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The Table of Knowledge

The Table of Knowledge 2011 from version 1.0 on Vimeo.

A version 1.0 and Merrigong Company co-production presented by Carriageworks THE TABLE OF KNOWLEDGE.

THE TABLE OF KNOWLEDGE by version 1.0 is the latest production from this company. It works, on its usual terms, very, very well.

It deals with the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) investigation in February 2008, into the business of development at Wollongong Council. This work has been co-produced by a Wollongong theatre company: Merrigong and premiered at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre in Wollongong in September of 2011. The season was extended down there and played to enthusiastic audiences. The citizens of Wollongong watching the mirror of their society, their elected custodians, reflected to them in a theatre. In fact one of the principal interrogated figures attended opening night and thought the show was great. He was standing, unbelievably, for council election, once again, in the following weeks (he was not re-elected).

Amazing! Or is it? The sado-masochism of reality television, of public humiliation, has held the majority of our culture in thrall for many years now. This is simply an extension of that, but, in a live, shared, communal environment, is it not? An opportunity to watch what we already know but in an organised, edited theatre package that jocularly tells us of the way of the world, again – a world that we don’t really believe concerns us. In the theatre it is amusing and safely distanced from the realities of our own lives. Is it worrying that The Table of Knowledge was not really as interesting or directly concerning as the Table of Fat Cheeses, Fig and Honey provided for us afterwards in the foyer? I devoured the cheeses at that table with an alacrity that I did not experience, necessarily, at the other one, in the theatre.

“version 1.0 is an ensemble of artists who make devised performances that are both political and intensely personal, based on strong research, and that engage with significant political and social issues using innovative theatrical strategies.”

This is a verbatim documentary theatre experience that is generally accessible and entertaining. The form of THE TABLE OF KNOWLEDGE is much the same as most of the other work shown by the company in time past. e.g.  amongst others: THE DISAPPEARANCES PROJECT (2011); THE WAGES OF SPIN (2005-06); and CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident)  (2004). If you are a regular attendee there are no innovative surprises of “contemporary performance and media spectacle” here, just the usual variation of the same well honed practices.

On entering the theatre, one engages with a set of primary coloured screens, which during the process of the journey of the story-telling chiefly become different entwined video documentation images of  car park and passing road traffic and architectural sketch drawings of possible building plan/developments and an aerial view of the beach environs of Wollongong. They are on a kind of repetitive loop – general background rather than of integral importance (video Artist, Sean Bacon). The floor surface has a large geometric primary coloured  demarcation shape on which a table and several chairs sit, spattered with a drop showering of vivid lego building blocks that the acting company can construct to represent building developments. Live camera action is broadcast, now and again, and pre-staged interviewing is juxtaposed to the contemporary practice of dramatic-image making e.g. actors on upturned table and chairs with just their lower torso showing – illustrative effects to underline, enforce (or distract) us from the textual information. The acting styles employed by the performers cross over from documentary-voice like reporting, varying from slightly satiric, slightly whimsical (butter would not melt in my mouth tones), impersonated variations of various cliched character types, to occasional Stanislavskian motivated interactions. The costumes, too, are calculated for theatrical inpact, from sexy tight to corporate or working class kitsch. The presentational form here is not innovative since at least 2004 and has become a little too predictable and boring for us loyalists..

What is unique to each of the projects, however, is the subject matter. In THE TABLE OF KNOWLEDGE, the researched devolution of the verbatim records of the ICAC investigation in 2008 about corruption in Wollongong have been, as before, in the other projects, edited down to  give us that “accessible and entertaining” time.

We are given a contextual joke to begin the proceedings that this corruption was only possible in a place like Wollongong, only to be painfully reminded that this is just one more of many such cases in the state of N.S.W.: Port Macquarie, Tweed Heads, Strathfield, Leichardt and, my own council, Randwick are several of many mentioned. I remember two State Government interventions into the running of my council because of development scandals, corruption. The fact that building development of unpleasant proportions, extending beyond the limitations of Council declarations, and their stated policy of greening the community, are about to happen next door to me, despite our joint neighbourly protest, makes this production even more pertinent for me. The documentary RATS IN THE RANKS, the ABC television series GRASS ROOTS and even MURIEL’S WEDDING and Bill Hunter’s Mayor Heslop shows us how entrenched this behaviour is in the good old Aussie culture, and how much it is accepted as a way of our world. A source of amusement and disaffecting concern.

