Power Plays: Australian Theatre and the Public Agenda, Hilary Glow Sydney: Currency Press, 2007, PB, RRP $32.95 ISBN: 978-0-86819-815-6 website
'We don't want our artists to be lecturing us about what's wrong with the world. We want to be transported to another world' – Franklin, in Stephen Sewell's 2006 play, It Just Stopped.
As Australians wait for a Federal election, Hilary Glow's book is timely evidence that what is wrong with the world is what politicians would have us believe. Controlling agendas is what they do — assisted by battalions of media advisers, 'in the wings' as it were, the doctors of dishonesty, the specialists of spin. But there are 'countervailing voices' out there that will not be so easily silenced.
Somewhere in the chatter, phrases such as 'core Australian values', 'a nation united', 'the stolen generation', 'children overboard', 'the Pacific solution', 'protecting our borders' and 'refugees' are bandied around. Not to mention 'the war on terror'.
Should we be afraid? Well, not so much of 'these people' (John Howard's dismissive term for asylum-seekers and refugees in general; also the title of Ben Ellis's play written in 2003) as of those who would argue we need protection. And they want to decide the degree. 'We're from the government and we're here to help.' But who, exactly?
In Power Plays: Australian Theatre and the Public Agenda, Hilary Glow examines contemporary writers whose work in the past decade or so has been staged by mainstream companies like Melbourne Theatre Company, State Theatre Company of South Australia, Sydney Theatre Company, Queensland Theatre Company, and Black Swan Theatre of West Australia. The writers are Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Reg Cribb, Ben Ellis, Wesley Enoch, Hannie Rayson, Stephen Sewell and Katherine Thomson. But others, including film makers, find a place in the discussion as well.
While the plays are about power and its abuse, the book's particular focus is the ends to which characters will go — on both sides of the argument — in wielding the power they have. As always, the stated purpose is rarely the real agenda. It will be no surprise then, for any lover of theatre, and even those who get their news (and too often their opinions) from TV and newspapers alone, that John Howard and his cohort cop most of the flak.
It's no accident that the last dozen or so years have seen Australian playwrights, both indigenous and white, re-emerging, no longer confined to theatre on the fringes, but now the mainstream. That development is significant.
Each writer wrestles with the issues seen as crucial to the notion of who we really are as Australians in the 21st century. This fast-tracks them to the firing line as never before. Their material is unpalatable to government, the 'big end of town', and many other citizens 'relaxed and comfortable' with the status quo. The plays hammer the issues that won't go away simply because 'nobody sees them as issues any more — just leftist beat-ups'.
But the playwrights do not have it all their own way. Attacks came from the likes of Herald Sun columnist, Andrew Bolt, who, in 2005, launched several tirades on Two Brothers, a play by Hannie Rayson, based on the sinking and huge loss of lives of the SIEV X. Bolt's reactions were triggered no doubt by the tone of the play, but he devoted his bile to an unconscionable ad hominem onslaught on Rayson herself, a recipient of grants from the public purse. But others in the media were kinder.
Chapter headings might suggest a dull read: 'Political Theatre', 'Indigenous Identities', 'The History Wars', 'The Politics of Place', 'Globalisation and Class', 'Fortress Australia' and 'The War on Terror'. But that would be wrong. This is a carefully researched, well written analysis. If you have been fortunate enough to see on stage any of the plays discussed (such as Holy Day, Last Cab to Darwin, Falling Petals, Two Brothers, Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America), you are twice blessed.
Hilary Glow interviewed the eight key playwrights and others besides. Of the process, she writes: 'Each discussed their own work and was asked to reflect on its engagement with contemporary public debates. The key and common feature of their self-definition is that they understand their work as explicitly "political" in the sense that they are engaged in the task of "challenging systems of power" … a commitment to bringing discovered truth to the people.'
This gives the book an authority and sense of immediacy not possible when dealing with writers of the past, although their contributions too are acknowledged.
Theatregoers in particular will enjoy this look at a slice of contemporary Australian theatre and its take on a range of issues; if you're John Howard (or Andrew Bolt) however, you might be less than thrilled.
Richard Flynn is a former teacher of senior English and drama at St Ignatius College, Adelaide. He has an online business specialising in copy editing.