Kim Ho’s The Great Australian Play at Theatre Works is a post dramatic swing at some of Australia’s favourite colonial tropes. Historian and playwright Robert Reid unpicks some of its threads
The notion of a “Great Australian Play” has been one of those pernicious bugbears that has dogged Australian theatre for nearly two hundred years. It reflects a sense that, like the Great American Play, there must be an ultimate expression of what it means to be Australian that could be captured as a stage play, if only one of us were sufficiently talented, intelligent or cultured…
It’s a hold-over from colonial days when the locus of culture was London, the heart of empire, where all determinations of value were made, situating the British as the “natural” rulers and placing anything at the fringes of their empire in binary opposition as uncivilised and barbaric. It gives the authority to determine what is good and what is right to a select, usually Eurocentric, few. And those few are never the makers, nor those made for.
‘It does what independent theatre is best at. It’s messy, contrived, rickety, engaging, thought provoking and fun.’
Really, of course, there is no “Great Australian Play”. Instead there are many, many great Australian plays. The pre-eminent among those that might reasonably lay claim to the title is Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, but no less great contenders are David Williamson’s The Removalists, or Robert Merritt’s The Cake Man, or Louis Nowra’s The Golden Age, or Jane Harrison’s Stolen, or Joanna Murray Smith’s The Female of the Species, or Lally Katz’s The Black Swan of Trespass. Each is a great play in its own way, each capturing an aspect of the “Australian Experience”. I could go on and on (and regularly do) making that list. This is how a canon develops, as great Australian play after great Australian play is added to it.
Still, the idea remains entrenched in our psyche, clanking like the ghost of chains still clamped around our ankles. Now those chains are put there by the neoliberal post-colonial post-democratic post-truth media that produces week after week of mind numbing culture-chilling drivel under the guise of reality TV talent searches, spreading and evolving the lie that only one amongst us is special.
Montague Basement’s production of Kim Ho’s The Great Australian Play (Ho is self-deprecatingly referred to throughout as “Patrick White Award-winning playwright Kim Ho”) is an attempt to come to terms with what all this means. What does the great Australian play look like? What are its tropes, its relevance, its truths? It does this by taking a broad, post dramatic sweep at telling the story of the Australian explorer, Henry Lasseter. It’s a brave effort.
As we enter Theatre Works, strains of the Sydney Symphony’s cover of Men At Work’s OzRock classic Down Under fill the theatre. A black curtain hangs across the stage, onto which are projected the title of the play and the authorial credit in a font that recalls the cover pages of printed plays from the 1880s. The production is filled with pop culture references, mostly Australian, and the timing and handling of them is often more heavy handed than I would like, though several make even me laugh. The audience certainly gets a great deal of enjoyment out of recognising them and being in on the joke.
We hear a voice from the dark telling us a familiar story from Australian settler narratives: the lone prospector battling the harsh landscape, searching for gold to make his fortune, finding it but losing it again as the indifferent country overwhelms him and leaves him for dead. It gradually becomes apparent that this is the story of Lasseter’s Reef, an iconic story of European exploration of the Australian interior.
As the voice of Harry Lasseter goes on, a dull red glow comes through the curtain and the shadow of bodies can be seen moving silhouetted against the red. Eventually Lasseter himself (Sermsah Bin Saad, whom you might also recognise as Suri from So You Think You can Dance) appears in front of the curtain, pitching to investors to make a return to the country in order to find his lost gold deposit. It will, he says, make everyone rich and will also, somehow, be for the ultimate benefit of the country (and doesn’t that just sound like the pitch of the trickle-down economics profiteers who have captured liberal democracies all around the world).
‘The writing is deeply self-aware and makes use this self-consciousness in a parodic fashion.’
This is interrupted as mobile phones flicker to life in the audience and the lights come up on us. Four prospective film makers – Ash (Tamara Lee Bailey), Eli/Hiatus Brown (Daniel Fischer), Cal (Sarah Fitzgerald) and Geb (Jessa Koncic) – are seated among us, reading out emails from a film funding body that has rejected their proposal for a movie based on Lasseter’s story. There’s not enough edge, the funders say, and in the current financial climate they can only afford to back projects that will be surefire hits – a notion which bears more than a passing resemblance to the idea of a Great Australian Play itself. They are, however, willing to fund a development of the script to be conducted on location, presumably following the path taken by Lasseter’s last ride, though I’m not sure that was explicitly specified. They make their way to the stage and argue in the way “creatives” do, guessing at what the funders want, what an audience will want, what will make them rich and famous alongside what will have artistic integrity.