I guess the choice of this particular scandal in Wollongong, rather than in any of the above cases, has much to do with the central figure in this “Peyton Place”-like scenario, because it happens to be a woman who had the capacity, even with husband and children in tow, to play the on-heat- filly with her sexual favours to the stallions of the story, for advantage, only to be revealed as a  dupe with the perfectly diabolical public humiliation under the spotlight of the witness stand at the investigation. The news media served the details up in lurid  lumps for the hungry general public and there is a kind of re-iteration of the voyeurism, here, that could be reflected as a kind of Greek  tragedy (Medea, Phaedra, Clytemnestra), that only the focused  exposure of the female sex can bring, that is especially tantalising and appetising. We as an audience found it highly amusing, as evident by the whoops of laughter given, as her part in the ridiculous story unfolded.

This does distract from the other central figures here, the straight out criminal greed male merchants, but even more importantly, in our period of culture of Corporate Power and Government Institutions, that seem to be able to do what they want (Bangaroo, where are you?) with the distinct belief that they are doing what they are doing because, in their view, it is the right and best thing to do for the community. No matter the ethical betrayals and fudges that have gone on to do it and the voices that have tried to bring it to public scrutiny. The Mr Oxley character, here, has centre and elevated stage position most of the night, and has the final say in the piece and still stands proud and seemingly blithely aware only of  his innocence and the positive credit of his utopian practices. The corporate verbal spins are awe inspiring. The audience are fondly amused by his behaviour and don’t quite have the need to condemn such a hapless Aussie duffer. And, sadly, of course the verbatim information on the consequences to the Mr Oxley is not fully revealed. The march of folly continues, and the prosecution for crimes seem to be slow in being prepared.

It is interesting and important that this project has been tackled, as all the work of version1.0 has been. But, collectively, one can ask of the creations of this company, to what point? The authorities can declare this as a funded example of the liberty of the right for the citizen to speak and show it as an expression of our democracy at work but what exactly does this work achieve, other than a good night out, I wonder? Is saying it enough? I don’t know. On the night I attended I was surrounded by an assortment of corporate C.E.O.’s displaying their wealth in shoes and jewellery and impeccable good manners (it was opening night!), and one would hope it might give pause to some of them, but really, what one saw was the continued classic demonstration of the not me, “not-by-my-hands” behaviour, of our clinically certifiable sociopathic leaders, who, meanwhile, indulge us, the powerless underlings to enjoy the bread and circus, to eat our cake (cheese and fig and honey) having enjoyed a kind of cathartic release in the public humiliation of others, so distant from our real lives – the Wollongong Council.

The performers: Angela Bauer, Arky Michael, Yana Taylor, Kym Bercoe and David Williams are exemplary in the docu-drama mode of playing asked of them, but one wishes for a less polite formula of presentation. It does need to be a little more in your face for a revolution to come, I reckon. It is courageous to mention it but not very brave in execution. The version 1.0 project THIS KIND OF RUCKUS (2009-2010), seemed to be stretching this company’s creative muscles in an exciting new direction, but there has been a retreat from that offer. The present work has the air of worthiness with a touch of righteousness about it. One has to remember the Nigel Jamieson HONOUR BOUND or LLoyd Newson’s DV8 shows TO BE STRAIGHT WITH YOU or CAN WE TALK ABOUT THIS  to channel the outrage that this subject matter should give us – a verbatim of such outrage, combined with an innovative and contemporary theatre practice and media spectacle of some real affective frisson. At the moment version 1.0 seem to be, in form, in a slough of self-content. No boundaries extended, just more of the successful formula. Interesting work, but, essentially, unmoving drollery. Really, The Daily Telegraph tabloid coverage, at the time, was more stirring – it at least had a firmly declared attitude to the facts and story and brayed it  without politeness. Like it or not.

If you don’t know this company’s work THE TABLE OF KNOWLEDGE is a must see.

If you know version 1.0 from old, only if you have the loyalty, for the experience will be much the same as last time, just a different subject matter, tepidly dealt with.