A meta-analysis of our history and how we tell it, The Great Australian Play offers great wealth for its considerable toil, provided one can keep up.
I see Kim Ho in the front row animatedly discussing something, his eyes sweeping the fully crowded theatre. He eventually stands and humbly discourages the warm round of shouts and clapping that welcome him, “My name is Kim Ho and I wrote the Great Australian Play.”
Running an ambitious two hours (with a twenty-minute interval) this play, directed by Saro Lusty-Cavallari and produced by Imogen Gardam, with the dramaturgical support of Carissa Lee, starts in darkness to the groaning of a yidaki and a low voice delivering a staccato monologue, full of conviction but delivered with a chilling detachment; cold, firmly ominous and immediately posited.
Vivid in its descriptions “eyes like diamonds’, giving the sense of a man desperate to find meaning in a place that feels too empty or broad for any, it is the heady and lonely monologue of Harold Bell Lasseter, delivered masterfully by Sermsah Bin Saad. It gives life to Lasseter’s story – the doomed promise of a reef of gold in the interior of the outback.
Then the play turns on itself meta-theatrically (the first time of many), and the cast who are incensed by a Screen Australia rejection letter. They discuss both the Lasseter story and indeed how they should tell it – or rather sell it as an adventure story. The act of storytelling itself becomes the thematic focus of this play alongside the original Lasseter story. Tamara Lee Bailey, Daniel Fischer & Jessa Koncic play three more of the five storytellers “re-enacting” the Lasseter story, hooked on embellishing it to fit a three-act structure. Their efforts conflict and dart around through genres and comic imagination. Sarah Fitzgerald plays the outlier in this troupe, who seems to take the Lasseter story more seriously and discourages the others from taking it into fancy.
In this first hour, the play dives around dramatically. Scenes run at the audience one after the other and throw the viewer off guard. The actors slip into the story as characters and pop out again as the co-directing storytellers. The effect is that concentration is refreshed every time, more out of an enjoyable bemusement than a linear build in tension.
The scenes are broken up with other scenes that are more absurd but at times oddly funny – Koncic being sexually harassed by an arcade machine; Lasseter (Bin Saad) sitting in a wicker chair while his wife (Bailey) weeps helplessly, accusing him of running off again; a writer (Fischer) pitching his spec script to a dead kangaroo; Fitzgerald’s character failing to convince an indigenous character (Bin Saad) that they are on the same side.
Ho’s strengths are manifold but one that seems to speak the loudest, at least to me, is his use of physical images. They are strikingly deep. One such scene has Koncic interacting with the land in such a brutal, confronting way that one can’t help but be left speechless. It makes one laugh nervously. This first half ends in foreboding.
I was struck by the strength of the actors, who were given such rigorous material to perform that it required them to switch characters and keep its timing incredibly fast. This is also where credit has to be given to what has presumably been rigorous behind-the-scenes input by director Lusty-Cavallari, Stage Manager Max Wood and Assistant S.M. Brooke Simmonds who have shaped this sizable piece of theatre into a well-oiled two-hour show.
Ho’s penchant for surprising, unexpected moments feels like a tool that he uses to make a commentary. This tool is used more aggressively in the second half and aimed decidedly at Patrick White.
We see a White-esque scene play out a number of times, becoming more sinister every time – canned laughter tracks, increasingly cruel interactions. The scenes are broken up with other scenes that are more absurd but at times oddly funny – Koncic being sexually harassed by an arcade machine; Lasseter (Bin Saad) sitting in a wicker chair while his wife (Bailey) weeps helplessly, accusing him of running off again; a writer (Fischer) pitching his spec script to a dead kangaroo; Fitzgerald’s character failing to convince an indigenous character (Bin Saad) that they are on the same side. All of these were bookended with classic Australian pop songs slowed down to almost vapourwave-like groans.
The questions of what this play’s worth is, and what it can realistically hope to accomplish, are thrown back in Ho’s face and we get the sense that as a writer he is struggling with these questions fundamentally.
A word for both the set design (Claudia Mirabello) and the lighting design (Nick Moloney). It was wonderfully laid out – a broad stage of red dirt that heaped to hills further up, with two whiteboards and a fold-out sun-lounge. The props came and went but what endured was this plot of red dirt and a background scrim that shone with brilliantly vivid colours. The lighting design was varied and dazzling, mirroring the sudden shifts in the storyline and the transitions between scenes.
Eventually, Kim Ho gets up and interacts with Patrick White. He wants him to look at his stage play. The two argue and suddenly Kim Ho’s criticisms at White become criticisms at himself, and he doesn’t let himself off the hook in the slightest.
The questions of what this play’s worth is, and what it can realistically hope to accomplish, are thrown back in Ho’s face and we get the sense that as a writer he is struggling with these questions fundamentally. It does not answer these questions though, which itself could be saying something profound. I’m not sure. It does, however, make for some powerful, meta-theatrical viewing.
Overall Ho’s work is inherently playful (with that edge of frustration) firing criticisms at both the film and theatre industries, and getting embroiled in the messy questions of our history, national identity, and the politics around storytelling.
The Great Australian Play runs nightly from Saturday 22nd to Saturday 29th February at Theatre Works St Kilda.