Queensland Theatre Company & Black Swan Theatre Company
November 17 – December 7 2014
Review by Xanthe Coward
Interview by Guy Frawley
Imagine a world in which the air we breathe is just another commodity like food and fuel. Something that can be bought and sold according to market forces…
You must be quite excited. It’s been 24 years since Gasping opened. I’m quite interested in hearing why you decided to rework the piece into Gasp! for 2014 and why the choice of Australian setting?
It’s very much the other way around, I didn’t choose to rewrite the show and use an Australian setting. It’s more the Australian setting just kept bringing me back to that show. I’m pretty fortunate, I have a pretty big back catalogue and there’s a lot of it that I could do with revisiting and could probably be improved. But you don’t normally do that, you just go forward. But with Gasping, my first professional play, I always thought it was one of the best ideas I’ve ever had.
Using this grand conceit of air that becomes this attainable, mineable commodity, resource as we call our planet. It was performed several times around the world and I never thought I’d revisit it, although I always thought it would be nice to and I’ve occasionally played with the idea of a movie. I talked at some length with Russell Crowe about it, who also liked the idea of it for a movie.
Anyway, I now live in Australia and am Australian and for the last few years I’ve been very fortunate in that Kate Cherry at the Black Swan Theatre Company in Perth has often said to me, “When are you going to write an Australian play?” I thought about it and thought how lovely it would be to write an Australian play and I wondered what is it that we feel about Australia?
What’s moving me? What’s getting me excited? What’s getting me angry? What am I passionate about?
And basically for the five years we’ve been living in Oz with our kids as a part of the society, well it’s been the bloody resources, the mining boom! That’s all anybody ever talks about! With the exception of Jihad taking over. All we talk about is the carbon tax, the mining tax, global warming, the resources industry, is it good? Is it bad? Gina, Twiggy, Clive. It just looms so large, that I started to think about a play that talks about our duties and our responsibilities and the grand comedy that has been the public debate about these topics over the last decade. I kept going back to Gasping and thinking, well I’ve already written the bloody play it’s just set in the wrong time, in the wrong place and with the wrong dialogue. But it was the right idea! So I went to Kate and told her I’d like to rewrite my first play and take that idea of air as a resource and set in in Australia in 2014, she was very excited about it. And that’s why Gasp! has a new title, because it is an entirely new play, although still very similar. It’s a weird hybrid but I think it’s a much better play; it has much better dialogue, a few new characters, a love interest, subtler sort of development although it’s still a very broad comedy. It’s a reimagining of a comedy about answers. So yes…a long answer!
Ben Elton’s Gasping (1990) was his first play and GASP! is a solid attempt to breathe some new life into it.
Given the same sleek and easy “it’s funny, it can’t fail” treatment by Director, Wesley Enoch, as QTC’s production of Williamson’s Managing Carmen and with the same smooth, slick looking set design by Christina Smith as Other Desert Cities (I love the gliding scene changes), this rich excuse for a satire is simply overcooked. Elton’s writing is known for its witticisms and political and social stings, and for its PLAIN FUNNY STUFF. THIS IS NOT THAT WRITING. I loved Maybe Baby and watched the VHS tape until it stopped working one day. I still love Popcorn, The Young Ones, We Will Rock You (Silly Cow not so much) and I’m a loyal Blackadder fan. Unfortunately, Gasp! is overwritten, over directed and over acted, with little allowance for nuance. Written for laughs, it needs thinning, like a cool, clever summer haircut.
The cast give accurate portrayals in essence but they have so many gags to get through! Oh my goodness, I almost feel sorry for them! I feel they are waiting for us to laugh out loud! Exhausting! And frustrating…
You talk about Black Swan Theatre Company in Perth and the show is then transitioning to QLD to QTC. Considering the content of Gasp! and the impact of the mining boom in both of these states specifically, was there a conscious decision to premiere the show in these states?
Absolutely, it wasn’t my idea, it was Kate’s. She liked what I was talking about and the first thing she said was that this would be a great co-production with the other great ‘mining state’. QTC and Black Swan have a great relationship, they’ve had a number of collaborations and this one struck her as the most obvious collaboration. So she approached Wesley Enoch with my idea, and much to my great delight, he wanted to bring QTC into it. It’s been rehearsed in Brisbane before opening in Perth, and we hope the rest of Australia at some point will get the chance to see it as I think it is that rare thing, a very topical satire about what’s going on right now. It’s unashamedly contemporary, there are gags that if the play has legs I’ll have to rewrite in a year or two because the PUP’s latest successes will be history by then.
Perhaps a small project here for posterity then, that you can keep updating as the show travels.
Well that actually slightly scares me as it’s exactly what I’ve had to do with We Will Rock You, which has taken over my life! It was written many years ago and obviously jokes about Boyzone and a young Britney just don’t work any more. We’ve now got a middle aged Britney, which shows just how long We Will Rock You has been going. But look, if it turns out that people like the show, if the show has legs, I’d happily keep it current. It’s a satire, not a polemic.
The original Gasping used the caricature of the new ‘Yuppie’ in the early 1990s as a central part of the show and also handled the concept of environmentalism very much from the perspective of it’s own time. I’d suggest that both of these concepts have developed and changed quite drastically over the past 24 years and the conversation today is markedly different. How, when taking your original inspiration, Thatcher, the UK of the late 80s etc have you adjusted this to suit a contemporary Australia?