The first half of Ho’s play uses these filmmakers as a device to flip between a recreation of the “historical” event and a contemporary commentary on it. I find these commentary sections tooth-grindingly expositional – much of their time is spent describing the action rather than simply showing it to us – but it gradually shifts into a more dramatic register as the development continues. They argue over semiotics, dramaturgy and historicity (Eli the writer keeps defending the lack of diversity in the film by describing it as historically accurate, a refrain of subtle racism in the film and theatre industries that continues to this day) and together they map out what would surely be, if produced, just another outback Ozploitation film that would be praised and then forgotten as quickly as every other film by unknowns in this genre always are. The saving grace of these sections is that they make very explicit the metacritique of many all-too-familiar Australian film tropes.
But there are signs early on that Ho’s play isn’t going to remain in this groove. Before opening a second set of curtains behind the two whiteboards on which they furiously scribble their terrible ideas, the creatives collectively break into a re-written version of Neil Andrews’ song Lasseter’s Last Ride. This introduces those on the final expedition with him: Blakely (Bailey), Coote (Fischer), Sutherland (Konic) and an unidentified explorer (Fitzgerald) who is listed in the program as NOT Mickey. He’s the Indigenous tracker who is barely mentioned in the official documentation and is never given a last name and quickly fades from even this version.
The song is interrupted by a familiar funky heavy guitar riff, as the cast pull the curtain back on Claudia Mirabello’s set and reveal a stage strewn with red dirt piled high in the middle in a crude imitation of Uluru. The whiteboards remain, and the action alternates between brightly-lit workshopping of the text and dimly lit campfire moments (lighting by Nicholas Moloney). The production team are isolated and haunted by the Lasseter character, who whispers anxiety, paranoia and confusion into their ears. These moments are accompanied by a fluting pan pipe sound track that is either directly from or deliberately reminiscent of Gheorghe Zamfir’s Doina: Sus Pe Culmea Dealului from the Picnic at Hanging Rock score (sound design by Gabriel Price).
Earlier there was a brief introduction of a spirit they call The Fidgeter, so brief that we scarcely remember it; but this spirit might at first be that same ghost of Lasseter stalking the camp, taking up the role of Lasseter when the others play out possible scenes for the film. He’s barely acknowledged during the brainstorming moments, so it doesn’t seem like he’s part of the cast, although, according to the program, this character is named Dem (Bin Saad). The Fidgeter, we are told, can steal your heart by telling you its story, and it looms over act one, menacing and predatory.
‘Really, of course, there is no “Great Australian Play”. Instead there are many, many great Australian plays.’
The further you travel with The Great Australian Play the more dazed its structure seems to become, like Lasseter himself attempting to remember his first journey into the desert to find his fortune. The narrative keeps inching away from the pattern it has established, almost like edging away from a steel trap. The writing is deeply self-aware and makes use this self-consciousness in a parodic fashion.
For instance, a cameo appearance by Melbourne’s own radio broadcaster and arts journalist Richard Watts introduces the “Patrick White Award Winning Playwright Kim Ho” through an interview in which they discuss The Great Australian Play which apparently was destined for a production by Red Stitch. Geb, listening to the interview, howls and tears off her headphones as she tells the others that “it’s already been done!”, that someone in Melbourne – Ho, in fact – has turned Lasseter’s journey into a play already. The others console her that it doesn’t matter, no one pays any attention to anything in the theatre anyway.
It’s hard to disagree, although as there are several of these backhanded jokes about the contemporary relevance of theatre, they start to seem like cheap shots more than wry observation (though I’ll admit I’ve been pretty guilty of the same thing more than once). Geb concludes this scene by cutting up what I take to be cocaine and then sneezing it into her own face. There’s a moment where I think she’s literally going to snort the red earth, which is a first real flickering to life of the scathingly poetic commentary of the play, but instead she tries to rescue it as the white powder blows away across the hot red ground.
