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Playwrights finger reality missed by politicians

  • 17 October 2007

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