Black and biting comedy

Tuesday, March 12, 1991

The Royal Commission into the Australian Economy

By John Clarke and Ross Stevenson

Director and Designer: Bruce Petty

Belvoir Theatre, Sydney

Reviewed by Angela Matheson

The monster that is the economy looms above the royal commission as a conglomerate of worn-out mechanical parts and old boots. Its shakes and burbles are kept in check by regular thumps delivered by the clerk of court.

Beneath, the commission attempts to sort out the muddle. The comedy is black and biting. Here is a commission into an economy where the commissioner knows no economics, and more time is spent subpoenaing witnesses than questioning them. When the appalling facts are finally unearthed, there is nothing to do but bury them.

It is a dangerous, funny work. And it pulls no punches. It deals the big problems of the economy and its message is clear — Australia is in major strife and it is Keating, Kelty and cohorts who are to blame.

Australia's economic cowboys are paraded before the audience in devastating caricature. Mysteries are unravelled — Bob Hawke's teary outbursts are shown to be the product of water-squirting glasses. Sir William Gunn cannot explain the contradictions in the Australian wool industry because he does not understand them. Westpac's head of foreign exchange is revealed to be a nine-year-old boy who is rewarded with Smarties and Toblerone.

Sue Ingleton's Keating is a top portrayal. Rerouted from the jet set

by his travel agent, the world's greatest treasurer spits out his contempt for Australia and Australians to Hec McMillan's bemused commissioner and Andrew Denton's lawyer extraordinaire, Malcolm Turnbull. The multiple roles played by the cast are psychologically accurate and compelling.

Like all ground-breaking comedy, The Royal Commission into the Australian Economy falls flat at times. In its effort to be both funny and serious, the production sometimes wobbles. When Keating scrutinises a photo of Hawke, he does not recognise the image and declares that it "must be a bit of shit on the slide". The audience howls. It's too close to the bone to be funny.

Bruce Petty's hyperbolic design edges the atmosphere of corrupt control and bureaucratic artifice just that little further. Frighteningly lifelike puppets fill the press box and court gallery, their reactions manipulated by the string-master who lurks in the back of the court.

Australian satire is in great form.

Issue