For a first act that has found its rhythm early on there’s still a great deal, even in this first half alone, that deserves closer attention. There is a lesbian sub-plot between Ash and Geb that briefly appears and then comes quickly to nothing; there is the repeated echoing of Scott Morrison’s description of Australia as a place where “if you have a go, you get a go”; there is the rescue of Lasseter’s party by the Nazi dingo hunter, Albert Johns, whose costume reminds me of Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark (costume design by Carmody Nicol) and is gloriously performed by Fischer; and there is the appearance to Cal of the spirit of Mickey in the desert.
These things all flicker in and out of the light on stage like moths around a campfire, never landing long enough to be given depth but never staying long enough to be tedious. The first act begins to draw to its conclusion with a dated Hamilton parody, which is jarring, as everything else to this point has been relentlessly Australian(ish).
‘Okay, so it’s not going to continue as it began. Okay. So far, as every movement passes it becomes more intriguing.’
After this come a few moments more of partially-lit magical realism, as Geb comes onto stage to release a monster or beast from a pet carry age. She seems to literally fuck the ground with a dildo, screaming at the height of a storm, and finally pulls on a tattered black frock coat that turns her into a crow or a magpie and declaims “I am the Fidgeter” as the lights go to black.
Okay, so it’s not going to continue as it began. Okay. So far, as every movement passes it becomes more intriguing. Earlier, the Lasseter/Dem character (I never stop reading it as Lasseter’s ghost) has set a small camp fire burning at the top of the mound of dirt and the smell has finally reached me at the back of the theatre. Kerosene and burnt wood. The smell of fire. As I make my way to the foyer, the cloying smell stays with me and I note how deeply I associate that smell with this country.
When we return, to a gentle cover of Down Under by Sabrina Schulz (as featured in the Wolf Creek TV series) the black curtain is pulled across the stage once more. This time the projection suggests we are about to see a work called When The Eucalyptus Weeps by William Davidson (ha ha, get it?) When the curtain opens, the red sand is gone, replaced by a sturdy wooden dining table waiting to be set for dinner. When the characters return they are dressed as, and have the mannered accents of, an Australian family from the early 1900s. The mother (Fitzgerald) reproaches the daughter (Bailey) for not setting the table properly, the son (Fischer) rushes in flying a model airplane and the mother indulges him comparing him to Australia’s swashbuckling Hollywood heart throb, Errol Flynn.
They are anticipating the return of the man of the house but when he, Lasseter, arrives they don’t recognise him. The children are won over easily with presents and the wife is swayed a little by his pay packet and the puppy he has brought for her (in his brief case). They wonder what to call it; he suggests Pistol, she counters with Boo. A reference, of course, to Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s smuggled dogs, whom Barnaby Joyce notoriously threatened to put down.
The domestic scene around the table, a staple of Australian homestead drama for decades over the last century, ends with a prayer of thanks for the meal and is then replaced by a series of quick vignettes where we see the production team still out in the desert, one after the other, alone and railing against the night. Most memorable are the writer standing on the hill of earth, pitching a spec script to a dead kangaroo lying at his feet and Voss (Bin Saad) on a rocking chair, reading while ignoring his wife. Geb, still wearing the crow coat, stumbles into view, shaking and maybe possessed, only to crawl under the table.
‘The emptiness that we see around us here, the vast silent spaces that the great Australian playwrights have attempted to describe, are only the emptiness we have inside ourselves.’
Here the family scene plays out again, much the same as before but with minor alterations. The gift of the model plane has become a gun, the gift of lipstick has become the play script, the prayer of giving thanks stretches to become a sneering list of modern Australia’s issues and failings, toxic masculinity, asylum seekers and autocratic leadership.
