Review: Godzone ~ theatre notes

Monday, December 14, 2009

Review: Godzone

At what point does politics move beyond parody? Maybe when you have a Prime Minister who looks as if he belongs in a Lego set, and who ought to be reported to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to English.

Kevin Rudd can shift mid-sentence from warning of "incremental bifurcation" in the Asia-Pacific region (while, of course, needing to "work within the extant political vocabulary with China's national discourse") to his notorious manglings of outdated Australian slang ("fair shake of the sauce bottle").

Weld these together with cliches ("working families", "decisive action", "at the end of the day"), acronyms and buzz words ("synergies", "outcomes", "reverse engineering") and mixed metaphors ("preglacial position"), and you have a Teflon-coated PR machine that evades satire by overtaking it.

Its effectiveness can be seen in Godzone, Guy Rundle and Max Gillies's political satire now playing at the Melbourne Theatre Company. "Let's go for gold!" says Gillies's Rudd. "Let's optimise programmativity!" And it sounds just as boring and incomprehensible as Rudd himself.

It's a measure of the hyperreality of contemporary politics that satire in the noughties moved to featuring the politicians themselves. American comedians Steve Colbert and Jon Stewart invite politicians to be interviewed on their shows. The Chasers were regulars at Canberra press conferences.

The show that most successfully captures the white noise of the political machine - the brilliant ABC series The Hollow Men - doesn't feature politicians at all.

It's a dilemma for a satirist who, like Gillies, has made his name by impersonating politicians. The humour of his mimicry of Bob Hawke, Andrew Peacock and John Howard depended on both the startle of recognition and a recognisable gap between the reality and the portrayal.

The absurd exaggerations reflected back on their originals, prompting us to see them in a different light. But when impersonation can't prompt this frisson, it loses its bite.

It's why The 7.30 Report satirists John Clarke and Bryan Dawe, who don't rely at all on mimicry, still hit their targets: there's a cognitive dissonance at play that spikes their wit with the necessary unreality.

Godzone, on the other hand, seems like an 1980s television skit expanded to the stage. It is as if theatre is where television goes to die.

The set-up is a feel-good public conference, rather like Rudd's 2020 Summit but with added religiosity, where the PM introduces a brace of contemporary political figures to address the audience.

In between perorations from the lectern from Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and various commentators such as Andrew Bolt and Christopher Hitchens, Gillies rushes offstage to apply a new false nose and funny wig. We are then treated to a series of video sketches, "live" interviews with Malcolm Turnbull or Noel Pearson, or ads from the "sponsors".

The best of these was a vision of hell, or Liberal Party HQ, complete with shadowy Ku Klux Klan figures and swinging light bulbs. There was a YouTube aesthetic here - perhaps stemming from budgetry limitations - that rather undermined the effectiveness of others. Corporate PR gloss doesn't come cheap.

The blandness of the New Left - impregnably smug, impeccably coiffed and upholstered in incomprehensible jargon - creates a smooth, all-reflecting surface that simply doesn't give the purchase for this kind of satire. It's telling that the most successful sketches - Barnaby Joyce as a used car salesman, Gerard Henderson arguing with his local video store - are of the rough-hewn conservatives.

Gillies's impersonations don't always hit the mark either. Rudd is reduced to a pout, Abbott to a pair of Billy McMahon ears, and Julia Gillard - the least successful of all - is a spinsterish school teacher with "man hands" brazening out her secondary role as Rudd's henchwoman.

The portrayal of Bolt made me reflect that parody always includes a modicum of homage. Rundle's script made Bolt seem the most intelligent of the lot: its scathing caricature of left-wing inner-city suburbanites possessed a wit Bolt's columns signally lack.

The most mystifying - nay, bizarre - was Hitchens, who tells a meandering Boys Own story of meeting Osama Bin Laden in the Hindu Kush (didn't I read something like that in Robert Fisk's book The Great War for Civilisation?) and finishes with an account of being raped by Arabs. Which is why, he declaims, it was right to invade Iraq.

Hitchens as Lawrence of Arabia? Well, maybe - at a stretch - there's something in that, but here it's just a cheap punchline. And those allusions - if that's what they are - have no force at all in the format of sketch satire.

None of this is helped by Aidan Fennessy's static direction. Rundle and Gillies's last collaboration, The Big Con, featured Eddie Perfect crooning a series of cabaret numbers ("Don't be so damn September 10!") and was a lot more dynamic. Here the switching from lectern to screen gets monotonous and most of the set is simply flashy decor.

For those who have enjoyed the Gillies-Rundle combo before, this is a disappointing outing. It's a bad sign when the program is funnier than the show.

This review is in today's Australian.

Godzone, by Guy Rundle, directed by Aidan Fennessy. Set and costumes Shaun Gurton, lighting design by Matt Scott, sound design by Darrin Verhagen. With Max Gillies, Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Sumner Theatre, MTC Theatre, until January 17.


Jetsetting Joyce (MEL: HOT OR NOT) said...

Oh no! I'm booked to see Godzone in January. Your review hasn't given me any comfort that it will be at least halfway decent. What a shame.

Jetsetting Joyce

Alison Croggon said...

You never know, Joyce - things can happen after opening night. Or you might like it anyway!

Anonymous said...

Generally Max Gillies = Gold.
Sadly this is not the case in Godzone, in fact I quite often found myself thinking "this is two hours of my life that I will never get back".
Perhaps it's because I was expecting so much, this is Max Gillies and Rundle after all, that I was so disappointed.
A few chuckles yes, but generally it was just plain disappointing

Anonymous said...

I sat through the first hour and left at the interval. I wasn't prepared to lose another hour of my life!

Brutally unfunny and the worst MTC show of the 2009 season.

Anonymous said...

Ignore the naysayers. This was really pretty damn good. If you're a long time Crikey reader and enjoy Rundle 90% of the time, or you're just a political junkie, then the chances are you will probably like this just fine.

It's true some bits were more clumsy than others, but I cannot help but feel that the OP glossed over or ignored many of the best bits. For example, Turnbull misdirected to different venue? Noel Pearson on his 'charm offensive' unable to resist indulging his invective at the audience whilst explaining the big tent he has assembled to tackle progress in indigenous affairs? Hitchen's glib moral certainty about Iraq which is sophistry dressed up as insufferably petty and personalised grievance with religion.

What does it even mean to say Rudd was reduced to a pout, anyway? There was nothing pouty about the dialogue or the performance. It was a perfect send up. From the little salute, to his bureaucratic tendencies, the underlying unsubtly of his childhood narrative as the boy living out of a car in Nambour and his propensity for cultural ostentation with languages. The mangle of bureaucratic wonk-speak with bad Australianism was 100% spot on.

Also how was the Abbott's caricature just about big ears? Did the OP perhaps miss the clever undertones of his religious dialogue with God as ultimate arbiter - which was an entirely circular justification for his leadership. Or the way it dealt with his sexism?

It wasn't perfect by any means, but it was far more than than a set of poorly written sketches as portrayed above.