Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, March 18
Americans who covet guns do so partly in case their government goes rogue on them. That’s not an excuse; just an observation. The government did go rogue in Australia, and what happened? Blessedly, no one was shot. Instead, we had an Ombudsman investigation, two Senate inquiries and multiple court cases scrutinising the pernicious robodebt scheme, whereby Services Australia falsely claimed monies were owed to the Commonwealth by welfare recipients (to the cool tune of $2.1 billion). This was our government using the stand-over tactics of hoodlums on its most vulnerable people.
Robodebt is the subject of Brooke Robinson’s new play, and it’s the real deal: a lacerating drama that leaves you distressed and infuriated in equal measure. So much contemporary theatre with an overt agenda is mediocre or worse because, in the rush to score points, the quality is sidelined. Robinson, by contrast, has beautifully humanised her agenda via showing the scheme skewering of the lives of diverse, fully-fleshed characters. It’s an important play that deserves to live on long after the likes of Christian Porter, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison are buried and forgotten.
Robinson is challenged by how to resolve her intersecting stories, but otherwise the craft is impeccable, as is that of director Lily Balatincz, who has immeasurably thickened the text’s blood and stretched its sinews with the casting, staging and design – all while coping with hastily moving the production from Campbelltown Arts Centre to Casual Powerhouse because of flooding.
At the back of a bare stage lurks the brutalist facade of some forbidding Canberra bureaucracy, courtesy of designer Emma White. The cast of four all perform multiple roles, with Balatincz herself stepping in at the last moment to do an impressive job of playing Olivia (originally to be Rob Johnson as Oliver), a law student of wealthy background. Abbie-lee Lewis is Eve, a tennis coach rebuilding her life, Gail Knight is May, a Centrelink manager who quits rather than be party to the evil, and George Spartels is Theo, the elderly carer of his mortally sick wife. All excel, but Spartels’ performance is among the most emotionally scarring seen on a Sydney stage in recent times.
Near the end we hear Morrison’s voice repeating, “The government has great regrets about any injury that has been caused here.” Then why did they do it?