By Ben Eltham
Cast: Louise Brehmer, Jonathan Brand, Lucas Stibbard, Amin Deering
The Pacific Solution brings the issue of asylum seekers in Australia right onto our suburban couches. My initial response was that this play is a worthy effort, if rather slight at only 50 minutes, and the actors do their best by it. They successfully make the point that many yobbo, cricket-loving, beer-swilling Aussies couldn’t care less for the big issues as long as she’ll be right mate in their own backyards and lounge rooms. The postcard that passes for a program cites The Pacific Solution as Ben Eltham’s first play, and it would have been helpful to have more information about him, rather than resort to good old Google. There we learn that he’s “a Brisbane-based writer, critic and musician. He is a former State Library of Queensland Young Writer of the Year, plays in a hip-hop band, Briztronix, and reviews music and theatre regularly for The Courier-Mail. Ben is the Business Manager of Straight Out of Brisbane Festival.” His play, with acute eye and ear, brings us the downside of the Australian psyche and politics.
The minimalist program means I can’t tell you more about the performers’ experience except that they’re billed as a “multi-award-winning local cast” and they appear to have all had a degree of professional experience. Thus, it’s even unclear which actors played Phil and Johnny. However, the actors all did their darndest; the conchy, serious and uptight law student Phil was very serious, very conchy and uptight to the point of being anal. The amiable ocker blokey servo server was a lovably amiable, thoroughly ocker bloke. Mandy (Louise Brehmer) who processes Centrelink claims all day, showed more switched-on tendencies, more aware and thoughtful than the men, but still not prepared to stand up to them by stepping over the line to help a needy refugee.
The play opens as Johnny and Mandy settle on the vinyl couch for the Friday all-night telecast of the Ashes, helped along with plenty of beer and a cone of pot. They banter idly about the respective merits of various beers and cricketers and Johnny rips into his hate-lists of dole-bludgers, hippies, feminists, lefties “who are paid to organise protests, my taxes pay for that.” It’s all topical with dollops of information, courtesy of Alan Jones, about petrol prices and the government’s 40% GST fuel excise and the greenhouse myth. Mandy makes a few small efforts to pull him into line over the word “bongs” though “abos” seems OK and so does his assertion that white people give money to support their petrol sniffing habits – we note the irony here as the marijuana bong goes back and forth companionably. She does venture into deep and meaningful territory by asking what he’d wanted to do after school. “Cricket”, of course. “No, when you finish school, I mean.” He looks blank but eventually points out there are only so many places in a cricket team. Such probing draws a defensive “do not question my lifestyle!” and “don’t f-ing manipulate me.”
Eltham assembles a deft grab bag of the nation’s myopia guised in Johnny’s big-hearted wash of tolerance (“I can cop the odd poofter or two.”) After all they contribute to the economy, (fashion designers and hairdressers are the new plumbers, earning $70 or $80 an hour), unlike bloody uni students and dole-bludgers. He reflects that it must be cheaper being a homo as they have fewer expenses – some pinot noir, a few condoms.
Into this, punctuated with occasional roars over runs and wickets, walks Phil, fresh from university classes and heading for his desk to study. He makes a lengthy point, trying out words like > unconscionable and > reprehensible , and pointing out that marijuana is a Schedule 1 illegal drug and those three joints a day ruin lungs and short term memory. Johnny counters that lawyers are a bunch of parasites to which Phil pompously says he’s studying law “to try and help people of other nations” – an assertion which is tested and failed when into their relaxed Friday night stumbles a Muslim man (Amin Deering) who begs: “I need a place to stay, I need a job, I wish to apply for asylum.”
Johnny’s first reaction, “I’m not the stinking government”, is pure blind-eye but then he compounds the situation by bashing the refugee’s head against a wall in a scuffle. It’s now deemed a home invasion and the hapless man is shoved into a cupboard while they argue their way out of the inconvenient problem.
All the stock phrases are trotted out – we’ve got to have procedures in place or we’ll be flooded; people would take advantage of our good nature; we’ll have all their family coming if we’re seen as a soft touch. As for Phil, campus president of Amnesty International, all his legal knowledge is directed into how they can avoid any involvement and he applies his ingenuity to the pesky situation. After consulting his torts he phones the landlord to have the cupboard excised from their lease so it’s not their legal responsibility. Mandy makes an effort to talk with the man and shows some sympathy, but inevitably agrees that a pacific solution is necessary; they must relocate him to an island.
The parallels are all too obvious, as is the telling rhetorical question: “How do you put a dollar value on your peace of mind? No price is too high to pay for peace of mind.” The characters have sorted out their problem with a pacific solution and can return to the more pressing issue of the cricket.
The direction is sound, the set basic with a simple tatty vinyl couch and easy chair, cupboard and two doorframes. Lighting – well, there was light, but not particularly memorable.
I came away from this short play thinking that, yes, we get the point; yes, interesting parallels, if a little obviously drawn. But it does linger in my mind and the parallels do resonate. For we all know some people just like Johnny, Mandy and Phil. The disturbing thought is, do we ourselves share some of their lines and mind-sets? In that case, the four actors have done justice to a play that, reflecting back, brought the uncomfortable issues of social justice right into our own lounge rooms. The ending came rather abruptly and we left thinking is that all there is? It’s a short play and so there’s little scope for developing the characters; they haven’t grown or been changed by the event, but that’s the point. We feel frustrated that issues were highlighted but without any real solutions even though the characters reached one that suited them. But of course, that’s the point Ben Eltham wanted to make.
Directed by Marcel Dorney
Played until 29 July 2006
Duration: 50 minutes, no interval
– Ruth Bonetti