Out of this grows a quiet monologue from the Wombat Lady (Bailey) who uncovers the Crow girl under the table, feeding her and then taking the frock coat off her, which brings on paroxysms of agony and screaming. While the now wingless crow sobs into the Wombat Lady’s lap, eventually calming down, Wombat Lady tells us the story of the Fidgeter once more, in more detail. The Wombat Lady grows up, has a daughter of her own, who loses her heart by listening to the Fidgeter’s story. Together they go to reclaim the lost heart and kill the spirit that stole it, only to find that it surrounded by cages of all kinds of material. The Fidgeter explains that it had not stolen the heart, only taken it to keep it safe, but the mother kills the spirit with one of the cages anyway.
In the second half there is a noticeable emphasis on hearts as metaphors – for our humanity, for the centre of the country – and I’m reminded of an old Australian tourism advertising slogan from the 1950s: Come and see the empty spaces. I begin to feel like the second half has become trapped in itself, repeating the return home of Lasseter to a family who don’t recognise him while taking the moments in between to get further and further away from the world established in act one. As the second act proceeds, it becomes even more surreal and self-referential, eventually abandoning the story of the production company and of Lasseter himself. I wonder if this isn’t the easy way out.
Our glimpses of the journey we began are briefer and fewer. The last I remember is Cal attempting to tell the actor who played Lasseter – now wearing white and red ochre body paint and performing what looks like a ceremonial dance – that “I’m on your side, really” – despite all this appropriation of the stories, of the land and the minimisation of the presence of the First Nations peoples in these stories, To which he responds with a terse, “yeah, you keep telling yourself that.” It’s a pointed moment that calls out the privilege of the middle classes, especially the white middle class, who make all the right noises about land rights and constitutional recognition, but fail to follow through with any genuine commitment. This moment also feels like the kind of observation made by those very same people. Another cheap shot.
The writer, now Hiatus Brown (still Fischer) eventually reappears before the curtain to pitch a multimedia concept for a Lasseter’s Cinematic Universe based on the success of Ho’s play, spinning the world out into a hurricane of Marvel and DC parodies that also tie in recent Australian theatre history (my favourite is a film to be called Complicity by Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush). It’s completely absurd, an odd rhythmical discursion, and it’s almost immediately replaced by the real writer, Ho, revealed on stage behind the curtain, confronted by a talking print of the Brett Whiteley portrait of Patrick White (Saro Lusty-Cavallari). Ho wants feedback on his play from the ersatz great playwright and White is none too impressed. They argue.
Ho rages that he’s never finished even one of White’s works because they’re so boring and overly dense and that the only people who read him now are students who are forced to by their teachers (which is not entirely untrue). White counters by asking whether the world needs another play about Australia by a middle class white man. Ho attempts to clear this up by explaining, “oh, I’m not white.” The portrait acidly asks in return: “oh, aren’t you?”
Throughout this interaction I’m on the edge . I sit back, reeling from the implications in those three short words. Ho tries to explain that he wanted this play to make a difference, to make a statement about Australia, about what it has been and what it is, and that maybe now he’s really just writing it for his family, to make them proud. White concludes by explaining that the emptiness that we see around us here, the vast silent spaces that the great Australian playwrights have attempted to describe, are only the emptiness we have inside ourselves. We don’t understand this country, having been here comparatively for only the blink of an eye, and so the uncaring landscape we describe is our own internal landscape and nothing like the real thing.
While I agree entirely, I can’t help but feel like it’s been a long way to go just to get here. In his program notes, Ho writes “I started this play with serious intent. Promise. I wanted to write a focused, well-made play, an Important Work that really Said Something about our Contemporary Moment.” This is what I mean about taking the easy way out. There is depth here, but in opting instead for post-dramatic breadth Ho sacrifices a rigorous engagement with something that might be meaningful. He also says that “I felt complicit in the colonial mythmaking apparatus. My quest to find “creative gold” in the Lasseter legend mirrored the folly of the 1930 expedition. So I decided to blow it all apart.”
‘There is depth here, but in opting instead for post-dramatic breadth, Ho sacrifices a rigorous engagement with something that might be meaningful.’
I’m not sure that blowing the play up really absolves Ho of his complicity. We are all complicit, all of us who grapple with the Australian Myth. We are all beneficiaries of those stories woven by our predecessors to construct a white façade around this country’s black history. Before the play even begins, Ho welcomes us to the theatre with a heartfelt Acknowledgement of Country and encourages us to “pay the rent”, by contributing to the collection they have in the foyer that will go to Indigenous community organisations. This is laudable and important, but the production itself makes me think that “the rent” must be paid in more ways than handfuls of coins.
