The Great Australian Play (Theatre Works) – theatre review

The Great Australian Play is a thoroughly bewildering take on Australian history – specifically one of this country’s most alluring legends – and contemporary Australia.

Photos by Jack Dixon-Gunn

Of the former, I speak of a vast gold-bearing deposit in the MacDonnell Ranges in the Northern Territory purportedly discovered by Harold Lasseter around the turn of the 19th century. After nearly perishing from the heat and lack of supplies at that time, Lasseter – a prospector – lived a full life, travelling to the USA, marrying and fathering five children.

He returned to Australia and attempted to raise sufficient funds for what became an ill-fated 1930 expedition. That is when Lasseter set off to re-locate his “lost” reef. He was labelled a charlatan and fell out with a number of his party – finally left to his own devices, only to perish. His emaciated remains were found in a remote desert cave in early 1931.

Writer Kim Ho‘s great grandfather Fred Blakeley was originally a friend of Harold Lasseter and led and backed Lasseter’s expedition. While writing The Great Australian Play, Ho’s previous work, Mirror’s Edge – a comedy drama about cross cultural encounters – received the prestigious Patrick White Playwright Award.

Mind you, one scathing review of Mirror’s Edge accused Ho of presenting a romanticised and sanitised revision of Australian history, failing to implicate the perpetrators of colonial violence. So, you could argue that with this work Ho gets his own back, presenting a deeply scathing view and linking it to literary giant White, as well as to the emptiness and shallowness of Australia today.

It is a deeply cynical and satirical – at times hilarious – play, but it is mighty confusing. From what I can make out, in the first act filmmakers are trying to pitch a palatable story to receive funding for a film about Lasseter’s expedition, only they are continually met by rejection. An imaginary party of five is eventually dispatched to the desert – the stage is filled with red sand – to retrace the expedition’s steps. They begin inventing elements – including introducing a Nazi dingo sculptor and ancient evil force – to elevate the modern-day appeal of the yarn. What the?

Each of the performers plays more than one role. Undoubtedly the most “in your face” is Daniel Fischer, who lights up the stage every time he is the centre of attention. His style of delivery suits the piece, with hyper-enthusiasm and exaggeration the keys. He is like the kid who has drunk far too much red cordial.

I am far from convinced about the artistic merit of The Great Australian Play. Decidedly art-house in style, I saw it as an elongated, scrambled, psychedelic, esoteric mess that I simply didn’t understand. I would need to sit with the playwright to gain further insight … and to me a production needs to stand and say something readily decipherable in its own right. Instead, I walked out thinking “my head hurts”. Sure, Ho has the ability to shock, stir and provoke, but I am afraid that wasn’t anywhere near enough for me.

Two hours plus a 20 minute interval, The Great Australian Play – directed by Saro Lusty-Cavallari – is on at Theatre Works until 29th February, 2020. Please note that in preparing this review I referenced an article by Tim The Yowie Man in The Canberra Times on March 17th, 2015.

Alex First

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