The Great Australian Play review – promising playwright's debut satire aims high

Van Badham

Kim Ho is a young Australian playwright who has notched up some impressive career successes. A touching short film he wrote as a teenager went viral, drawing praise from Stephen Fry and Ellen DeGeneres. He’s also won enviable awards, and with them the notice of the main-stage theatre companies.

The premise of his new indy showing at Melbourne’s Theatre Works certainly intrigues. The Great Australian Play promises to explore the Australian legend of Lasseter’s Reef in a “psychedelic romp” of meta theatrics. Ho sends five characters into the desert in search of Ho’s own play about Lasseter. They return, driven mad, with two centuries of exhausted Australian literary tropes.

The challenge of an ironic title like The Great Australian Play is that if you take a swing at what constitutes greatness, you’d better not miss. Alas, Ho does. The Great Australian Play prods at satirising an Australian cultural canon in which the heaviest trope is of non-Indigenous locals terrorised by landscape. But Ho’s fresh takes on a theme that saturates local literature (from Picnic at Hanging Rock to Patrick White’s Voss and The Proposition) get hopelessly lost – not within impenetrable wilderness but amid incoherent structural choices and overwriting, and clumsy stagecraft. How lost? The play is billed at lasting 120 minutes. We were there for 160.

It’s a profound shame, because the idea fighting to get out of the morass is a good one. The extraordinary story of Lasseter’s Reef was spread by one Harold Bell Lasseter, a journeyman opportunist who claimed to have discovered – at some hazy point early in the last century – a vast deposit of gold near the central Australian desert.

At the height of the great depression in 1930, Lasseter managed to raise both £50,000 and fervent hope in an expedition to find the gold and rescue Australia from its poverty. They ran into difficulties, the gold was not found, and the prospecting party denounced Lasseter as a charlatan and abandoned him. His lonely body was found in the desert a year later.

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It’s a strong metaphor for Ho to explore the artistic pursuit of commercial success and its narrow Australian possibility. His contemporary adventurers are a team of four aspirational young film-makers on a concept-development grant researching a Lasseter movie. They play out the characters of the original prospecting party as they try to plot a formula blockbuster.

But the play derails the very second “Lasseter” accompanies them. The direction is so uncertain as to whether he is a ghost, a character in the dynamic experiencing of the improvised film script, a memory, or merely some rando, that the next two hours are spent in confusion – utterly unhelped by lighting design that can’t decide if the audience should be allowed to see things or not. Soon enough scenes crash into one another without schema, dialogue repeats for no ascertainable reason, Ho walks onstage to abuse a portrait of Patrick White, and then Santa turns up.

As a director, Saro Lusty-Cavallari makes an excellent sound designer. By some margin, the sound design is the most effective contribution to the production, its rich tapestry of forgotten songs and barely remembered soundtracks woven together with a deftness that’s conspicuous in comparison to awkward stage placement of actors and props, and interminable exits and entrances.

In lieu of characterisation The Great Australian Play offers drug use, pissing and people taking their tops off, as well as costume design as unsubtle as a “Stop Adani” T-shirt matched with cotton pantaloons. The direction doesn’t give the actors much to do beyond unmodulated shouting, twitching (to strobe lights!) and standing around waiting for a play to happen.

Actor Daniel Fischer shows an energetic potential for comedy that’s consistently misdirected into stage mania. Tamara Lee Bailey seizes at two isolated monologues in the script that allow her to actually do some acting and delivers moments so beautiful that while they can’t save this play they do rescue Ho’s reputation as a writer of potential. These moments prove he can turn a line – and while his emerging theatrical ideas aren’t coherent in The Great Australian Play, it’s cause for some excitement that he’s having them.

For that reason, if you have a spare 160 minutes and the curiosity, The Great Australian Play is worth a visit. Not because it’s great but because it illustrates in one or two strong moments amid its failed experiments what a long and difficult expedition the pursuit of greatness really is.

The Great Australian Play is at Theatre Works in St Kilda, Melbourne until 29 February