*.5 stars

By Sue-Anne Hess

Award-winning playwright Kim Ho’s creation is a two-hour epic play about (no surprises here) Australia. Despite having always thought it a bit presumptuous to includes the word “great” in the title of anything, I went with an open mind. It was safe to assume that this would be a satire.

I had never been to Theatreworks before, but had heard good things. I was surprised then, to arrive and find half of the audience gathered outside the building, as the remainder waited in an overcrowded entry area. When the doors finally opened (twenty minutes late), we were ushered into an equally cramped space which, we were advised, had a total lockout policy once the play had commenced. Seemed a little harsh to me, but I was still willing to give it a go.

And so, it started well. The cast came out of the gate fast and furious, with sharp, snappy dialogue, positioning us nicely for a very funny night. References to modern Australian culture mixed in with self-deprecating jabs at the theatre industry got great laughs from what appeared to be a largely sympathetic audience. Yet too many of the punchlines seemed to be “insider” jokes, resulting in half of the room in stitches, and the rest wondering what we had missed.

The play is in two parts. The first, set around the time of the Great Depression, features a small band of characters who have taken off for a “research trip” investigating the claims of one Harold Bell Lassetter. Their intention is to make a name for themselves, and Lassetter’s tale of a secret gold “reef” in the middle of the desert seems to be the key. As this quirky crew bakes under the boiling desert sun, their reality becomes increasingly twisted, like a slow descent into insanity.

We’re told that the second part is set in the current day (although there is nothing within the play that reflects this). Flashbacks to the desert expedition are mingled with a new, repeated scene involving a very strange family and Father Christmas. And then it got even stranger. Before the show is over, we see a wildly confusing cameo by the playwright himself, which seemed to be nothing but pure self-congratulation. I ended up with a headache trying to understand what was happening. Throughout the show, there is some undercurrent of a message regarding the First Peoples of Australia, and the play ends on this note, but I’m not sure what the message was meant to be.

Whatever they were trying to do, they did with conviction. The performances by the tiny five-member cast were sophisticated, with each actor taking on multiple roles. There seemed to be a natural chemistry between them, which made the group scenes engaging to watch. Light and sound effects played a major part in this production, and the creative usage of a rear screen for light projections and shadow added a layer of depth to the scene. Similarly, the sound effects successfully created suspense and irony, reminding the audience that what we were seeing was not really what we were seeing.

So, whatever the point, it was lost on me. The Great Australian Play is described as a “psychedelic romp through the myths of our glorious nation’s past, present and imagined future”, but aside from the usual anti-establishment metaphors around diversity and the perils of the creative journey, there was not much that could be described as memorable.

Bottom line: I didn’t get it.

set: 4/5, costumes: 3/5, Sound: 4/5, lighting: 4.5/5, performances 4/5, stage management: 4/5, direction 4/5