The Great Australian Play, playing at Theatre Works draws on the myth of Lasseter’s Reef to examine the way Australians create stories. In doing so, it raises some important questions. Whom among us are the storytellers? Who do we tell stories about? And of course, who do we create them for? In a production billed as a satirical, psychedelic romp, writer, Kim Ho and director, Saro Lusty Cavallari take aim at the colonial foundations of Australian myths. It’s an incredibly ambitious piece punctuated with tongue in cheek vignettes and jokes paying homage to Australian art and film. Ultimately though, in spite of a charismatic cast and energetic soundtrack, the work falls flat.
The piece opens on the Australian outback. A dream like figure glides across a blood red earth as an unseen narrator recites a monologue from Harold Bell Lasseter’s perspective. He tells the story of finding a “golden reef” and sheds light on the obsession it sparks within him. Visually, the scene is incredibly effective, but it’s drawn out for far too long with little to no change in pace.
The dreamscape finally gives way to a group of filmmakers dissecting an email from Screen Australia. They’ve failed in their bid to fund a film based on Lasseter’s quest to find the reef, but they have been granted a small amount of money to cover a trip to the dessert to research their project. At this point, it looks like the story is about to gain some much needed momentum.
The setup is promising. The group stands silhouetted against the outback, preparing themselves for an epic challenge, as Wolfmother blasts from every direction. But what follows is disappointing. The filmmakers set about the business of extracting a story from their source material. This story proves as elusive as Lasseter’s Reef itself, as the characters discover how much is missing from the history books.
One character, played by Sarah Fitzgerald, fights to include more detail about Micky in their story about Lasseter’s reef. Her colleagues appear to agree with the sentiment, but there is very little known about him, because he was the aboriginal tracker on Lasseter’s expedition. As such, historians failed to investigate his perspective. (So much so that I can’t confirm the correct spelling of his name). This leaves the present day artists with very little to work with.
This idea, like all of the ideas driving The Great Australian Play, is solid, but is let down by the first act’s theatre games-y structure and over-reliance on expositional dialogue to drive the story.
The script spends the hour before intermission tugging feebly at the threads that hold the myth of Lasseter’s Reef together but fails to untangle anything tangible.
After intermission, The Great Australian Play takes a sharp turn into surrealism, with far more compelling results than the first act. Up until this point, the cast have done well with what they have to work with, but now they are free to show off their abilities.
Tamara Lee Bailey shines in her portrayal of Lasseter’s daughter. She and her brother were left behind when he set off on his quest.
Jessa Koncic sustains an incredible performance in a twitching, zombie like state, her heart stolen by a mythical creature called The Twitcher.
Because of its non-linear structure, it’s difficult to outline the second act in great detail – except to say that it opens on a “play within a play”. Personally, I found that this format articulated the ideas underlying the narrative with much greater effect than the first act.
In its final moments, The Great Australian Play, finally realises its potential.
A family holds hands with Father Christmas around the dinner table, their heads bowed as the say grace. As the light fades, the instrumental swell of Waltzing Matilda gives way to the sound of a didgeridoo. Behind them, a lone aboriginal figure turns from his campfire to stare at us. This moment is an absolute gem, drawing on all the visual, aural and intellectual tools at a theatre maker’s disposal. It’s only now that the performance drives home its point. There’s no telling “the great Australian play” without the perspective of the first nations people.