Guest Post, International Edition: How Australian Theatre Is Failing Herself

Australia’s most popular theatrical response to politics is also its worst

by Cassie Tongue

In 2016, Australia’s political landscape was fraught. Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull (of the conservative Liberal Party) remained in power after a fractious double dissolution election—a procedure in Australian law that allows both houses of government, the Senate and House of Representatives, to be dissolved and re-elected.  Turnbull is the country’s fifth Prime Minister in 5 years, such instability the result of several inter-party spill-motions (a challenge for leadership of the party by her own party members). The federal election also saw right-wing populist party One Nation, led by noted bigot Pauline Hanson, gain four critical senate seats.

With deeply conservative politicians entrenched in power, policies protecting the vulnerable  (particularly people with disabilities and queer youth) were threatened. The environment slipped down priority lists as the federal government ignored the local effects of climate change and concatenate bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, now near death. Both of Australia’s major parties – The Liberal Party and The Labor Party – continued to support offshore refugee detention camps that commit harrowing human rights abuses that Amnesty International says “essentially amounts to torture.”

Occasionally Australian theatre will respond to national politics and policy with gravity: 2016 saw docu-drama works created to reckon with the media-gagged reality of asylum seekers held in detention and the hardship of refugee resettlement in a casually, openly racist country. 

Most frequently, however, theatres resort to political satire, that popular Australian coping mechanism. As much as one country can have a shared identity, Australia’s is one of ribbing, spinning yarns, mocking, and ‘tall poppy syndrome’ (the overwhelming urge to ‘cut down’ anyone with authority).

Sketch comedy, an Australian television staple since the 1960s (and, perhaps, finally stepping into the 21st century with the searing Black Comedy) lampoons local culture and provides the political critique that her citizens, in Peter Conrad’s terms, equate to direct challenge.  But sketch’s zinger-slinging tradition and narrative format come directly from the theatre, particularly Australian vaudeville and variety. The country fell in love with vaudeville in the late 1800s and presented variety nights modelled after the form until 1966, when the Tivoli Circuit – the variety empire fuelling the movement – closed down.

Onstage, variety and musical comedy is still the go-to vehicle for cultural response to parliamentary politics – consider Keating!, a musical about the downfall of a Labour Party Prime Minister, and Rupert, David Williamson’s cabaret-play about media mogul Rupert Murdoch, alongside the work of composer/theatre-maker Tim Minchin and writer/performer Eddie Perfect. Indeed, our pop culture’s most substantial cultural response to widespread child sexual abuse committed by the Catholic Church has been a short song by composer/theatre-maker Tim Minchin: “Come Home, Cardinal Pell.”

But the most popular contemporary tradition in this topical genre is the Wharf Revue: an annual sketch comedy tradition at Sydney Theatre Company (Australia’s premier mainstage theatre company).  Created by Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe, and Phillip Scott, Australia’s longest-running ensemble group with the same creative principals,  the show is a 90-minute take on the biggest personalities, and oddest stories, in the national political arena.

While considered something of a Sydney institution since its first outing in 2000, the Revue tours away from its Wharf Theatre venue across the state of New South Wales, as well as dips its toes into Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. The show also, of course, plays in Canberra, Australia’s capital and home to the federal government.  

It opens at the Sydney Theatre Company in late October each year, with a few regional outings to test material; the show is constantly and revised and updated to include up-to-the-minute references and can present a view of the year that was in an immediate and far-reaching way through its medley of sketches that traditional plays, with scarce stages and years of developments, cannot achieve.

In its 17 years the Revue has poked fun at local politicians and political scandals, with varying – and consistently decreasing – levels of incisiveness, but its 2016 outing was a particularly low point, too light a touch in a negative banner year for politics. In 2016, the Revue could have tackled voter apathy, institutionalised racism, and threatened international relations stemming from thoughtless gaffes. Instead, the 2016 Revue was soft and petty; it barely acknowledged current policy, let alone critique it. Its targets were small and its name – Back to Bite You – indicated a sharpness and anger that never appeared onstage.

