The team be­hind The Hol­low­men and The D-Gen­er­a­tion is tak­ing on US pol­i­tics for the stage, writes Matthew West­wood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

SATIRE is usu­ally un­der­stood to be a send-up or a put-down, but isn’t it also a lit­tle bit like love? The satirist must have a mod­icum of af­fec­tion for his sub­ject — or, fail­ing that, an un­healthy ob­ses­sion — if the com­edy is to take hold. The laugh­ter comes from all those lov­ingly col­lated pe­cu­liar­i­ties of char­ac­ter, di­a­logue and set­ting, dis­torted for comic ef­fect.

This may be why Mel­bourne pro­duc­tion house Work­ing Dog has been so suc­cess­ful in the genre. In the se­ries Front­line and The Hol

low­men, the writer-ac­tor-di­rec­tors lav­ish so much ob­ser­va­tional de­tail on their de­pic­tions of tele­vi­sion cur­rent af­fairs and Can­berra spin­doc­tor­ing, re­spec­tively, that you won­der whether they missed their call­ing in jour­nal­ism or pol­i­tics. The Cas­tle, too, was such a lovely movie be­cause of its sweet ad­mix­ture of send-up and af­fec­tion.

Work­ing Dog’s lat­est en­try in the an­nals of po­lit­i­cal satire is The Speech­maker: not a TV se­ries or film but the team’s first stage play, be­ing pre­sented by Mel­bourne Theatre Com­pany.

We are aboard Air Force One — ac­tu­ally a mock-up of the US pres­i­den­tial air­craft in a south Mel­bourne re­hearsal stu­dio — with the pres­i­dent and his en­tourage of po­lit­i­cal and se­cu­rity ad­vis­ers. The sound­track plays a st­ing of syn­the­siser brass and the ra-ta-tat-tat of a mil­i­tary snare.

A ter­ror­ist at­tack has hap­pened some­where on the ground in Europe, and cer­tain people have been asked to leave the room while a se­cu­rity brief­ing is un­der way, so as to avoid “one of those plau­si­ble de­ni­a­bil­ity sit­u­a­tions”.

“So who’s go­ing?” says the pres­i­dent, played by Erik Thom­son. Ev­ery­one stands. “No, you stay here,” the pres­i­dent says, get­ting the hint. “I’ll grab my moc­cha­c­cino and go up the front.”

The writ­ers — Santo Ci­lauro, Tom Gleis­ner and Rob Sitch — have just sat through their first full re­hearsal of the play since they handed the script to di­rec­tor Sam Strong and let him get on with it. The ba­sic sce­nario is sim­ple: The Speech

maker be­gins and ends with speeches the pres­i­dent gives on the ground, but al­most all of the ac­tion hap­pens mid-flight on Air Force One while “nasty ter­ror stuff” is un­fold­ing on the ground.

“There is some­thing about the her­met­i­cally sealed na­ture of this set­ting: the pres­sure just grows as the events un­fold down be­low and the stakes rise,” says Gleis­ner.

“It’s the com­bi­na­tion of the claus­tro­pho­bia and the pres­sure-cooker at­mos­phere, as well as the fact that they are talk­ing about things that are hap­pen­ing 30,000 feet be­low them,” says Ci­lauro.

“We are re­ally quite en­am­oured with the set­ting,” says Gleis­ner. “We toyed, of course, with ‘Do they land?’ But the more we pro­gressed with the script, the more we felt we’d just keep it in this one lo­ca­tion.” “Sus­pended in space,” says Ci­lauro. Work­ing Dog House is not an ad­dress you will find in the tele­phone book or on the com­pany’s web­site. The head­quar­ters, hid­den in a laneway in Mel­bourne’s Prahran, is so non­de­script as to be anony­mous. There’s no sig­nage or ad­dress on the let­ter­box. Ci­lauro, Gleis­ner and Sitch — the com­pany’s prin­ci­pal writ­ers — clearly pre­fer pri­vacy. As I ap­proach the front door, I try to match each of them with the three ve­hi­cles parked out the front: a Range Rover, a Volvo SUV and a mini Fiat.

In­side, Ci­lauro and Gleis­ner sit around a board­room ta­ble — Sitch is not at the in­ter­view — where they do much of their writ­ing. The

Speech­maker, they say, has been a long time get- ting to the stage. One of the trig­gers for it was the “mis­sion ac­com­plished” tele­vised speech that Ge­orge W. Bush gave aboard USS Abra­ham Lin­coln in May 2003 when he de­clared — pre­ma­turely, it turned out — that the bat­tle of Iraq was won.

