Australia Day review (QPAC, Brisbane)

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Jonathan Biggins’ very funny play about small-town politics was subject to political paranoia last week when a fairly mild two-word joke about Queensland Premier Campbell Newman was removed after a complaint by an audience member at a preview. Perhaps worrying about their funding in this arts-unfriendly state (almost the first thing Campbell-Newman did after taking office last year was to remove all funding for the Premier’s Literary Awards), a decision was made that the line should be cut.
It didn’t make any difference to the play or its reception, of course, but again the issue of censorship of the arts has raised its ugly head. It’s manna from heaven for clever satirists like Biggins, and if we don’t see another play based on the incident within the next year, I’ll be very surprised. But would we get to see it in Queensland?
The whole incident revives fears about political knee-jerk reactions from narrow-minded bigots, but I should have thought there was much more in the play for right-wing viewers to object to. The amiable but crooked mayor is seeking Liberal pre-selection for a federal seat, after all, and he gets away with it, but the whole play is a satire on small-town politics, so it doesn’t matter. The whole issue is more about the danger of government censorship, and the readiness of government-funded theatre companies to kowtow to political objections. I hate to bring up words like Fascism and National Socialism, but they’re lurking in the broom cupboard, even in our so-called democracy.
The play went ahead regardless, and I wonder how the complainant reacted to the rest of the political jokes. Perhaps they went over his/her head, because on the surface the play is a mockery of small-town political prejudice, and I can’t imagine any of the characters voting for the ALP. But be prepared to leave all your PC values at the door, especially if you’re looking for a sophisticated inner-city take on our national day, for you’re not going to get it.
All such expectations are turned on their head in this delicious play, set in a mythical country town called Coriole. We’ve all been there, and it voices every cringe-making prejudice about Abos, Wogs, Spazzos and Greenies that you’d expect. But the characterisations are not what you’d expect, because the earnest greenie (Louise Brehmer) will get right up your nose, and the archetypal xenophobic working man (Chris Betts in fine form) turns out to be the most sympathetic character in the play.
You can enjoy it in any way you like, on the most basic level because of the sheer awfulness of the characters, with their small-town attitudes and values. Every cliché is here – the lamingtons, the made-in-China Australian flags, the totally inappropriate half-dead native trees given to the new citizens, who are mostly Brits and Enzedders anyway, the different flavoured supermarket sausages to add a touch of multi-culturalism. The CWA lady (Barb Lowing is entering into a new phase of her already impressive career) has forgotten to put them in the fridge, so everyone gets food poisoning, and the Portaloos aren’t working, and the VIPs don’t turn up, and it pours with rain – well, you can finish the list yourself.
And that’s only the second act. The first act is set six months earlier in the planning stage for the celebrations, and that’s where the personalities start to reveal themselves and the simmering tensions begin to boil over. More caricatures here, too, if you want them – the ever-so-slightly crooked mayor (Paul Bishop, who we hope doesn’t behave like this in his off-stage day job as a town councillor); his put-upon deputy (Bryan Probets here perfects his silent down-trodden look); and the compulsory ethnic (Lap Phan – and how close is his name to a certain dead race horse? – in a very funny portrayal of a third-generation Asian with the broadest Australian accent of the lot).
That’s only on the surface, though, a cartoon story which is, in its own way, as dreadful and funny as Warren Mitchell as Alf Garnett in Till death do us part, because it makes us feel superior to these uneducated yobbos. But that would be too easy for a playwright as talented as Jonathan Biggins, who has had his finger of the pulse of Australian culture for many years now, and loves his characters as much as he makes us despise them. We are made to see beneath the surfaces, to understand that nobody is as one-dimensional as we think, and that, for example, the xenophobic Wally who attacks Greenie Helen for allowing her disabled son to perform on stage is more clear-sighted than she is. In his unexpected words, it’s not good enough to put the crips up on stage so that we can feel sorry for them, praise them for doing as well as they do, and then just go home and let our warm glow of self-congratulation quickly fade away. It turns out that Wally himself had a son with CF, who was burned to death because he couldn’t get out of a caravan in time and so, we are meant to feel, has a right to make whatever disparaging remarks he makes about anybody. In the great cosmic scheme of things, though, that attitude itself has dubious implications: are only Jews, for example, allowed to tell anti-Semitic jokes, not matter how affectionate they are; and can only gays talk about poofters? Who owns humour, we are forced to ask ourselves, and it’s a salient point that there are no indigenous Australians in this play, although all the PC platitudes are mouthed. Maybe that is still too sensitive a topic.
There are many more layers in Australia Day than a superficial viewing suggests, and it would make a perfect play for upper secondary students to see. It might even make them think – a dangerous prospect, I know, but why not give it a go?
We’ve seen much of Jonathan Biggins’ witty satire of Australia in the past, especially in The Wharf Review, but with this play he cements his place as one of our most perceptive playwrights, who can look at his country with compassion as well as humour. Is he the next David Williamson, or is he even better than that?
[box]Australia Day is at the Playhouse, QPAC until 16 February. Tickets are available at[/box]

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