Last Friday I caught the bus down to Canberra to catch Katie Pollock’s The Hansard Monologues, which was showing for two nights at Old Parliament House. I’d missed the Sydney season so my partner and I decided to make a weekend of it (we’d read somewhere that Canberra is not only the capital of Australia, but also the capital of fun).
The show, the entire experience, was utterly extraordinary.
The first thing we encountered upon entering Old Parliament House was a man sitting at a small card table with a cash box. It was not, as you might think, a makeshift box office. It was everything that is wrong with bureaucracy. The man was selling tokens. Rather than paying for your drinks and food directly, you had to pay him for tokens, which you then took to the food or drink stand.
1 token = $5.50
3 tokens = $15.00
1 token = one wine, beer, etc or TWO soft drinks
This meant a big queue for tokens, which then led onto equally long queues to actually use them.
This was the show’s blurb:
What will we remember about the 43rd Parliament of Australia? That it was supposed to be about us – but was it really just about them?
As the election nears, this verbatim play will take the words of Hansard, the factual record of what our MPs say in parliament, to relive the highs and lows, the `ayes’ and `nays’ of our national discourse.
In the tradition of The Vagina Monologues, The Hansard Monologues: A Matter of Public Importance will let our MPs speak for themselves.
This is the story of how our country makes itself, over and over again. It’s about us.
Three actors were used to represent the gamut of politicians. In a vague outline, Camilla Ah Kin played Gillard and other Labor MPs, Tony Llewellyn-Jones played Abbott and other Liberals, and David Roberts generally played the Independents (most notably Windsor and Oakeshott). As the text was drawn exclusively from Hansard the artistry of the piece was in how this raw data, this raw speech, had been curated. The team had split the play into roughly six sections, each with a different title – Sex and Scandals, Refugees, etc – and then had sewn together the most provocative moments from each subject. Heartbreakingly, the backbone connecting each section were the names of fallen Australian soldiers, which were projected onto a black screen.
It is difficult to pinpoint what was most enthralling. The actors sat in amongst us – the audience was seated in both the plush green of the floor as well as in the observer gallery. I sat next to Gillard for most of the show, and Camilla captured perfectly the ex-PM’s habit of throwing a withering glance back to her colleagues when Abbott opened his mouth. I think what might have been most astonishing were the words themselves. The vitriol and the compassion with which various speeches were made, the sense of genuine emotion versus ‘going through the motions,’ was so clear it was stunning. I ended up spending almost half the show in tears as they covered Gillard’s misogyny speech and her declaration of passing the NDIS, Penny Wong’s rejection of her daughter growing up in a ‘not-right’ family and of being less loved, and Oakeshott cutting through the hysteria of Rudd’s succession and recognising the pride Gillard’s father would have felt for her. All of these speeches that I had seen on the news or social media were suddenly being said by living bodies in a space much like where they would have been originally declared.
I have never been a part (we were literally within the work, sitting in the chairs upon which our political ancestors have sat) of a show where the space has been so deeply politicised. The actors stood where our prime ministers and their allies and foes might have stood and spoke. I was suddenly able to understand the greatest joy and the greatest burden of democracy – abnegation of social responsibility is not an option. There is nothing special about our politicians – they are there because they have been voted in as a representative of a group of people. This does not make them more than us. What Katie’s show brought to a head was the cowardice, the courage, the pettiness, and the desire to do good, to be a good person for others that is embodied by our politicians. What she showed was their humanity. What she made me understand, as the audience sat in the same chairs as these politicians would have sat in if New Parliament House had not been built, is that we are no different from them. Unlike them, we are not required to submit to such exposure, we are not required to represent others, to be good, so consistently, on such a public stage.
In the Q & A afterwards the team spoke of how they think history will treat the 43rd parliament. Obviously, the first female PM was mentioned, as well as her successful wrangling of a minority government. It was suggested that we as a country will be decried for our sexist derision of her leadership. It was also suggested that there was a very unusual amount of power wielded by the Independents. The crowd’s average age would have been 65+ but the assumptions of conservatism on my part were grossly misinformed. There was an outcry from the women in the audience about the sexism of this parliament – one woman spoke of taking part in the first feminist wave here in the sixties and the relief with which she listened to Gillard’s misogyny speech: finally, someone had said it out loud, someone had voiced a reality many of us cannot bear to face.
Perhaps the moment that took the cake was when an old man took the microphone at the end of the Q & A to reveal that he had run Hansard for 14 years before he retired. He talked of beginning under Menzies, at 22 years old. Of how a young Whitlam welcomed him on his first day on the job. I spoke to him afterwards and asked him what he thought was the most exciting time in politics in the last 40 years.
He immediately said ‘Whitlam’s dismissal. For three months you’d come to work and not know who was in power. On the day he lost John Kerr, it was absolute mayhem in here (he was talking about the very room in which we were standing). I stood on the steps as Whitlam made his final speech.’
I suddenly realised that he must have been one of those men milling in the background as Gough condemned the Governor-General. This was living, breathing history with a very neat suit and big old-man ears.
Although Canberra may be a ghost-town that’s not really built for humans (we had to get a taxi for McDonald’s drive-through, as everything closes at 10 and they discriminate against people who don’t drive) it made me realise the importance of democracy. Despite all of its flaws and foibles, it allows people to face each other and try to work out solutions to our problems. I think its brilliance might indeed lie in these very flaws. We expect our politicians to be superhuman and condemn them when they fail/fall but the reality is that they are just as human as the rest of us.
I now think of democracy as the pursuit for a mutual recognition of this humanity.