Senator Jacqui Lambie, who claimed that the fees paid to Islamic groups for food stuffs’ halal certification directly funds terrorism, was merely ridiculed for her forthright nature and colloquial manner of speech; and Pauline Hanson’s calculating, weaponised use of xenophobia was left untouched. Instead, the creators of the show painted her as a non-threatening anti-intellectual; and the sketch that placed the two women together was built around the concept that a male politician was giving them negative attention, and therefore must be romantically interested in them. Julie Bishop’s travel-expenses scandal was all but ignored; in the Revue, her character – and the men around her – was only obsessed with telling audiences she has sex.  

This is a consistent problem with the Revue over the years: it focuses on outlandish figures and their tics rather than the underlying structures that hold the real power, favouring fringe parties and fat/bald jokes rather than addressing, for example, Australia’s long-running racism: a cultural phenomenon since white invasion in 1788 led to racial genocide of Indigenous Australians, formally codified in the nation’s 1901 Federation, and continued ever since; it’s this tradition that is majorly responsible for Lambie’s misgivings towards and misunderstandings of Muslims and Islam, and allows Hanson to win votes by changing her racial targets as stereotypes shift. Mocking Lambie and Hanson’s speech patterns and policy ignores the real joke: the subtle endorsements these stances receive through alliances with and similarities to the country’s two major parties, both historically and today, who only play at being more tolerant with empty rhetoric while trying to dismantle  Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

There have been bright spots - Amanda Bishop’s disarmingly complex Julia Gillard character (who first appeared in the 2008 Revue)encapsulated not only the leader’s struggle against entrenched gender bias in during her time as Prime Minister, but also the ambiguity and cruelty of her politics, marrying person and action in her impersonation. This kind of considered impersonation draws on both parody and satire, is sympathetic when necessary but ruthless in its exposure; the apotheosis of the Revue’s remit to entertain and question politics via mockery.  But 2016’s show – which featured only a quick video sketch with Bishop’s Gillard) was bumpier, less detailed, disappointing.

Half the show was devoted to US politics which, aside from being low-hanging comic fruit, was a waste of time and airspace for Australia’s so-called leading political satirists; plenty of local issues were ignored in favour of comparing the US presidential election to Little Shop of Horrors – a take that ignored the mounting gravity of the potential of a Trump win so close to the election date.

A short Carry On sketch comprised The Revue’s major attempt to address xenophobia, but the tone-deaf nod both to Brexit and Australia’s own alarmingly racist relationships with refugees and migrants flew past in a blur of ‘Yakety Sax’ chase scenes and lazy sex jokes.  Absent was a single moment of insight, interrogation, or punching-up.

By removing the danger from government officials and their actions within each sketch, it allows Australian audiences to disengage with the people and process – if they’re all ineffectual idiots, well, at least they’re ineffectual, you can think. What kind of damage could these buffoons bring unto the nation?

That the Wharf Revue is taken seriously as a political response and heralded as a watchdog, labelled as “astute”, “sophisticated, and awfully clever,” is the fundamental problem with the Australian theatre industry.  Acknowledging the challenges inherent in the industry’s small size – Sydney, a city with a population of  4.29 million, has only two well-funded subscription theatre companies  –  and the fierce competition for funding, it’s nevertheless lazy theatre and lazy politics both to point at an example of ‘political work’ like the Revue as the industry doing its part to protest and criticise. Indeed, terrifyingly, there is a pervasive opinion in the theatre community that The Wharf Revue is Australia’s best hope against the current reactionary political system.

As writer Richard Flanagan told Damien Cave, the New York Times Australia editor, when asked the differences between Australia and America, “[Australian politics] was observed from the muster yard and is regarded as an amusing blood sport that will always end badly. That it is followed avidly doesn’t mean it is taken seriously.”

The Revue is scheduled into Sydney Theatre Company’s annual program once again in 2017, its 17th year. The show will tour once more, possessing an audience reach that surpasses any other production in the country excepting tours of major musicals.

Yet it’s difficult to think of anything less relevant to the political space than these three men (and their token female guest) building sketches around overweight influential bodies, the sexual habits of women in politics, and dated pop culture references, ignoring, or glossing over, anything that might call for change: an interrogation of audience’s racial biases, new clarity of the narrow policy options on offer from the two major parties, a call to action for audiences to protest against offshore detention camps.

Without the provocation and insight that comes from a well-honed comic attack, the Wharf Revue is a waste of time.

Meanwhile, the damage continues.


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