Well you know the more things change the more remain the same. When I was writing Gasping Thatcher was in power and now when I write Gasp! Abbot’s in power, so there are some things that are quite similar. Mind you there are some things that are quite different. As you say, a lot of the humour of Gasping was a sort of jolly take on the Wall Street Wanker London Brits pretending they were brilliant, pin stripe suited Americans in that Yuppie explosion of the late 80s. That’s all comic history now! I was saying at the rehearsals how I’d changed the description of a trendy advertising exec, in the original show he drove a 10-speed racer and now he’s a hipster with a fixie. But actually, the much broader context is that whilst with Gasping I was dealing with a very fictionalised comic world of Yuppies as the cartoon image of Thatcherised horror, I’m now dealing with a real world. I’m now dealing with the real world, I’m talking about the mining sector which isn’t peopled with cartoon villains. It’s the real world, with real resources, real jobs. I think it’s now much subtler, not really subtle, but much more so than Gasping was.
Throughout the rewrite I’m interested to know how much the actual characters themselves have been adjusted. Are these primarily superficial updates that leave the original motivations and personalities quite similar?
It’s the same play and it’s completely different. All the characters from the original are still there, with the addition of one very significant new one, which is Phillip’s (the lead protagonists) emotional life, Phillip’s love interest. She gives a little bit more emotional reality to the reason he makes the moral compromises that he does and gets tied up in the moral dilemmas that he gets tied up in. It’s more of a character driven story and narrative than an ideas driven polemic, which it was originally. A load of gags with a big satirical sledge hammer point to make at the end of it, which is what the original play was.
It’s still not Chekov in terms of psychological astuteness but it’s got more to offer the audience in terms of character development. But then I’ve really learned more as a writer. When I was writing my first professional play I’d never written a novel, we’d only just started on Blackadder, I was mainly a sketch writer and a stand up comedian, and I’ve learned quite a lot about story telling and characterisation since then. There’s not many writers that get the privilege that I’ve been given to take something they wrote as a young man and to be able to rewrite it as a middle aged man.
I know that Hugh Laurie originally played Phillip when the show first opened. Had you originally envisioned him as your Phillip and did the spectre of Hugh hang over Phillip as you re-wrote the play?
Well there’s no doubt when I wrote Gasping I wrote it with Hugh in mind, there’s no doubt about that. We worked together very closely throughout the 80s and when I was writing the play I had his voice, as almost a modern Bertie Wooster figure, an imbecilic enthusiast but placed in an 80s, yuppie, Thatcherite Britain and I very much had his voice in mind. But with Gasp! as I say, I think it’s a little subtler, it’s more open to interpretation, the character isn’t so sketch like in his qualities. I think that offers the actor more room. It’s fun to have the play now being cast and played by actors that I haven’t cast, Wesley’s cast, and it’s a really interesting exercise for me to let the characters breathe more and not just make them ciphers for my own comedic voice. Losing the voices of the late 80s was actually joyful for me, because the ideas of the play are interesting and it was fun to be able to write them with a little more care. I just sort of dashed Gasping off. I was young, exuberant!
Phillip (Damon Lockwood – also a director & writer – watch this space) reminds Sam of John Tuturro; the lanky, awkward, unusually bold nerd, and Kirsten (Caroline Brazier) reminds us both of a gorgeous, gun publicist we know and love. Chifley Lockheart (Greg McNeil) is everything a mining magnate needs to be and Sandy (Steven Rooke) goes above and beyond to bring us the suited up stereotype of an actual noughties Mad Men man. Peggy (Lucy Goleby) sneezes and sniffles to death in too abrupt an end! (Also, is 2014 the year we started shouting to be heard in the Playhouse?!).
Nobody really gets a chance to shine, but everybody gets a chance to bedazzle. We’re not fooled. Gasp! is the Payless pair of shoes once you’ve been wearing Jimmy Choos. You can’t go back, baby.
You’ve been a citizen now for over a decade but have been travelling back and forth from the UK for much longer than that. How have you witnessed the growth of the theatre scene over this period?
Well call me a bit naughty, but I’m only just now really getting into the Australian theatre scene. In the old days I’d visit and there wasn’t really much going to the theatre, my girlfriend was a professional musician and when we’d go out it was mainly to her gigs, then we got married, based ourselves in Britain and didn’t see a lot of Australia during the 90s, and when the kids were born around the turn of the millennium we remained based in Britain. Even though we constantly came back to see the family, again it wasn’t really about going to the theatre. We did a bit more of that when we were in London. Then we came here in 2010 to live and that’s when I started to really take a broader interest in Perth’s cultural life. That’s when I met Kate Cherry and we started going to the theatre and really there’s a very hot scene going on in Perth. We’ve got two fringe theatres, we’ve got two theatre companies, Perth Theatre Company and Black Swan and it’s a very vibrant time!
While the premise is well established (it’s so crazy it just might work and truth is stranger than fiction and all that stuff), the cogs don’t turn together. The pieces don’t quite fit. Seeing Gasp! is like punching into the wrong place the piece of a puzzle that doesn’t look right, but you try it anyway. It’s forced and it’s not as funny as it should be. Still, some will enjoy the references to local bits and pieces and people. I guess Elton proves with this piece that he knows – no, he KNOWS – Australia.