Jonathan Biggins takes aim at fake news with a good old-fashioned satire at the STC
The premiere of Jonathan Biggins’ new satire of the media could not be more timely if he’d sat down and written it in the foyer earlier that afternoon. This was the week in which Fairfax announced a epoch-ending purge of journalists, in which the police raided the offices of A Current Affair and charged a reporter with alleged paedophilia offences. By the same token, you could also sense the play dating as swiftly as curtain fall.
As one of the linchpins of the STC’s venerable Wharf Revue these many years, Biggins is well practised in grasping at the winds of change and wringing out the topical laughs before they become yesterday’s news. So it is with Talk, which might not be a comedy for the ages but is a comedy for right now – firmly within the David Williamson tradition of a state-of-the-nation plays tinged with larrikinism and choice one liners.
The anti-hero here is John Behan (John Waters), a Sydney radio shock jock who confirms the prejudices of his callers from a studio that looms over the rest of the grittily realistic set like a pulpit (Mark Thompson is the designer). When the police arrive to arrest him for contempt of court, Behan retreats back into his glass-walled cave and takes the airwaves hostage. He has revealed information about the defendant in an alleged paedophilia case, Charles Turner, triggering a mistrial, and rather than shut up about the trial he continues to take calls, with the tacit blessing of management.
As word of Behan’s antics spreads two ideologically opposed news outlets debate how to handle the story. Over at the ABC, an old-school journo about to retire, Taffy Campbell (Peter Kowitz), wants to dig further into the trial, but struggles to get the young graduate hired to replace him, Danielle Rowesthorne (Paige Gardiner), to glance away from her tablet. “Twitter is literally blowing up,” Danielle says about the Behan furore, and the hilarious look of pain on the face of the nearly superannuated wordsmith as he struggles not to correct her malapropism says as much about the death of journalism as any of Biggins’ polished banter.
Meanwhile, over at the shiny offices of The Daily Telegraph, a new editor, Julie Scott (Hannah Waterman), schemes to turn Behan into a people’s champion, fanning the flames so that she can run a three-page special on the failure of the courts to do what an outraged mob can. She also has to contend with the rumblings of her staff as another round of editorial redundancies looms.
In dramatic terms the subject of talkback radio is nothing new. The responsibilities of those with a microphone was the topic Eric Bogosian’s 1987 play Talk Radio. The 1976 movie Network, with its rogue broadcaster who becomes a national hero when he loses his mind, is another reference point. Fast-talking press dramedies, indeed, go all the way back to Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page (1928). In channelling the above, Biggins’ point is that the internet has completed the murder of objective truth that the shock jocks began. As one character puts it, “Social media is talkback with a bigger switchboard.”
While Twitter and Facebook rush to cover the smoke, it’s only the curmudgeonly Taffy who’s interested in the fire, and both the abandoned trial and Behan’s actions prove to have higher-reaching ramifications than anyone else can see.
Waters is ostensibly the star here, and gives the self-interested broadcaster a clipped voice and an enjoyably smug sleaziness, but the role is more of a McGuffin. This is an ensemble piece, with several of the nine-strong cast doubling up to play minor parts. If there’s a heart to the proceedings it’s Kowitz’s Taffy, even if his Scottish accent clunkily brings to mind the engineer of the Starship Enterprise, warning that the good ship The Fourth Estate cannae take much more of the pressure imposed on it.
There’s condescension, too, in the portrayal of the social-media obsessed Danielle – tech savvy doesn’t have to denote ignorance. But the gags generally zinged on opening night, and should only improve as the run picks up steam. The decision by Biggins, who also directs, to skip interval and push all the way through in 100 minutes serves the material well. Talk has plenty to dismay anyone involved or interested in the media, and while its references may be obsolete by the next iPhone upgrade, it’s good to see that the STC hasn’t turned its back on older subscribers who might be craving an entertaining confirmation that things aren’t what they used to be and we’re all going to hell. For once, they might not be wrong.