You can’t say that on television! Oh, it’s the theatre, so it must be ok!!
Presented by the Queensland Theatre Company, Jonathan Biggins’ political satire Australia Day is possibly the most un-PC play I’ve ever seen (apart from Avenue Q, but that’s a musical and it seems you can get away with so much more if you’re a puppet and you say it in song)
(Incidentally, Biggins directed the Australia touring production of Avenue Q…)
But if you’re thinking that the un-PC-ness of it all is used for shock value you may be right, but you also could be missing the point.
Australia Day is set in the slow, even backward, country town of Coriole, where the Australia Day planning committee are organising this year’s national day celebration. It’s six months out and each member has their own agenda and political affiliation (remind you of other committees?) and no one can decided what type of sausage would reflect “the cultural diversity of the shire”.
While most Aussie’s think Australia Day means a day off work, a trip to the beach, a big BBQ cook up and drinks with the mates, the playwright is asking, “What are we celebrating?”
To the Australia Day Planning Committee (ADPC) it’s a day of community, with a series of token performances by local sporting and cultural groups. These include a visit from the local fireyes (weather permitting); a nod to the traditional land owners; an appearance by an Australian ambassador to make a speech at the citizenship ceremony; and, of course, the local Mayor and head of the committee, Brian Harrigan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Harrigan uses his speech as a platform to push his own political agenda – gaining pre-selection to the Liberal party in Canberra while trying to save his local hardware store by subverting the vultures of commercial development, Bunnings. Interestingly it was well-known actor and local member for Redlands, Paul Bishop, who played this character. His right-hand man in the fictional politics, who is also the secretary of the committee, is life-by-the-rule-book Robert, played astutely by Bryan Probets. Other characters include. CWA representative Marie, played by Barbara Lowing to great comic effect and Chester, played by QTC newcomer Lap Phan. Chester is an ABV (Australian-born Vietnamese) the son of refugee parents, and represents the multi-cultural future of Coriole. He is also the larrikin, every ready with a joke: “Why does everyone look at me as soon as we start talking about minorities? No offence, Marie but you’re the endangered species… They’re not smuggling boatloads of CWA ladies onto Christmas Island are they?”.
Wally, played by Chris Betts, is the traditionalist who doesn’t want anything in Criole to change. Opposed to progress and intolerant to anything un-Australian, he would have voted for Pauline Hanson and tells you so in his blatant racist bigoted fashion, offering no apologies, but with plenty of expletives. He provides many of the ‘you can’t say that!’ moments in the play. Even though Betts had the most outrageous things to say, his delivery was the most natural of all the characters. He also stands as the oppositional force that sparks a feud between the new comer city slicker, blown in from Melbourne (although she’s been living in Criole for two years already), Helen, played by Louise Brehmer. Helen, who is also the local Greens candidate, rubs against most of the people in the room with her progressive ideas and voice of moral conscience. All she’s asking for is equality, a fair go, basic human rights and moral decency, but everyone treats her like she’s Hitler trying to overthrow the regime. When she discovers a secret she is forced to make a difficult decision between the greater good and her own moral code. Welcome to politics!
The second act opens on the big day where Murphy’s Law prevails and everything that could go wrong, does, including the weather. Hilarity ensues.
Biggins based the play on his own experiences when he was sent out to regional centres as an ambassador to assist the local organising committee with their Australia Day events. Actor/Writer Biggins is known for the annual Sydney Theatre Company Wharf Review; he and his team have held the market for sketch theatre since 2000. The full-length play Australia Day first premiered in Melbourne, Canberra, and Sydney in 2012.
In the hands of lesser actors and direction, this play would waver between soapbox didactic and caricatured melodrama. Instead Director Andrea Moor, together with Assistant Director Margi Brown Ash, created a vibrant and physically interesting work, despite the fact that much of the action in the first act, focuses on a group of people sitting at a committee table in a school cafeteria, complete with kitchen and whiteboard. Moments of quiet contemplation alternated with angry exchanges. The production team, design by Simone Romaniuk, lighting design by David Walters and sound design by Tony Brumpton, presented a clean yet detailed, larger than life cafeteria complete with air vents for the first act, and a grassed marquee for the second act. But while the set and lighting was relatively simple, compared with other QTC shows, the props would have been a nightmare! Water bottles, sauce bottles, gas bottles, sausages, and other BBQ paraphernalia filled the second act.
Jonathan Biggins’ Australia Day is a laugh, a jab, a thought provoking prod at our current political and cultural climate and certainly will be studied in years to come as a piece of theatre that exposes Australia as it is now.
Sit back and watch the committee implode. No topic is sacred: climate change, the carbon tax, cricket, the Greens, past prime ministers, asylum seekers, Indigenous Australians, and multi-culturalism.
Queensland Theatre Company’s Australia Day will play at the QPAC Playhouse until 16 February. For more details, see their website: queenslandtheatre.com.au/Whats-On/Mainstage-Season-2014/Australia-Day