Waiting for Garnaut Packs a Punch


Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe, Phillip Scott and Amanda Bishop

THEATRE REVIEW

Only true masters of satire could confront the darkest reaches of the human experience and hit back with humour so clever and defiant and funny, it makes you laugh ’til you cry.

Such is the Wharf Revue’s latest offering, Waiting for Garnaut.

Nine years into their partnership, satirical stalwarts Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phillip Scott are joined this season by triple threat troubadour Amanda Bishop.

In a nod to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the revue’s first and last scenes feature a rag-tag of characters awaiting the arrival of a uniting presence – in this case, Australian climate change economist Ross Garnaut.

The writing and performances are at their best when tackling the governments of the day. One rapid-fire sketch sees a hopelessly inept Dr Morris Iemma and Nurse Reba Meagher losing their stricken patient, New South Wales. The cast also has loads of fun at the expense of the Rudd government, but the real marvel is in their well-honed, finely-tuned impersonations of Kevin Rudd (Scott), Julia Gillard (Bishop) and Paul Keating (Biggins).

Bishop matches the stellar talents of the troupe’s veterans blow for blow with deft comic timing and delivery. Her latte-swilling rich bitch lands a few good punches on rampant consumerism (neatly tied to climate change) and socialism for the rich: “Welfare’s too good to be wasted on the needy!”

Conservative ideologues are gleefully lampooned as imperious nineteenth-century hangovers: Piers Akerman, the crusty old codger; Keith Windschuttle, the top-hatted dandy; and Miranda Devine, the delicate flower in bonnet and bow. The fine acting and costumes here are especially impressive.

Equally unsparing are parodies of iconic Aussie expats John Pilger, Germaine Greer, Clive James and Robert Hughes, who bursts to life with a brilliantly melodramatic treatment by Biggins.

The music, lyrics and singing are exceptional throughout. Most memorable is the African folk music-inspired performance of the ‘Harare Gospel Choir’ who belt out a spirited satirical song about corruption and oppression in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe – only to change their tune when an unseen assassin starts picking them off from the shadows.

Given the overwhelming strengths of Waiting for Garnaut, it’s easy to forgive the odd misfire. The portrayal of Barack Obama as a blinged-out, hip-hopping rapper falls a bit flat, but then again, no one has worked out how to effectively satirise Obama – just ask The New Yorker.

Other skits seem to end a tad too soon – for example, one piece where two Emperor penguins waddle about in confusion, surveying their disappearing habitat. Here, the comedic deliveries give the characters such a winsome charm that even predictable lines hit their mark with heart-rending resonance. P1: “Used to be an ice sheet here.” P2: “Oh yeah … Oh bugger.”

Speaking to Vertigo, Biggins showed little patience with the inertia obstructing a real response to climate change, the over-arching dark force that haunts Waiting for Garnaut.

“I find it extraordinary that we’re having a conversation about climate change and people are complaining it’s going to cost more,” he says. “Well, of course it’s going to cost more! It’s like Waiting for Godot, all this existential angst. We’re waiting for someone else to come along and solve this, to take responsibility. We blame the traffic while we’re sitting in a car.”

Does he think humanity will reach a tipping point when climate change and climate-related pollie follies just won’t be funny anymore?

“No, it’s always funny,” says Biggins. “Humour is the great saviour of the downtrodden, the oppressed. It’s always been the role of someone to tell the unpleasant truth using humour. Court jesters and fools were given a license to say things, and it was palatable when they said it. But at the same time, it was the truth.”

That may go a long way to explaining the true genius and timeless appeal of political satire. Waiting for Garnaut leaves no doubt that Biggins and his truth-telling cohorts are indeed masters of their craft.

*    *    *

Waiting for Garnaut is now playing at Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company, Pier 4 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay until 6th September.

Bookings: 9250 1777 or http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au.

First published in Vertigo

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