Left – Ben Wood and Helen Christinson. Cover – John Waters in Talk. Photos – Brett Boardman.
There are several clear issues with Sydney Theatre Company's latest production.
The ambition of the work is an exploration of the shifting media landscape and the implications of the new realities thereof – showcasing fictional journalists and media professionals from the public broadcaster, a Murdoch newspaper and a commercial radio station dealing with a crisis. As an exploration of these realities, Talk does not succeed.
In fact, the work's various issues eventually conspire to reveal a surprising and depressing irony to the entire production.
To understand that irony, one must understand the central hypothesis of the work – that the evolution of modern media has created a culture and industry more invested in emotional gratification than truth; to the detriment of the well-being of society as a whole and its individuals. This is clearly and consistently articulated throughout the production by multiple characters.
Then, one must understand two key problems within the work. Firstly, from a dramatic standpoint, it's populated almost entirely by characters without depth. Each character is simply a stand-in for a basic opinion on the role of the media, a flimsy representation of a real-world figure (John Laws, for example) or both.
A young media professional is simply a stand-in for Modern Millennial Journalism (replete with jokes about her improper use of the word 'literally' and not knowing who Oscar Wilde is). Her geriatric co-worker is a stand-in for the values of 'old journalism'. So on and so forth. These are not characters with thoughts and opinions and feelings.
They're simply mouthpieces for a series of hypothetical arguments about the media. The play even name-drops Geoffrey Robertson at one point, whose Hypotheticals programme was actually a production of the public broadcaster. At no point does a single character modulate their point of view or undergo any manner of dramatic transformation.
Aside from creating obvious problems from a dramatic standpoint, this also contributes to and emphasises many of the production's other problems. Most glaringly (and the work's second key problem), writer/director Jonathon Biggins' apparent lack of familiarity with the world of actual media professionals. At times, Talk is startling in its lack of veracity.
(From a certain standpoint, this is a by-product of building a narrative off basic viewpoints as opposed to characters – but it transcends that mechanical issue.)
The work is clearly influenced by real world examples. The set design makes these connections explicit with visual references. However, Biggins' understanding of the various institutions he's decided to represent is questionable. For a basic example, the work is littered with remarks regarding the death of print media – but its entire plot pivots on a commercial radio broadcaster.
The bemoaning of the death of print journalism sitting adjacent to a complete absence of commentary about the similar issues facing broadcasting is, frankly, bizarre. Especially given recent policies enacted by the public broadcaster regarding Radio National. The idea of broadcaster budget cuts is even referenced in the work itself. It's a very strange contrast.
It's hardly an isolated example, either. There are strange inconsistencies and misunderstandings regarding the police, print media, the public broadcaster and commercial broadcasting that speak to a lack of research or a lack of investment in the issues being discussed. Even with a passing familiarity with the contemporary media landscape, these inconsistencies are noticeable.
These two issues force one to question the function of the work. If characters do not function as characters but as viewpoints, there is arguably no emotional/cathartic function to the work. However, if the work isn't invested in the actual realities of the issue it's discussing, there can also be no intellectual reward to the work. So, what is its function?
Depending on who one presumes the work was written for, it serves one of two functions. In the program notes, Biggins notes that his output is most typically shaped by whatever is annoying him at the time. Therefore, if one presumes the work is written for Biggins alone, its function is obvious: It's a temper tantrum. It's neither a dissection nor a drama. Simply a vent.
However, if one presumes it's written for the audience, it's somewhat more subversive: Propaganda. This may seem like an extreme or facetious claim but it actually legitimises a great number of oddities in the work – from playing right-wing political soundbites (regarding climate change, taxpayers, cyclists) for comedy to mocking lower socio-economic classes throughout.
(Even the work's strange fetish for infantilising millennials.)
It even explains why the work has no apparent dramatic or intellectual function. Because, it's function is gratification. It is, in essence, a work that exists to make older, left-leaning, upper-middle-class audiences feel good about themselves through validating their disdain for modern media, millennials, lower socio-economic classes and technology.
Which is, in the end, the strange, sad irony of the production.
The entire hypothesis of Talk is that, by prioritising the pursuit of gratification over the pursuit of truth, modern media outlets and agents are adversely impacting society – both in its entirety and in the quality of life of its individuals.
Yet, here we are.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
by Jonathan Biggins
Director Jonathan Biggins
Venue: Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Dates: 3 April – 20 May 2017
Tickets: $102 – $77
Bookings: 02 9250 1777 | www.sydneytheatre.com.au