Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Review: 'The Table of Knowledge'

Version 1.0, Hopgood Theatre, 21 June 2013. Devised by Sean Bacon, Alan Flower, Arky Michael, Jane Phegan, Yana Taylor, Kym Vercoe and David Williams.

Version 1.0’s The Table of Knowledge begins proper with a thumping burst of Starship’s We Built This City, fresh from a star turn in the recent Muppets film. Its use here is similarly ironic, but its high-carb blend of soulless drums and cheesy synthesisers are a fine fit for the show’s narrative – high on sleaze and ersatz sentiment, low on substance and authenticity.

The city in question, it transpires, is not one fashioned from a musical genre, but New South Wales’ Wollongong circa 2004. An affair between former Wollongong Council planner Beth Morgan and property developer Frank Vellar which began in that year is the worm at the core of the story of The Table of Knowledge. (The show’s title is a reference to a greasy kebab shop table around which Morgan, Vellar and other corrupt council officials would regularly conspire, the aromas of garlic sauce, sex and large wads of cash doubtless nauseatingly competing for prominence). The worm would eventually hollow out the entire apple, the entirety of the Wollongong Council given their marching orders following an Independent Commission Against Corruption investigation in 2008. Most of the text of The Table of Knowledge has been drawn from transcripts of the proceedings of the ICAC inquiry, its numberless ‘I don’t knows’ and ‘I can’t recalls’ instantly recognisable to anyone who has seen previous version 1.0 projects.

As in those other projects, The Table of Knowledge sees the company press most of its familiar tropes into service: multiple video screens, live camera feeds, captioning, and a strong sense of the latent childishness of politics and other adult worlds, here represented by the constant manipulation of hundreds of brightly coloured Mega Bloks. All are useful devices with which to tell what is a complex story, but technical glitches and a sense of over-familiarity undermined their impact. The Table of Knowledge was the first version 1.0 show I have seen which made me wonder whether the company’s ‘innovative’ remit is in need of renewal, whether what once easily passed for innovation – both technologically and performatively – has not now become a little creaky.

What I have not seen before, such as the use of a green screen to project the actors onto different backgrounds including the exterior of the kebab shop, were plagued by technical issues and unfortunately lost much of the impact they may otherwise have had. Perhaps such problems are unavoidable given that this production is touring widely with little time between shows in disparate locations, but I couldn’t help but share the audience’s frustration with these frequent hiccups. Theatre audiences are, on the whole, so technologically literate these days that it has become perhaps unreasonably important for companies to get these sorts of things right.

Where The Table of Knowledge succeeds is, in the first instance, in its choice of subject matter. The so-called ‘sex for development’ scandal is vintage grist for the version 1.0 mill, brimming with improbable characters, brazen finagling, and off the wall plot twists which would not bear scrutiny in a work of pure fiction. What the company has managed to cull from the ICAC inquiry transcripts is uniformly compelling, and given suitable light and shade by performers Angela Bauer, Russell Kiefel, Arky Michael, Jane Phegan and Kym Vercoe. (Kiefel, a ring-in rather than a company member, was shaky on his lines, but this was forgivable in a context in which everybody is almost always reaching in sweaty-browed desperation for the next thing to say).

The show’s other outstanding success – and it is this which I imagine ensured its wildly successful and, indeed, cathartic premiere in Wollongong in 2011 – is the way in which it succeeds in drilling down to the heart of both the scandal’s political machinations and the characters of its key players. Vercoe’s Beth Morgan, in particular, emerges in the performance’s darker second half as a richly detailed, and even sympathetic woman, far removed from the archetype of the gold-digging hussy which came to typify her portrayal by critics in the tabloid press and certain sections of the public. It is a valuable corrective to such plainly sexist rubbish that Arky Michael’s Frank Vellar, oozing with sleaze and misplaced machismo, is shown to be every bit as disagreeable and disreputable as Morgan. Uglier still is the boys’ club atmosphere which The Table of Knowledge unflinchingly exposes, and which still dominates too many of this country’s circles of power at every tier of government.  

During the post-show q & a, the ensemble were asked a question they are always asked: what happened to Beth Morgan, Frank Vellar and Rod Oxley, the corrupt former council general manager? I recommend you Google these names for an instructive lesson in the impotence of justice in the face of political and financial leverage, and the gross disconnect between power and accountability which continues to define a much too great share of our civil and democratic processes which, all too often, are in reality neither.                             

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