Ci­lauro and Gleis­ner were im­pressed with the mas­ter­ful craft­ing of im­age and mes­sage, Ci­lauro see­ing it as an “in­cred­i­ble mar­ket­ing cam­paign”. They started to re­flect on the work of po­lit­i­cal speech­writ­ers and their deft han­dling of lan­guage, even if the care­fully con­structed words some­times had lit­tle ba­sis in truth. The satire of The Speech­maker had its ori­gins in such rhetor­i­cal shock and awe.

“Speech­writ­ers have be­come poet lau­re­ates,” says Ci­lauro. “It’s poets lau­re­ate,” says Gleis­ner. “In a way, we are wowed by the mar­ket­ing and then shocked by the ac­tions. That’s why the play is called The Speech­maker,” says Ci­lauro.

“The pres­i­dent is the cen­tral fo­cus,” says Gleis­ner, “but I think the play points to speech­mak­ers all over, where words and ac­tions just di­verge so fright­en­ingly ... We love do­mes­tic pol­i­tics, as you know, but for a story of this na­ture it had to be a US pres­i­dent.”

Since the Work­ing Dog team and friends first tick­led au­di­ences with their TV sketch show The D-Gen­er­a­tion in the mid-1980s, Ci­lauro, Gleis­ner and Sitch have ven­tured into film, sit­com, talk shows and books. They have never been asked to do po­lit­i­cal speech­writ­ing, al­though Ci­lauro made a doc­u­men­tary film, called The Cam­paign, in which he fol­lowed Paul Keat­ing on the hus­tings in 1996. He re­calls watch­ing as Keat­ing — his speech­writer at the time was Don Wat­son — marked up his speeches and crossed things out.

“It was in­cred­i­ble watch­ing them re­act to the polls and what was go­ing on,” Ci­lauro says. “They were still great speeches, but they were a re­ac­tion to what was re­quired.”

The Speech­maker is the team’s length work for the theatre.

“We be­gan our com­edy ca­reers on the stage, but it was very much in the (univer­sity) re­vue, sketch tra­di­tion,” says Gleis­ner.

“Ev­ery time I go to a play, I just get this itch,” says Ci­lauro. “Not par­tic­u­larly to act — our pas­sion is for writ­ing — but geez, it’s ex­cit­ing. We love what we do for TV and the big screen, but there’s some­thing magic about telling a story in the pres­ence of people.”

“We wrote the play and kicked it around for a few years, and fi­nally de­cided we wanted to make it, but re­alised that we were out of our depth,” says Gleis­ner. “So we ap­proached the MTC, think­ing it would be a good fit, or hoped it would be.”

Strong, MTC as­so­ciate artis­tic di­rec­tor, says the script ar­rived in pretty good shape, and was sub­ject to only the usual tweaks that are made in pro­duc­ing a new play.

“They have a very strong sense of rhythm in the mak­ing of jokes and the mak­ing of satir­i­cal points. It’s about the tim­ing of a par­tic­u­lar re­sponse, or the tim­ing of a non-re­sponse. My job is to use the stage, point of view and fo­cus in the same way that those guys have used a cam­era in their tele­vi­sual works.”

The di­rec­tor, who re­mem­bers watch­ing early episodes of The D-Gen­er­a­tion when he was a school­boy, says he is thrilled that the cel­e­brated team of Mel­bourne com­edy writ­ers is mak­ing its de­but with the lo­cal theatre com­pany.

De­signer Dale Fer­gu­son has made a re­volv­ing set that repli­cates the beige-up­hol­stered, wide-arm seats that are a fea­ture of Air Force One (pic­tures of the air­craft’s in­te­rior are ar­rayed on the wall of the re­hearsal stu­dio). As well as Packed to the Rafters’ Thom­son as pres­i­dent James Bick­ford, the cast in­cludes Kat Ste­wart, Jane Harber and Work­ing Dog alumni Lachy Hulme and David James.

A dis­claimer: The Speech­maker is a work of fic­tion. The world events it de­scribes are in­vented, and the char­ac­ter of the pres­i­dent is based on no one par­tic­u­lar leader. The satire cuts across both sides of US pol­i­tics.

“Erik asked me a few weeks ago, ‘ Am I Repub­li­can or Demo­crat?’ ” says Gleis­ner. “It’s not ob­vi­ous from the script, and the truth­ful an­swer is nei­ther. I said, ‘ Erik, does it mat­ter?’ He said, ‘It’s just the colour of the tie.’ ”



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