Arts / Biggins hits the raw nerve of social media

John Waters as John Behan… the talkback host “with a city in the palm of his hand” in “Talk”. Photo by Brett Boardman

TO paraphrase Peter Finch’s clapped-out TV anchorman in the 1976 American satirical movie “Network”, playwright and director Jonathan Biggins is mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore – the 24-hour news cycle, that is.

But in Biggins’ play “Talk”, coming soon to The Playhouse, the shock jock at the centre of the play, John Behan, is no hero.

On the contrary, in the manner of John Laws and Alan Jones, he’s the talkback host “with a city in the palm of his hand”, filling Sydney’s airwaves with easy answers and fake news. But his efforts at trial-by-media go awry and he locks himself inside his studio.

Biggins has cast John Waters as the shockjock and Peter Kowitz as the real protagonist, the veteran journo Taffy, in the play he has both written and directed.

Director-actor Jonathan Biggins… “I’m trying to get a mix of comedy and drama together, it’s satire, it’s not exactly a new thing.”  Photo by Hon Boey

But he finds he’s not nearly as popular as when he’s in Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Revue every year. The reason? He’s hit a raw nerve with young Millennials.

Set by designer Mark Thompson on three or even four levels in multiple locations, the studio, the TV front desk, “The Daily Telegraph” and an ABC TV newsroom – the identities are not hidden as “Talk” lays mercilessly into social media, the news cycle and younger journalists depicted as scarcely literate.

You can fairly bet Canberrans will love the satirical vein of the play, and candidly, if the Sydney Theatre Company is unhappy with the blogs and reviews, they must be crying all the way to the bank. The night I saw it, the show was jam-packed with intelligent punters who got all of Biggins’ gags and roared as the young TV journo proclaimed, deadpan, that a story had “literally exploded” on social media.

Their response is consistent with the findings of the STC when surveying the taste for more experimental theatre that it was the longest-serving subscribers who were up for anything.

“These are people who know something,” says Biggins.

“I wanted to write a play that was up-to-date, although the way things are going, although even as it’s being performed, it’s becoming passé.” Happily, theatre is one of the few artforms that is really sustainable and allows you to say something. It doesn’t change at the rate of knots and unlike film, there is no danger but you’ll find people downloading it free.

He also wanted to write something about the online press. Biggins laments the decline in the use of the English language although he is thrilled to discover from watching his teenage daughters structuring essays, that grammar is making a comeback.

In real life, he says, the social media haS made for a poisonous atmosphere in the arts. He cites Canberra journalist and novelist Chris Uhlmann, who said recently at a book festival in Newcastle that the amount of vitriol he received online was “almost crippling.”

As “Talk” unfolds, you see just how dangerous that vitriol and the insatiable need for the adrenaline rush of news can be, even leading to death.

“These social platforms are a huge threat to western democracy, but people can’t see it,” Biggins tells me.

What was amazing to him was that the most virulent comments on his new play came from young people in their late 20s and 30s, who felt attacked by his satirical take on social media.

“I haven’t given up entirely on the media, but the independent media just can’t make money,” he says, lamenting the death of arts journalism, too. “There are so many bloggers doing it for free that one well-known media outlet recently let go of its arts editor on the basis that there are ‘so many people doing it for free’.”

But you can’t satisfy everyone. Some people complain there are not enough laughs; others complain there are too many.

“It’s not written for laughs, is not exactly a comedy, I’m trying to get a mix of comedy and drama together, it’s satire, it’s not exactly a new thing,” he says.

“My play does get fairly dark – I think that’s good, I like that.”

“Talk”, The Playhouse, May 31-June 2. Bookings to canberratheatrecentre.com.au or  6275 2700.

 

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