THE TEAM BEHIND THE D-GENERATION TAKES ON U.S. POLITICS
The team behind The Hollowmen and The D-Generation is taking on US politics for the stage, writes Matthew Westwood
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.’ ”