Writer Kim Ho, it probably should be said, hasn’t set out to write ‘The Great Australian Play’. Nor has he actually succeeded.
Ho and director Saro Lusty-Cavallari have instead made a patchily amusing, occasionally probing satire on Australian mythology and its place in today’s content-hungry media culture.
At the core of the play lies the story of Harold Lasseter (embodied here by Kurt Pimblett, who delivers a laconic opening monologue), the explorer/fortune-seeker who claimed to have discovered a fabulously rich gold deposit somewhere in Central Australia. ‘Lasseter’s Reef’ was never re-discovered (most believe it was a scheme to defraud investors) but the myth lived on, snowballing in the popular imagination.
In other words, a perfect yarn to be turned into a high-profile series for a major streaming service.
Cut to a room in which a bunch of writers of varying profiles and experience grind ideas and butt heads, as a deadline looms.
Geb (Lucinda Howes) is a screenwriter attempting to rebuild her reputation after a messy accident (forever known as #shomitgate) at an industry awards night involving an overdose of berry-flavoured Yakult and TV personality Grant Denyer.
Cal (Mây Trần) is a serious playwright by trade, suspicious of the screenwriting process. Ash (Rachel Seeto) is a newbie who seems to be there because her father is an industry figure with a lot of clout. Eli (Idam Sondhi) does his not-very-competent best to hustle the writers’ ideas into a grabby, action-packed package – a Baz Luhrmann’s Australia meets George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road kinda vibe.
It has its moments. Eli’s video clip ‘mood reel’ is nicely done. Actor and director Shari Sebbens makes an appearance (via Zoom) as herself, hired as a consultant to punch up a thinly sketched part for an Aboriginal actor (suffice to say, it doesn’t go well). The art vs commerce tensions are well caught even if they don’t entirely sustain interest for the first act’s 70 minutes.
Things take a weird and more interesting turn post-interval, and welcomes the audience back into a new space and time – into a wheezy pre-war stage melodrama set in the Lasseter family home. The writers of Act I are now mum and the kids. Geb reappears as the spinster lady from next door who brings over fresh eggs (and a heart yearning for love).
Is this the Great Australian Play we’ve been expecting? Probably not, but as the action enters a series of mystifying loops, we hear snatches of other works that have been accorded that honorific (David Williamson’s The Removalists, for example). As the narrative wheels become more and more wobbly, the actors’ voices are electronically amplified and reverbed. You could be forgiven for wondering if someone had spiked your interval drink.
It makes for diverting if somewhat unsatisfying experience. The performances are appealing, the comedy fitfully clicks. But in the end (and who’s to say if it’s deliberate, given the presence of Lasseter), there’s room to feel like you’ve been lured into investing time and energy into something that isn’t really there.
The Great Australian Play
Presented by Montague Basement & Red Line Productions
Old Fitzroy Theatre, Woolloomooloo, Sydney
Writer: Kim Ho
Story: Kim Ho & Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Director and Sound Designer: Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Designer: Kate Beere
Lighting Designer: Kate Baldwin
The Great Australian Play will be performed until 8 October 2022.