Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s Bogga begins with a rent-a-crowd supported riot at Brisbane’s infamous Boggo Road Gaol; it’s one of the ‘80s riots probably provoked by the university 4ZZZ radio station as was seemingly the norm, soundtracked by songs of the ‘Pig City’ sort. And the old Cement Box Theatre proves to be the perfect location from which to experience it as things are thrown from the gantries and sounds boom from above in an almost surround-sound experience for audiences in the centre of the action.
The new work by Rob Pensalfini uses verbatim oral histories to explore the decline and fall of the infamous Bjelke-Petersen regime through the microcosm of Queensland’s notorious Boggo Road Gaol in the 1970s and 1980s. Arising from historian Chris Dawson’s record of oral histories from a dozen former guards and prisoners, the work recounts not only riots, murders, corruption and escapes, but the hum-drum of daily prison life in the world within the walls. And after its initial scenes, it settles more into itself in subsequent segments, including interesting profile of famous face inmates (prisoners as they were called then), including Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub fire-bombers James Richard Finch and John Andrew Stuart, actor and professional wrestler Nathan Jones and old-timer ‘Slim’ Halliday, The Houdini of Boggo Road.
Interesting too are the corruption stories of the Sir Joh era, when prisons were prioritised along with police, despite then being separate political portfolios. But things lag a little towards the end of Act One in reflection of the callous attitude that prisoners had to assume. Indeed, although there has obviously been years of work in curating the real life contributions (all of the words and events in the play come directly from the oral histories without addition or alteration), content could be culled from the repetition amongst the real-life recollections to enable a tighter production. Still, Bogga is an excellent example of verbatim theatre, with direct address of the audience adding the obvious authenticity of dialogue like “I whacked him and he let go because I whacked him.”
Under long-time Core Ensemble member Rebecca Murphy’s direction, staging makes good use of all aspects of the Geoffrey Rush Drama Studio space, even spilling ideas into the foyer where audience members can contribute graffiti to the walls. And music is a highlight, deserving of the thoughtful inclusion of song and artist list in the program, alongside a handy Bogga slang guide.
The small cast features some standout performances. Paige Poulier is impressively imposing as a Boggo Road guard and Chris Vaag is excellent in all sorts of multi-roles, from cleanskin criminal without a previous record to long term, foul-mouthed and full-of-venom deviant.
The years of work in development of Bogga are not only apparent but clearly have been rewarded with an interesting show about an interesting place that stood the test of some interesting times in this state’s history. As an anthropological artefact, its value is immense. As a work of theatre it is at turns humorous and chilling. Combined, it is well worth the attention of anybody with even passing interest in the notorious heritage prison’s incredible history in particular or the city’s fascinating history in general.
Venue: Geoffrey Rush Drama Studio
Dates: 8 – 18 November 2017
For more of Meredith Walker’s theatre reviews, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane.