Monday, August 27, 2007

"Deeply Offensive & Utterly Untrue"

Deeply Offensive & Utterly Untrue

Benito Di Fonzo
Sydney Morning Herald. August 24, 2007

Would you bribe a dictator to sell grain? Our biggest corporate scandal comes to the stage.

David Williams and Jane Vaile in Deeply Offensive & Utterly Untrue.






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"It's a happy story about Australian successes," says Stephen Klinder from Version 1.0.

He's talking about the performance group's adaptation of the Royal Commission into the Australian Wheat Board's (AWB) rorting of the oil-for-food program. The Cole Inquiry found that AWB kicked back about $290 million into Iraqi coffers via a Jordanian trucking company while it made Australia the biggest seller of wheat to Saddam's regime. Bad politics, yes, but surely good business?

"Iraq was their most profitable market," says another Version 1.0 member, David Williams. "They were able to charge whatever they wanted."

Deeply Offensive & Utterly Untrue follows earlier Version 1.0 works in a genre called documentary theatre. CMI: A Certain Maritime Incident used transcripts from the "children overboard" inquiry, while The Wages Of Spin used Senate proceedings about the Iraq war.

Turning the 8500-page transcript from arguably the most boring of political scandals into something entertaining seems a mammoth challenge. Isn't it just a room full of lawyers talking about wheat contracts?

"It's a fair question," says Version 1.0's Kym Vercoe, "but we were about to go to war against Iraq and, meanwhile, one of our biggest corporations had given them $290 million, a company monitored by the Government gave our archenemy money. That's not boring, that's shocking!"

Surely it's all in legalese, a language designed for somnolent obfuscation rather than entertainment?

"Sometimes it's like a farcical courtroom drama," Klinder says. "We have interviews with Alexander Downer and he's really a parody of himself. I think there's a lot of comedy in Alexander Downer."

The play's title comes from Downer's response to accusations that Australia went to war to protect its wheat market.

"He'll be a great loss to the artistic world," Williams says of the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Taylor says: "The only parallel I can think of is extreme sports. This is extreme theatrical sports - how do you [make it entertaining]?"

Members of Version 1.0 find using real transcripts lends rhythmic veracity to the dialogue.

"You've got people like [David] Mamet and [Harold] Pinter, who struggled their guts out to make [dialogue] sound like the stuff people say and in the way they say it," Klinder says.

Cognisant that they couldn't just have people sitting in courtroom chairs for 90 minutes, Version 1.0's members use sound, video - even live mice - and physical theatre to bring the concepts to life, such as a "living diagram" of just how the kickbacks worked.

Taylor says: "When we go onto the floor we have to physicalise it, that's why I called it an extreme sport."

So it won't be like watching question time?

Vercoe says: "We've done this because we trust that most sane people wouldn't want to read the entire Cole Inquiry. We think, as much as we forced ourselves to read it, we have particular skills - whether they fail spectacularly or not - of making that information digestible, entertaining and something that people can take away and think about."

With so many witnesses apparently suffering memory loss during the inquiry, there shouldn't be a problem if they forget their lines.

"You do get the feeling that they've had a big meeting and said, 'Let's see how far we can push this, how far we can pretend we just don't remember,' " Vercoe says. "If I forget my lines, sooner or later someone in the company's going to say, 'Get your lines down, we open tomorrow night.' That's pretty small in comparison to giving Saddam Hussein $290 million. It doesn't work when you get a parking fine - you can't say, 'I didn't have time to read the sign.' "

Another performer, Christopher Ryan, says: "We're human beings, we all f--- up. With the AWB, you've got somebody who's incredibly belligerent at one end going, 'I did nothing wrong, get off my case,' and you've someone at the other end having a mental breakdown. It's a huge classical thematic of human greed. It's fantastically meaty, ballsy stuff."
The timing is certainly fortuitous.

Williams says: "I don't know that political scandal will die if the present government isn't re-elected, [though] I'd hope there'd be fewer of them."

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