Deeply Offensive & Utterly Untrue is Version 1.0’s inquiry into the Cole inquiry. Distilling an 8500-page document into an engaging hour and a half of theatre can’t have been easy, but that is what this unique company has achieved. The play was first performed in the depths of Carriage Works’ Bay 20 in Sydney, and what we see here with the touring production is an expansion of that work. I saw the show twice in its original production, and was very excited when I heard it was coming to Wollongong, not least of all because it is a shining example of hard work in the independent theatre scene paying off. Version 1.0 have been recognised, as of last year, as a key arts organization and receive triennial funding. They make one realise that all the mock grant applications we do at uni are perhaps significantly more important than our other assessments.
The events discussed are astounding. At the same time as John Howard was declaring that a war with Iraq was necessary to dethrone a cruel and harsh dictator, AWB was paying up to $300 million in kickbacks to the Iraqi government. Aside from analysing the inquiry itself, the first point that this play is trying to make by its very existence, is that these are massive events which have been swept under the carpet very quickly. Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about an affair. Here we are talking about hypocrisy on a much larger scale going unpunished.
Version 1.0’s handling of the material of the inquiry is deft. Stagings of many interviews and speeches from the inquiry and surrounding media are combined with direct discussion of the issues by the cast, which together bring lucidity to the proceedings. Clarity is a key point in this production. At all times, the details of those being interviewed are available on screens either side of the stage (this is quite amusing when the performers are talking as themselves), the images are all clear and crisp, and even when a scene is accompanied by large scale AV one is never put off balance. What I find interesting about the form of the work, especially as I am currently working on a piece of verbatim theatre, is that although Version 1.0 use much of the exact text of the inquiry document, as we enter the theatre we are reminded by messages on the video screens that “every word in this performance is true”, the words are so obviously interpreted that one could never define it as a verbatim work. The example that sticks out in my mind is the interview with John Howard that is accompanied by those playing the interviewers stroking him and offering him wine. The company makes no claims to objectivity, yet I think those who label their style as “documentary theatre” should be wary of the connotations of the term.
With the exception of a few moments that have lost their impact, such as the reference to Mohamed Haneef’s SIM card, the work still feels quite fresh in spite of its age. The newly added material, including speeches from Kevin Rudd and quotes from David Marr’s recent assessment of the events assist in achieving this relevancy. Unfortunately, I think that some of the beauty of the piece was lost by placing it in a more traditional proscenium arch theatre, which lacked the depth of the Carriage Works space. Not only did it mean that moments of the piece which had previously been separated merged together in the centre of the stage, it also meant that the mechanical elements of the theatre were hidden in the fly gallery and side stage, rather than laid bare for all to see which took away from the impact of the clever use of space. Whereas in Carriage Works, you could see all the elements from start, which made it more startling when they surprised you with a sandbag you hadn’t expected, or a light that appeared out of seemingly nowhere, here these moment felt like traditional theatre tricks. The venue also created some practical problems in terms of visibility. I was quite far back in the theatre and found it quite difficult to read the smaller screens either side of the stage, which at times contained important information. However, these are the problems one faces with a touring production, and for anyone who hadn’t seen the original I am sure that these would not have factored into one’s engagement with the work.
I could not finish this review without mentioning my favourite moment of the play, that being the live feed of a mouse attempting to eat cheese off a mouse trap being projected from two different angles from the two massive screens which dominated the set. The superb video elements are the work of Sean Bacon who has seamlessly integrated the visuals into the production through these two large screens, the two smaller screens already mentioned, and the more subtle television screen at the back of the stage showing footage of the trial of Saddam Hussein. Version 1.0 have a knack for using vision to offer fresh perspectives, as they do for breaking down complex documents into digestible theatre.