Reviews, Stage

John Howard was REALLY Bad review

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What if your university lecturer was exactly the propagandist the right-wing media claimed they were? What if a young Bill Hayden – actually that one’s too sad, so um; What if John Pilger was a millennial youtuber? Enter Jordan Shanks.

I mean who cares that he’s millennial, I just read him being described as that in an article in The Australian so I figured if you don’t know who Shanks is – and we can assume that goes for most readers of the Oz – then maybe that’ll help you too.

Shanks is best known for his cult youtube channel FriendlyJordies, and his show ‘John Howard REALLY Sucked’ is now in its second national tour of 2019. Given the horrendous win by the (ominous tone) LIBERAL GOVERNMENT (as Shanks puts it: They’re a gang of corporate suck ups who failed at their previous positions as adverting agency hacks, real estate salesman, HR consultants, and suburban accountants) the work remains as urgent as it did before the vote. Probably more so.

The work is as much a stand-up set as it is a politics lecture. In summary, the core of the show sees Jordan Shanks gets up on his people’s soap box and eviscerates all and any rusted on and over-hyped false beliefs about both the Howard and present era (eg. “the liberals are best/better/good economic managers”, “Peter Dutton is a politician and not a sentient potato”, etc). This is supported by an onslaught of hyper-saturated, absurdist slide projections – the spirit of which carried through Shanks’s promise online that the show would basically be a movie length version of his youtube videos, but you’d have to pay for it.

Whatever, money well spent. It’s barefaced agitprop. It’s hard truths. It’s the sharpest satire in the country. Though it was weird to watch Shanks and not be able to feverishly smash the LIKE button when he finished.

It’s barefaced agitprop. It’s hard truths. It’s the sharpest satire in the country. Though it was weird to watch Shanks and not be able to feverishly smash the LIKE button when he finished.

Shanks, following the format of his youtube channel and also evoking the theatrics of a live performance, frames the piece as though an undergraduate lecture, earnestly engaging with members of the audience throughout, sometimes at their hilarious expense.

His lessons are often subverted down a rabbit hole of unlikely, nostalgic pop-culture references which variously have the audience in stitches or howling in recognition. And while I imagine that for some it could be frustrating – that Shanks’s insults and punchlines sometimes sink in to these pastiches of the absurd – there’s something in the act of abstraction, and reduction, that points to a possible catharsis but without delivering relief.

When Shanks meets the banal with the banal, instead of numbing the pain, he alerts us to it, challenges it. Brecht once described the theatre of his time as “branch of the narcotics business.” ‘John Howard REALLY Sucked’ is more like an adrenalin shot.

It’s hilarious stuff but Shanks also gives us cold stats, figures, and truly depressing analysis. It’s a necessary purge of horrors, and the title is a bit of a misdirection – as it’s every bit about the current political situation as it about semi-recent history.

Ultimately ‘John Howard REALLY Sucked’ is more than an exercise in either maintaining rage and/or awakening it, or in laughing the pain away. Seeing FriendlyJordies live was a unifying experience. Being in a packed house of people pissing themselves – sometimes in anger – there was a palpable sense that this feeling can be forged into something powerful. Like, I don’t know, a metaphoric hammer, for example.

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