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Sydney performance

Duplicity, complicity, hybridity

Keith Gallasch

version 1.0, Wages of Spin version 1.0, Wages of Spin
photo Heidrun Löhr
The Wages of Spin is ethically immersive. Sydney’s version 1.0 toss you in the moral deep end. At the show’s conclusion you come up, if not gasping at, then certainly contemplating your complicity in Australia’s reign of terror at home and abroad. Version 1.0 make it perfectly clear where they stand politically but, true to form in an already impressive body of work for a young company, their position is nuanced, blending blunt politicking, wicked satire and, pervasively, subtle inversion of expectation.

You enter a simulated TV show, passing a blindfolded man being interrogated by the media as he walks between upturned nails—but he’s not an Iraqi in Abu Ghraib, he’s our Minister of Defence. Shortly, with your fellow audience members, you are video-taped ‘pre-show’ applauding wildly for nothing in particular only to see yourselves later rapturuously framing an electorally victorious John Howard. Not me, you want to say, but too late. As with the election, we let it happen.

The power of The Wages of Spin resides in the totality of its vision and its expert realisation. Performance Space becomes a TV studio replete with mobile TV monitors, a control bank of screens, sound desk, musician, studio staff and a huge dominating screen that completes the sense of actual broadcast. The version 1.0 Wages of Spin logo turns beneath outsize images of the action played out before us, mixed with footage of warmongering and scrolling death statistics. The 3 performers play a range of politicians, TV presenters and Delta Goodrem, rarely resorting to direct mimickry (the John Clarke model of focusing on the semantic weaponry the politician wields as opposed to Max Gillies’ too precise imitations).

The studio setting amplifies how totally media frames the presentation of politics as bites, as entertainments, as half-baked debates helping ever more adept politicians spin their webs of deception. Characters are wheeled into position, switch on attitudes in an instant, exit out-of-frame like puppets, disappear as screens move past them or box them in, and look more impressive, more monstrous, on the big screen than as the small humans flailing about immediately before us. It’s not long before you are giddy with spin, even though you’ve heard it all before—but not like this. It frees you from the web to hear the all-too-obvious lies repeated, but moreso when a smug politician like Robert Hill cracks, caught in a loop of his own inept weaving.

version 1.0’s previous success, CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident), was similarly based on verbatim materials, but for the most part drew on one document and one event—the record of the Senate inquiry into ‘the children overboard affair.’ For most of its audience the material—the verbatim moral illogic of parliamentarians—was revelatory. There was also a sense of something monstrous, which for all of the Labor senators’ efforts to break through the web of lies and obsfucation, could not be breached—with a sense of ensuing moral exhaustion, relieved only by the comedy of the senators’ personalities and wranglings. The Wages of Spin is framed as an anchor-less TV news program, a series of media vignettes in which reporters report, politicians babble and writhe before Ray Martin and Kerry O’Brien, and Delta Goodrem plays victim while Iraqui war-dead are ignored, Major-General Peter Cosgrove talks over a box of yawling kittens and right-wing columnists prattle on about the failure of the opposition to the war. An angry, if ironic voice from Newtown angsts over the Howard victory, despairing over feeling alienated from the majority of Australians.

David Williams excels as the voice of dubious authority in various guises (miming a John Howard speech at one point); Stephen Klinder is wonderful as an unhinged Robert Hill and also as a rattled reporter working from cue cards to deliver a quickfire recent history of elections, war and terror; and Deborah Pollard does a funny, giggly Goodrem (cruelly intercut with Iraq war images) as well as grim, defeated Labor voter (although her ‘everything is fucked’ speech would have benefited from the detached style she so successfully exploited in CMI).

