Where political meets personal

October 23, 1996

Where political meets personal

The Hope of the World
By Errol O'Neill
Directed by Aane Neeme
Queensland Theatre Company
Cremorne Theatre, Queensland
Performing Arts Complex until November 3
Reviewed by Dave Riley

The one frustrating element of this production of Errol O'Neill's new play is that when the lights come up, form has it that you should rise from your seat and head for the exit. I didn't want to go.

As theatre of ideas — a stimulating, thoughtful and challenging night out — this play is a winner. Given my druthers, I would have stayed seated and discussed the play with whoever would listen. What I would have said was that the playwright, the director and a superb cast have pulled off something quite rare: Political ideas — and individuals' loyalty to them — are here given the respect they deserve.

O'Neill's play visits the lives of two couples during, what very closely resembles, the 1985 SEQEB dispute. That year, the Queensland government of Joh Bjelke Petersen sacked 1002 striking electricity workers. The battle that followed became one of the major industrial struggles of the '80s.

The issues thrown up by the dispute impinge on, then dominate, all the relationships in the play. In trying to redefine themselves to each other, the characters must also align themselves on one or the other side of the dispute. Whose side you are on is then not just a question of personal loyalty, but one overwhelmingly of politics. The personal and political merge.

To enhance the conflict and seed the play with a rich complexity, O'Neill introduces a historical element by forcing some of his characters to confront their radical past, now disowned as passe. Returning to Brisbane during the dispute, Red (Tony Martin) brings with him, at least, the rhetoric of the '60s. Clare (Gael Ballantyne) and trade union official, Jim (Bill Charlton), while pleased to meet their one time comrade in arms, are shaken by his earnestness. Len (Peter Marshall) — a sacked worker and member of Jim's union — and Maureen (Julie Eckersley), are a couple confronted by the coarse reality of the dispute and take their politics as they find it on the picket line. Maureen's mother, Shirley (Kaye Stevenson) is thoroughly right wing, supports the government and editorialises against the workers on her radio talk back program.

O'Neill squeezes his plot for all it is worth and manages to take up some of the key questions that confront political activists, whether they're currently involved or not. His themes are universal, even though the bitter street history of Queensland is their backdrop. It is true that the 20-year struggle of unionists and students against Bjelke Petersen has a parochial aspect to it — the so-called quaint exceptionalism of Queensland politics — and it is hard to imagine a playwright elsewhere writing a similarly regionalised play for the main stage. But that doesn't matter. All struggles live by the same tensions and this play deals with the impact of one, out of many, of them. While it may seem stale to point out that "the unity of labour is", as O'Neill reminds us, "the hope of the world", it still remains the case that no truer word was said.

With that message O'Neill is summing up his own experience as a activist, and that ensures he has a sharp, occasionally bitter, sting to his tale. He also has a participant's feel for the vitality of political practice. But more so, he tries to audit the ideals and actions of his generation: '60s radicals who did what they did and, after all that, both politics and principle ask them to do it again. That the play is produced now — in the year of the Nationals return to state government — jogs our memory of the past and raises a few questions about where we go from here.

To the Cremorne theatre, I suggest. Neeme's direction has caught what could have been a play peppered by blackouts, on the hop. Instead of a succession of set scenes lumbering into the next, he has worked the production into a supple montage shifting around Bill Haycock's versatile set. With actors who give their all, The Hope of the World is both a political and theatrical experience not to be missed.

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