The Clown from Snowy River

Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts (deBASE productions)


By Bridget Boyle and Liz Skitch

There’s an enormous amount of talent in the deBASE group, who bring clowning to a higher level than we ever see in commercial circus. Beneath their silliness is a genuine attempt to address important issues, and in this heavily condensed history of Australia (seven segments in one hour) they pack quite a punch – sometimes. At other times the silliness just gets out of hand and becomes puerile, but let’s look at the good things first.

The technical skills of the six players are beyond criticism. Liz Skitch, Jonathan Brand, Laurel Collins, Allen Laverty, Nadine McDonald-Dowd and Mark Sheppard are agile, controlled and very witty as they morph from role to role while still retaining their intrinsic individual qualities, and each character is distinguished from the other in personality type, costume and routines. I particularly like the way they have brought indigenous and whitefella situations together in an even-handed way – we don’t get the usual white-versus-black issues, but a more general poor-fella-my-country philosophy, where the less powerful – white workers as well as indigenous people – get the rough end of the pineapple every time.

It’s an impressive attempt to see all Australians as one with the bosses as the enemy, and the victims range from the Aboriginal people of Botany Bay when Captain Cook first comes ashore; to the foot soldiers at Gallipoli being sent to a purposeless slaughter; to Burke and Wills and their friend Murray Darling; and to Ned Kelly as a misguided hero in a clay flowerpot helmet.

But this is where I began to get nervous. I know the show was devised with a young audience in mind, but at times it lost focus and the silliness took over, to the detriment of the content. Of course we can laugh at terrible things – The Chaser, Spicks and Specs and even The Glass House are essential viewing for anyone who wants to see political behaviour satirised – but this show is at times a little too silly and undisciplined, adolescent and crazy rather than witty, so that the gags became more important than the ideas behind them, and the sense of proportion was lost.

It also raises the question of what is an appropriate subject for satire, and whether some things are too important to be mocked. Are there still taboos and cows too sacred to be touched? Is it really appropriate to send up the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli? Farting the Last Post is quite funny in a Monty Python kind of way, and time and distance lend objectivity, but can we laugh at Schapelle Corby yet? We will never be able to laugh at the Myall Creek massacre, of course or, to use a contemporary example, make jokes about little Sophie Delezio’s latest tragedy, but The Chaser had a few good jokes about the Beaconsfield miners last week. Was that because they had a happy ending? There is a fine line between satire and simple bad taste, and I don’t think this show always managed it well.

The show needed more discipline, both in the writing and the performance, and it points up the dangers of having writers direct their own show, especially when one of them is also a performer. Almost by definition they lack the necessary objectivity to see what works in performance and what doesn’t, and if they’d had a dramaturge and an outside director, many of the gaucheries might have been avoided.

End of lecture, however. There were lots of good things, like the send-up of the Sydney Olympics, and I really liked the can-can, especially when Jonathan Brand, who clearly can’t dance for peanuts, did his segment sitting on the floor with somebody else’s legs kicking up behind him. Captain Cook was very patchy, but had one good line when he insisted that he wasn’t really a cook but a captain; and the running joke of Ned Kelly with his flower-pot helmet also worked well.

A lot of people whose opinion I greatly respect thought this show was very very funny and laughed all the way through it. I, on the other hand, barely managed to crack a smile, and I found much of the script self-indulgent and lacking in irony and wit. And I wasn’t the only one. So for the audience, it was a matter of “you pays your money and you makes your choice”, and if you’re one of the people who laughed themselves sick, please don’t write me off completely as a Grumpy Old Woman. The Chaser is my favourite television show, after all.

Directed by Bridget Boyle and Liz Skitch

Played 2 – 6 May 2006 at 7.30pm, with matinees Wednesday – Friday

Duration : 1 hour, no interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Mon 1st May 2006)