The focus on 3 transforming performers, the hightly integrated TV broadcast setting with its constantly inventive screen reframings (with a hyperactive but adroitly low profile studio staff) and a galvanising live guitar-driven score from Gail Priest, give The Wages of Spin cohesion. So too do the recurring litanies of spin, images of torture, the rolling out of statistics and various ‘media magic’ stagings strengthen a structure that threatens to fall in to skit-ishness. In its first realisation The Wages of Spin is not quite as taut, consistent and powerful as it could be. Oddly, the show’s most potent images come early on, first as we enter the studio to encounter the blind-folded man walking through nails and secondly when we are videotaped. The first image, played out as the audience is being seated, is sustained, anxiety-making and complex in a way that nothing else is that comes after. The second image has Klinder preparing us for the taping, but instead of facing us, he’s at the other end of the studio talking to the big screen version of us—the effect of the inversion on the audience is palpable with the realisation that we’ve been ‘mediated’, mere cyphers of ourselves, and, as it turns out, dupes. Thereafter we’re just an audience,

The Wages of Spin is an immaculately realised hybrid of performance and electronic media, and one of the best I’ve witnessed, with much of the credit going to video artist Sean Bacon. My only reservation is about the show’s ending surrendering to the filmic side of the hybrid, with a list of the war dead rolling down the screen. Sure, the point is that this information should defeat the spin we’ve heard iterated across the show, but it’s like watching a documentary in a cinema rather than feeling the power of integrated live action and video that’s worked so effectively to this point. It’s feels like a doco cliché and it belongs with the performative cliches that occasionally infect The Wages of Spin—like litanies and running. They should go the way of unadorned Suzuki stomping, old bathtubs, piles of shoes, suitcases and dead leaves, into the bin of performance history unless you can do something very special with them.

The Wages of Spin is a bizarre, self-lacerating entertainment, where you have to be prepared to laugh and grimace in turn at the lunacy of brutally effective spin and its perpetrators, at yourself if you’re taken in, or for letting them get away with blatant untruths. As a reminder of how we’ve arrived at this most culpable of moments in our national history, where there are no excuses, and as a model of multimedia performance, The Wages of Spin is mandatory viewing.

Suzan Lori-Parks is a major American playwright. Even her overtly didactic In the Blood is driven by wonderful dialogue, populated with idiosyncratic characters and blessed with suspenseful construction. Director Tanya Denny has realised Park’s grim vision of an embattled black mother and her children with a poetic intensity that rises above the comforts of naturalism, a fine cast who get the American accents and rhythms right in a way the big theatre companies invariably don’t, and a superb central performance from Candy Bowers (of Sista She and a NIDA graduate, 2001). One of 2005’s best in Sydney as well as part of a strong B Sharp program

Emma J Cooper and Kiruna Stamell are engaging performers (see page 47). They make the most of the opportunities offered by Genet’s The Maids (director Paul Barry) to play out the permutations of a power fantasy with spontaneity and an acuity of interpretation. Less convincing is the relationship with their mistress (Beccy Iland), who, save a physical facility to aptly treat her short-statured co-performers like children (dragging them along, picking them up, tossing them onto the bed), lacks the psychological power to kick the drama onto another level—it’s as if nothing is happening to her. As well, the heavy-handed underlining of each of the maids’ role-playing scenes with music unfortunately undercuts the performers’ vocal reach. Nonetheless there is something eerily right in the ‘dance’ that comprises the relationship between the maids. Cooper and Stamell are performers to watch out for.

Louise Fox’s This Little Piggy updates Animal Farm into the early 21st century. The farm has become a clinic and some of its more-equal-than-other inhabitants are experimenting genetically on one another, until the plug is pulled on the project. Although adroitly directed (Benjamin Winspear) and visually realised (Ralph Myers, Gabriela Tylesova) and with some fine performances, the play’s a bigger problem than the issues. Too much of the first part is wearyingly expository, the next (a shadow play) re-enacts the Animal Farm story that inspired it (why?), and the last part withers away just when we thought that Matthew Whittet’s fine ‘Pig’ would get the opportunity to do battle with Nicholas Hope’s under-written executive, ‘Eagle.’ But, no go.

version 1.0, The Wages of Spin, devised & performed by Stephen Klinder, Deborah Pollard, David Williams, dramaturgy Paul Dwyer, outside eye Yana Taylor, lighting Simon Wise, video Sean Bacon, sound Gail Priest, producer Harley Stumm; Performance Space, May 20-June 5

Atypical Theatre/Two Hour Traffic, Fig Tree Theatre, UNSW, June 1-18

Sydney Theatre Company Blueprints Program, Wharf 2, from June 15

Belvoir St Downstairs, May 19-June 5

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 44

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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