Monday, September 12, 2022

How To Vote



How To Vote!

Or, the repurcussions of political ambition and personal rivalries withtin student leadershipand media organizations in the context of the Post-Covis-19 Neoliberal university institution.

 by Julian Larnach.

Directed by Luke Rogers. The Playhouse. Canberra Theatre Centre. September 7-10 2022

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

 Canberra Youth Theatre commemorates its fiftieth anniversary this year and if Luke Rogers’ production of Julian Larnach’s How To Vote is anything to go by the company has every cause for celebration. Judging by Larnach’s witty, ironic and highly entertaining insight into the wild world of university life it seems that everything is fair in love and students politics.

Tracy Noble as Vice Chancellor. Jack Shanahan as Figaro

It is time for the student body to elect the next year’s president of the student council Current president Tash played with conniving assurance by Joanna Richards has decided not to seek re-nomination. The university Vice Chancellor in a somewhat fey performance of a befuddled VC by Tracy Noble has summoned hopefuls Lizzie (Caitlin Baker) and Giles (Matt White). Things get a little complicated when first year student Mon (Ella Buckley) decides to throw a spanner in the works and nominate in order to fill a hole outside her house after she stumbled into the hole and sprained her ankle. And so the race is on and director Luke Rogers sets it at a cracking pace with all the vitality and gung ho determination of youth. Campaign managers Philippa (Jasmine Atkins) for Lizzie and Warren (Nicholas Bermingham) for Giles drum up the fervour with the aid of Kev (Tim Cusack) on Lizzie’s team and Hanya (Rahel Alemseged) on Giles’s.

Enter Figaro played with riveting panache by Jack Shanahan as  political correspondent for the student newspaper and a weasel with a nose for scandal or a saucy story. He makes sure that he has something on everyone and if he doesn’t he’s sure to find a sneaky way to get it – like a photo of one candidate’s private part and involving Lizzie’s former boyfriend, Ron (Blue Hyslop) It doesn’t take long for the plot to thicken with all the subterfuge, innuendo, and dirt that a student journalist like Figaro can dig up to get a good story. It all sounds very familiar, but universities are the breeding grounds for future careers and Larnach from his own experience knows what it takes to win the presidency.

Joanna Richards as Tash

In four carefully contrived acts, Larnach guides the audience along the bumpy road to election. From the unexpected nomination to the chaos of campaign to the disaster of debate to the end game election Larnach keeps us glued to the stage.  Will Lizzie win on her platform of environmental issues? Or Giles with his ingratiating rally for religious acceptance and sport? Surely not Mon who simply wants to “Fill The Hole”? There’s a metaphor in every slogan. The pressure is on and Lizzie breaks up with Ron and walks out on his basement production of Julius Caesar. Gert (Martha Russell) on Facetime implores boyfriend Giles to join her in Europe, but Giles has other things on his mind, and so they battle on through scandals, resignations, break-ups and the sheer adrenalin of vaulting ambition. And all the time there is Tash pulling the strings and Figaro unravelling the secrets  and preparing for the grand expose. Not even colleagues Elise (Thea Jade) and Andy ((Mischa Rippon) can keep this sneaky sleuth under control.

And when it all comes undone, who do you think has won. The instructions flash up on the screen, “Get out your phones – no seriously get out your phones. Scan the QR code and cast your vote. And the winner is….

Matt White as Giles. Martha Russell as Gert
If this all sounds familiar, well it is, and it isn’t. It is not in the House on the hill or in the back rooms of the country’s seats of power. It is where it all begins, right there on the Campus. Larnach knows the scene and his insight is acute. The actors play the text with absolute authenticity, because it is their lingua franca. As for the relationships, it is no wonder that the wily Tash plays the mistress to  her devoted girlfriend and partner Pratchett ( Claire Imlach). The men are such drongos. Larnach aims at his target with sardonic delight and hits the bullseye every time.  Rogers’ directorial acuity is perfectly honed to breathe life into Larnach’s readily identifiable characters and Rogers keeps the pace moving and the comedy brimming with irony. He is  ably assisted by a talented creative team in Antony Hateley as lighting designer, Helen Wojtas as costume designer, Patrick Haesler as sound designer and Ethan Hamill as Video designer.  The result is a slick and engaging production.
Ella Buckley as Mon

This is not the first production that Rogers has brought to the Playhouse stage and overall his young cast handle the mainstage challenges well. There is room for further vocal training for young actors  who are less accustomed to the demands of a large stage. It is a skill well-honed by the more experienced performers, but it is not the only production that would be well served by employing a voice coach.

I amm left with a slightly despondent air by what is a highly entertaining production by Canberra Youth Theatre. If the shenanigans, scandals, manipulative skulduggery and ruthless ambition displayed so convincingly by the young performers, Lanarch’s tightly written script and Rogers’ fluid and precise direction pronounce the self-fulfilling prophesy of politics in the world beyond the hallowed halls of the university, what hope for the future. Maybe the hope rests not with Lizzie or Giles or even the accidental Mon, but with those who in the end scanned the QR code to cast their vote. There lies the hope that will guide us how to vote.

Jasmine Atkins as Phillipa. Caitlin Baker as Lizzie

Under Rogers’ artistic direction, Canberra Youth Theatre has entered a new era of theatrical sophistication. How To Vote is the proof and the promise , worthy of a youth theatre that has stood the test of time and gives voice to the young people of today and the citizens of tomorrow. Happy 50th Birthday CYT.

Photos by Dayna Ransley