher for a relationship to develop.

The writing shines most in passionate, subversive evocations of the mystique of cigarettes, and in witty details that evoke the distance of the 70s era like a casual reference to smoking on planes. A joke about cigarettes giving actors something to do with their hands got a huge laugh from the performer-heavy opening night audience.

The lighting design by Antony Hately got the job done, with a spotlight on a long table giving a sense that this is a voyeuristic peak at the room where it happens.

Smokescreen will find a receptive audience with people who share its political views, but others may find it didactic and hectoring. The history of the cigarette lobby unrolled here speaks to human nature, but the characters don’t have the same depth. Faced with an existential threat, the rational response is to scream the truth, and this play does that well, but can see no way through the haze of despair. Published on