Camilla Ah Kin, David Roberts and Tony Llewellyn-Jones in The Hansard Monologues

In what seems to be a growing body of verbatim theatre, The Hansard Monologues enters the fray. A co-production sponsored by Seymour, Merrigong and Casula Powerhouse, it charts the matters of public importance that emerged over the last three years of minority government.

The HM was conceived and produced by former Sydney Morning Herald editor Peter Fray; written by Katie Pollock and Paul Daley. If you’re even vaguely inclined to pollie-watching, there’s likely to be quite a lot that’s familiar, as if certain utterances and speeches, bidden or unbidden, are still rattling ’round in your head. I can barely begin to imagine what trawling through three years of the official parliamentary record to edit the highlights must’ve been like, although perhaps this parliament has been, for all sorts of reasons, more consistently memorable than most; or, at least, more closely scrutinised by the media scrum.

For me, one of the most extraordinary discoveries was that Tony Abbott is vaguely capable of the odd verbal punch (who knew?!), albeit often a cruel and childish one. “As she comes into parliament, it’s almost as if she’s trying to earn frequent liar points.” Guess to whom he was referring.

Despite the winter hiatus, thanks to this work, it’s as if federal parliament had never risen (even if it all too rarely rises above the level of debate exemplified above). This is the sitting we have when we’re not having a sitting. And you might as well get used to it, because there’s optimistic talk of it being a serial event. We’ll see.

The play (if it can be called that) raises interesting questions, in terms of theatrical presentation alone. For example, had the director (Seymour artistic director Tim Jones) importuned his actors (Camilla Ah Kin, Tony Llewellyn-Jones and David Roberts) to impersonate the sometimes colourful and sometimes colourless coterie of characters that populate the houses on the hill, we might’ve ended up with a sort of recapitulation of The Wharf Revue; but without the satire, other than the unwitting self-parody that so often pertains to the political ‘class’.

The directorial philosophy is, on the evidence, still a little unclear, however. Admittedly, if the records had been read in the actors’ own voices, this overly long production would’ve been too dry. As it is, it tends, at time towards an academic desiccation, only of interest to hardcore political junkies (of which, luckily for me, I’m one). What the creatives have done is, I s’pose, pick their moments. So, Llewellyn-Jones really ramps and camps it up, when it comes to Christopher Pyne, emulating gestures and his  poncy, histrionic tone, which smacks, so annoyingly, of school prefect and playground dobber. The actor just couldn’t help himself, it seems. And who can blame him? It’s a stab at a caricature almost too good to pass up, justified by plenty of laughs of recognition. For mine, it’s not that the cartoon drawn is so terribly accurate. Pyne is an easy mark, so even a half-hearted attempt can pretty much nail him.

Llewellyn-Jones actually did better, if to less cackling acclaim, with his other charges. But it fell to David Roberts to distil essences of character. Both of his balance-of-power independents, Windsor and Oakeshott, are right on. It’s not that he mimics them; rather, he picks up on their very particular cadences. Ah Kin takes a different route. In an argument advanced during ‘question time’, after the opening night performance at Seymour, Ah Kin spoke of her determination to remove Julia’s drawl, thus removing a customary source of ridicule, one almost programmed in us by now, by some triumph of Pavlovian doctrine. The argument holds up well in practice: the suspension of Juliaism allows us undivided focus on the content of her misogyny speech, for example. It’s a very dignified presentation and serves as a lasting homage to the recently deposed PM. Which raises another spectre; albeit one common, I should think, to ‘verbatim’ theatre per se, which proves to be something of a misnomer. The spectre being that no matter to what extent, lesser or greater, an actor inhabits a character, our perceptions of that character will be almost inevitably, if not certainly  and irrevocably altered by the very fact of portrayal. That’s what makes it theatre. The text is what makes it verbatim. But definitions aren’t enough for, overall, even for the ardent, the premise for this production is questionable, as is the result.

The premise is questionable inasmuch as if this is to stand as some sort of approximate record, in itself, of the 43rd Parliament, deferential to educational objectives as much as theatrical ones, perhaps mainstream public performance isn’t its best outlet. And the fact is that when we heard the voices of actual pollies, be it Gillard, Wilkie, or someone else, those voices tended to be more compelling than the actors performing as pollies. Which begs yet another question. Why not just edit footage of the highlights and make it a docudrama, of sorts? Why the theatre, or a theatre, when the parliament itself makes for a much better one?

While the stage props (lecterns, essentially) were used imaginatively, so as to endow some dynamics to what amounts to a static reading, the presence of a massive screen, overhead, was of dubious merit, since only a fraction of its area was utilised, to emblazon the identity of the pollie speaking. This could’ve been done much less obtrusively, a la opera surtitles. Otherwise, if you’re going to have a big screen, use it. Let’s see photos, or cartoons, or something. Perhaps this lack of visual imagination explains why the producers didn’t go the docudrama route.

For tragics like me (and I’m not sure how many of us there are), The Hansard Monologues is of primary interest. But even I found it waxed and waned. Yes, there is considerable inevitability, given that it relies on actual utterances, which may or may not be imbued with the pith or wit we might generally prefer for theatrical purposes. But this comes back to editing, surely. A more ruthless red pen is in order.

If The Hansard Monologues (well-branded) is to have a really bright future, I think it might have to err more towards theatre and less in the direction of academic rigour; which I question in any case, for, much as we had a reasonably representative representation of our representatives, where was Swanny? Barnaby? The Katter in the hat? And, ah, the Ruddbot? The shopping list is still longer. Albo. Garrett. Shorten. Et al.

Still and all, we had truly riveting highlights. You don’t have to do anything to Corey Bernardi to make him look, or sound like an alien, from another planet. His ideas and words are quite enough. His is a terrifying presence, particular given the clear-and-present danger of him actually becoming part of a government. His outrage at the prospect of gay marriage, the sanction of which he likens to rubber-stamping bestiality, makes for grim comedy. The grimmest. Similarly, Ron Boswell’s self-made buffoonery needs no embellishment. As well as giving good Gillard, Ah Kin has her finger on the pulse of Wongsy, as well.

The Hansard Monologues might be considered A Disengaged Voter’s Guide to the Forthcoming Election, or Australian Politics for Dummies, or something, but, even then, it succeeds only in covering some of the issues, reasonably well. But, really, it’s a virtually impossible brief. I’m not sure theatre can be comprehensive (even if the likes of Version 1.0 tend to demonstrate otherwise). And I’m not sure capriciousness is such an evil trait for theatre to possess. Without selectivity, it risks being mere journalism. And we know how mundane that can be.

The details: The Hansard Monologues played the York Theatre, Seymour Centre on July 23-27.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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