Drama Theatre, February 16


Rhys Muldoon as our illustrious PM. Photo: Prudence Upton.

A key element of transforming Lewis Lewis, an out-of-work actor, into Tommy Ryan, a malleable Senator, is a substantial haircut. That is exactly what this play needs. It could lose fully 40 minutes, and sacrifice nothing of its narrative, ideas or comedy. In fact the latter would benefit most, because the lame lines and silly scenes could be jettisoned to bring the most telling satire into sharper focus.

Nakkiah Lui’s last play, Blackie Blackie Brown (also for Sydney Theatre Company), was, at its best, savagely funny. How to Rule the World has some of that bite, too, but contains excessive material that should never have reached the stage. Apparently it was significantly revised during rehearsals, and perhaps its unevenness reflects a degree of writing-by-committee. Whatever the cause, the satire jumps around from Yes, Minister-style wit to The Chaser-style edginess, only to sink sometimes to a level that is more adolescent than undergraduate.

This is such a shame, as the premise is brilliant. Vic (who is Aboriginal, and played by Lui), Zaza (Korean-Australian, Michelle Lim Davidson) and Chris (Tongan-Australian, Anthony Taufa) hatch a coke-fuelled plan to foil the Tory government’s sinister Sovereign Territory Bill by installing an independent senator who will hold the balance of power.

They hold highly amusing auditions, and settle on Lewis Lewis (Hamish Michael), whom they reinvent as Tommy Ryan, now with short hair, suit and a mouthful of empty cliches along the lines of, “Everyday Australians giving it a try”. With the aid of a preference whisperer (Vanessa Downing) and some skulduggery to eliminate competition from Labor, the Greens and a conservative independent, they get their man over the line, only to find that they have created a monster, who, against all expectations, dares to think for himself.

Marge Horwell’s set. Photo: Prudence Upton.

Dropping the pitch of his voice, Michael amusingly transforms himself from no-hoper to smarmy, grasping pollie. Similarly Rhys Muldoon nails the Prime Minister, a belligerent, hypocritical, power-mad bogan, of the “call-me-mate” variety. Now who does that remind…?

Downing excels in a host of minor roles, as does Gareth Davies. The problem lies with our Frankensteinian triumvirate: Vic, Zaza and Chris remain syphons for the playwright’s (or committee’s) barely veiled didacticism, rather than being fully-rounded characters, thereby giving the actors little with which to work beyond some sight-gags, a spot of comic banter and some po-faced addresses to the audience. This imbalance upsets the whole play’s dramaturgy.

Lui rightly pushes the barrow for a formal treaty between the First Nations and the colonialist settlers, but the legitimate arguments for this tend to pop up as a diatribes, rather than being fully integrated into the dialogue and narrative. Much more successful is the spotlight she shines on gaming the political system, only to be sucked into the game’s ruthlessness and severely contagious cynicism.

Having cast the play well, director Paige Rattray failed in her collaborative function of refining the script. By contrast designer Marge Horwell has created an ingenious solution to the riddle that the super-wide Drama Theatre poses for designers and directors. In creating a space based on a Federal Parliament House corridor, she has completely reshaped the stage, disguising the breadth with depth – an idea that may have been even more effective with a hint of perspective built into it. Similarly the play itself wants to offer a depth of perspective, but despite its moments of hilarity and dazzling clarity, doesn’t know quite how to achieve this.

Until March 30.