Review: Venom and eloquence in the House

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IF ever there were a perfect match between text and location, this was it.

We’ve seen plenty of verbatim theatre in recent years, dealing with everything from David Hicks to the Australian Wheat Board and the Wollongong City Council, but rarely if ever has there been a performance in the physical arena of the subject matter.

Actor David Roberts addresses the house
Actor David Roberts addresses the house
“The Hansard Monologues” (the title is obviously a nod to “The Vagina Monologues”) has already been seen at the Seymour Centre and the Casula Powerhouse in Sydney, set on the stage with three lecterns for the three actors David Roberts, Camilla Ah Kin and Tony Llewellyn Jones – actors on one side, audience on the other.

But by bringing it to the House of Representatives chamber at Old Parliament House, the script suddenly leapt to life in three dimensions, with the ghosts of figures like Chifley, Menzies and Whitlam seemingly hovering in the background to impregnate the actors, especially those playing in Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, with venom and eloquence.

Of course, the words are not theirs – they come directly from Hansard records, cleverly pieced into a coherent whole by playwright Katie Pollock and Canberra journalist Paul Daley.

The amount of material available was immense, but by concentrating on the 43rd Parliament of Australia and on the issues with which that Parliament was consumed, Pollock and Daley have created a compelling two and a half hours of intellectually gripping theatre.

A pity, I thought, that very few local theatre people were in the audience, which was made up of politically-aware Canberrans whose ripples of laughter and groans of appreciation echoed through the chamber.

The actors played across gender, but to make it easy for the audience,  Ah Kin mostly played Julia Gillard and the Labor team, Llewellyn Jones played Tony Abbott members of the Coalition and Roberts played the crossbenchers and Speaker.

Director Tim Jones wisely chose to have the actors use their own voices, although Tony Llewellyn Jones couldn’t resist making a meal of Ron Boswell and Cory Bernardi. By playing it straight-voiced, the actors allowed the substance of the 43rd Parliament to emerge, revealing some extraordinary surprises. Who, for example, would ever have guessed Greg Combet to be the modern-day equivalent of Demosthenes as he launches into Barnaby Joyce?

While largely impressive, at times the script relishes the low comedy and bathos offered by Hansard, with smarty-pants quips in the House likening opponents to characters in “Mr Magoo” and “Fantasy Island”.

There was an element of grim hilarity in the cast’s rendition of the Peter Slipper affair, preceded by a breathtaking trip around the chamber by Roberts, playing all the MPs who refused to accept the speakership, and finally playing Slipper himself.

Scriptwriters Pollock and Daley did well to include a section where the politicians spoke from their hearts, allowing momentary emotional relief from the ferocious cut and thrust of the 43rd Parliament. Malcolm Turnbull’s attack on the sanctimoniousness of those opposing gay marriage rights was a high point here.

As well, the names of Australian servicemen who died in Afghanistan were thrown up on the screen from time to time, reminding the audience and those ghostly politicians that the exercise of power has consequences.

By and large “The Hansard Monologues” moved along at a cracking pace, though the opening section on the asylum seeker issue and the section entitled “A tax [the carbon tax, that is] on both your houses” were probably given excessive weight.

And what was the most-appreciated speech in the house? No prizes for guessing that, as the subsequent Q&A and chitchat at the old Members’ Bar revealed – it was Julia Gillard’s speech on misogyny.

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