Friday, July 19, 2013

The Hansard Monologues: A Matter of Public Importance

The Hansard Monologues: A Matter of Public Importance (Merrigong Theatre Company, Seymour Theatre Centre and Casula Arts Powerhouse) runs in Wollongong from July 19-20. Conceived and produced by Peter Fray, written by Katie Pollock and Paul Daley, directed by Timothy Jones.

I didn’t expect to be as affected by The Hansard Monologues: A Matter of Public Importance as I was. The problem for me with a lot of political theatre is that the stories they are telling are too big to relate to: happening on a national, or at least a large, scale, without humanisation. But although this show grapples with some huge issues, the same issues with which Australia’s 43rd parliament has grappled, it is as much about the people in the parliament as it is the issues. And this becomes a source of frustration: when there is so much politicking at a personal level, how can anything ever get done?

The Hansard Monologues is a work of verbatim theatre, with all the dialogue taken by writers Katie Pollock and Paul Daley from statements made on the record by Australian politicians in Hansard. It is read simply but eloquently and effectively by three actors standing at podiums: Camilla Ah Kin, who reads Julia Gillard and other ALP luminaries, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, who covers the coalition (wearing, fittingly, a blue tie), and David Roberts, who floats between, playing key Independents and Greens, as well as other politicians from both parties. It covers a huge swathe of ground, focusing on, among other things, the debate surrounding asylum seekers, the carbon tax, and same-sex marriage.

The show is framed by the situation in Afghanistan, and this is probably only the significant structural weakness I found with the play. I understood what effect this was supposed to have – how can a nation so fundamentally divided send an army overseas? how can these people talk and argue and talk more when people are dying? – but ultimately, it felt a little tokenistic. Instead of using the Afghanistan situation as a way to divide other policy debates from each other, perhaps it might have been better simply to include it as an issue in its own right.

Otherwise, this is a fantastic work of verbatim theatre, revealing as much about the speakers as it does about the issues. This was particularly true of Julia Gillard, who came across as, to borrow words once spoken of Abraham Lincoln, big enough to be inconsistent. Gillard delivered some cracking speeches in her tenure as Prime Minister and Ah Kin delivers them with a kind of steely-eyed fortitude. Her rendition of Gillard’s misogyny speech was particularly wonderful, as well as Gillard’s parting words: “take your best shot”. By contrast, Tony Abbott and several other Coalition members, especially Christopher Pyne, are revealed as petty political point-scorers, more concerned with winning than doing the right thing. When Gillard was ousted by Rudd a few weeks ago, one of the things that was said was that history would be kind to her. She is not painted in a wholly flattering light in this show, but one cannot help but admire her.

The most affecting part of The Hansard Monologues comes at the beginning, when the focus is put on the back-and-forth debate over asylum seekers. The theatre company could not have known that on this day, July 19, the government would take such a horrific political stance on this issue, in a move which will essentially close Australia’s borders. Viewing this part of the show in this context is visceral – almost literally sickening. The show follows the debate as it goes round in circles, as the parliament argues and argues and argues and takes six week recesses and cannot achieve anything. Their debate is punctuated by tragedies as more and more refugees die, their lives slipping away as the parliament continues to disagree on what should be done with them. It is here that the gulf between the political and the personal becomes horrifically obvious, perhaps never more pointedly than on this day, when in the interests of stopping the boats, the parliament seems to have lost sight of the people aboard them, people who are real, who are desperate, and who are dying. The Hansard Monologues is not partisan on this issue, but treats it with the gravity it deserves. It creates a wholly appropriate sense of frustration in us as audience members as we witness the debate go on and on and ultimately go nowhere – and when the words of Sarah Hanson-Young are shared, outlining the story of Hussain, orphaned by the Taliban and in detention on Christmas Island for many months while the government argued, we are forced to realise that this issue is one that, like the politicians, has a human face.

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