Holding fast to an intellectual rigour and committing to a dramaturgical model that can focus our attention on the post-colonial morass we still find ourselves in would, I think, be more effective than cramming as much of that morass into two hours as possible. Ho says: “The result is a parasitic play, eating away at Australia’s colonial mythology from the inside out,” and I think that’s not a bad way of putting it. I’m just not sure it doesn’t also gnaw away at itself, resulting in a play that is hollow and brittle.
Director Saro Lusty-Cavallari asks in his program notes: “Why is our culture doomed to such vagueness? Why do we cling on to a failed military campaign that was basically wholesale slaughter as our defining historical moment? Why do we refuse to give ground on a public holiday created in 1994 that deeply hurts so many? Why are we so resistant to an Australian mythology that has deeper roots and richer history? Because we destroyed that history.”
This is correct too; but I wonder if it doesn’t go deeper than this. I’m not convinced we totally destroyed that history. I wonder if that isn’t just another story we tell ourselves to avoid coming face to face with our responsibilities and complicity. Just as saying “oh, there was no one here when we landed,” saying “oh, we destroyed that history” suggests there’s nothing of it left. It effectively elides all the evidence that is in the landscape and the stories still preserved by the First Nations peoples. I can’t help but feel that blowing the play apart when it becomes too difficult and opting for post dramatic dramaturgies inherited from Europe at best ends up masking the emptiness they’re attempting to critique.
I haven’t even touched on the suggestion that Ho’s grandfather was best friends with one of the Lasseter party and encouraged him to type out his memoirs of the journey, and that these have become a family heirloom. Ho claims three times (to Richard Watts and to the portrait of Patrick White, as well as in the program notes) that this is the truth. But is it? The Fidgeter has told us earlier on that nothing we have seen is true, that everything has been illusion, so what about this? Perhaps it’s true, perhaps not. The ambivalence introduced here, as all the way through the work, makes it impossible to be sure where any of it stands. As complicated and clever as all of it is, it feels like that cleverness is used to avoid doing the hard work.
‘I can’t help but feel that blowing the play apart when it becomes too difficult and opting for post dramatic dramaturgies inherited from Europe at best ends up masking the emptiness they’re attempting to critique.’
A final repetition of the return home of Lasseter is played out, only this time instead of Lasseter it is Santa Claus (Koncic), who sits at the table at the scene’s end and, after a long pause, announces that he can’t be fucked to leave. Waltzing Matilda plays as the Dem/Lasseter character lights another fire against the dark blue night. We make our way out into the foyer once again to Men at Work’s Down Under, this time the hard rock cover by Pennywise. It sorta makes me wanna listen to the original.
Is The Great Australian Play by Kim Ho a great Australian play? I’m not sure. We still haven’t really talked about what a great Australian play is. Ho’s work has all the hallmarks you might expect of one – an epic scope, an outback setting, mysticism mixed with pragmatism, stoic male characters, strong female characters, a mythic Australian character or two and a modern commentary on all the above. Time alone will really tell.
What I can say for certain is that it does what independent theatre is best at. It’s messy, contrived, rickety, engaging, thought-provoking and fun. There’s a lot to be found here, still much more than I’ve been able to cover, and if it’s a promise of more to come from Kim Ho, then I’m excited by what might be next.
The Great Australian Play, by Kim Ho. Directed by Saro Lusty-Cavallari, Produced by Imogen Gardam, Dramaturgy by Carissa Lee, Set design by Claudia Mirabello, Costume design by Carmody Nicol, Lighting Design by Nicholas Moloney, Sound Design by Gabriel Price, performed by Tamara Lee Bailey, Sermsah Bin Saad, Daniel Fischer, Sarah Fitzgerald, Jessa Koncic, Kim Ho, Richard Watts and Saro Lusty-Cavallari. Theatreworks. Until February 29. Bookings
Adult Themes | Coarse Language | Sexual References | Smoke & Haze Effects | Loud Noises | Strobe Effects
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