Eleven Year Itch - The Howard Years, by Shortis & Simpson, opening on May 3 at The Street Theatre.
Three months into his Canberra Times career, this very writer, reviewing John Shortis and Moya Simpson in June 1996, wrote “But maybe I expect too much of Queanbeyan: terror on Monaro Street is not something we can seriously contemplate” in response to the promise to “terrorise the audience” with satire.
Shortis & Curlies, with the late Andrew Bissett, at The School of Arts Cafe, presented by the now legendary Bill Stephens, was the first of the Shortis and Simpson series of satirical shows which have played (or maybe plagued, according to your political position) the Canberra region every year since. But not only did their career run parallel with mine. The much more illustrious comparison is with the grasp on government of PM John Howard, who has made the fear of terror real, even in Queanbeyan.
“Let the itch begin / Let us start from scratch” introduces Eleven Year Itch - The Howard Years, opening on May 3 at The Street Theatre.
The itch to write and sing satirical cabaret began in Sydney, when Stephens heard one of Shortis’ songs performed by Margaret Roadknight. Although Simpson was a also successful singer, it was not until 1995, when their children left home and gave them freedom, that the couple toured together in country regions. When their caravan reached Bungendore they stopped, and took up the School of Arts offer.
Eleven years on, looking back on both the political changes and their own creative development, audiences may be surprised to find themselves in a new theatrical world. The Street Theatre’s artistic director, Caroline Stacey, is working with Shortis and Simpson, building on and extending their talents. Eleven Year Itch is risky and demanding work, taking John Shortis out of the writer’s garrett, off the piano stool, and behind instruments we never knew he could play ukulele, accordion, pedal organ, trombone among some others previously unknown to anyone.
Stacey’s expectations for the full depth of character which she brings fom directing plays and opera, is a new challenge for Moya Simpson. During rehearsal, as I watched, Simpson grew in one of her roles, as John Howard dreaming of waterfront reform (remember the black dogs in the night). Stacey also has expertise in European political cabaret, making each of her rehearsal notes hone both Simpson’s quality of voice and belief in her character’s desires. Just the first line “I’m down here, on the waterfront, in the full moonlight” suddenly became tragic (because we know the implications of his instructions to Peter Reith), romantic (in an irky sort of way), and horribly funny against Shortis’ French-style accordion playing.
The ACT Creative Arts Fellowship which Shortis received a year or so ago led him to the same conclusion as Stacey. When it comes to New York cabaret or European cabaret, though he likes both, it’s the European tradition which underpins political satire. After a reading of some new work last year, Eleven Year Itch is Shortis’s first full production which has grown out of the Fellowship study which took him back to Paris in 1880, through the Berlin cabaret which made Bertolt Brecht famous. This show also has ACT backing through a one-off project grant, which has enabled Shortis and Simpson to work with Stacey, produce good publicity material, and set up the studio at The Street in style.
The floorspace where the audience sits, quaffing as required, is decorated in the ornate way which, in the European tradition, makes the audience feel glamorous. But don’t imagine the action will remain neatly confined to a tiny stage in the corner - as you may have seen in the restaurant scene in the French film The Singer, where Alain Moreau (Gerard Depardieu)is ignored by the snooty clientele. Be prepared, if you please for the karaoke.
Already bookings are coming on apace, so some people may have discovered that their tables are not numbered. They are named. After all, naming names is often what politics is about. You will soon be singing along with I Lunched With a Man Who Lunched With a Man Who Lunched at the Burke and Grill.
Mention of Labor allows us to make a note that, though project money from the ACT Government supports Eleven Year Itch, the satirical target is not just the incumbent Commonwealth Government. Shortis has written more than humorous songs linked in a revue format. Using some of his own songs from previous years, many new ones and a powerful lament for David Hicks written by Peter J Casey, for the first time Shortis’s script is more like a play, with sections delimited by the election years since 1996, and leading to a mystery ending. What will happen in 2007?
Of course the Coalition comes in for the stick it deserves, but the failure of Labor gets its just deserts too. Latham in the Aisles will be one song you won’t want to miss, whatever your personal preference. Shortis makes no bones about how he sees satire. A good politician is an oxymoron, he says. He looks for “things that are worth being scathing about”. No politician is safe because dishonesty, manipulation of other people, using politics for one’s personal advancement, and aiming only at winning rather than doing honourable things are all worth being scathing about.
Being satirical is about being even-handed, which some people see as being wishy-washy, but being scathing leaves its mark on both hands, right and left. It’s theatrically and politically risky (though not as much in Canberra 2007 as, say, in Berlin 1933), but, say Shortis, Simpson and Stacey, the risk must be taken. You’ve got to do it, they say, in theatre, just as you have to in politics. Otherwise nothing is achieved.
This leads our discussion to the awful realisation that, indeed, Prime Minister Howard has done exactly that - achieved. All of a sudden there are dark stories on all sides. We see Australian culture as an Othello. In destroying Othello, Iago achieves everything he desires, through manipulating people’s fears, setting up fictional lines of demarcation, and creating immense but unjustified jealousies. But Othello’s power was Iago’s original support. By succeeding in cutting down Othello, Iago only destroys himself. Is this the real story of the last eleven years? Is aggrandisement the itch at which politicians must scratch away, until our culture is undermined, to the detriment of us all?
This is the new Shortis and Simpson. You will find an edge to their work, even in songs you’ve heard before. Stacey’s view is that a culture only comes to maturity when an audience appreciates a satire even of itself. In the humour of political satire, dark though it may be when governments make life and death decisions, or light as we delve into the Prince of Dorkness himself, we find strength as a culture.
At the same time, as Shortis, Simpson and Stacey explore new ways to stretch their and our imaginations, they pull together the experience of theatre and the strands of history, at least of the last eleven years - the Howard Years.
Eleven Year Itch - The Howard Years
Shortis and Simpson at The Street Theatre
Directed by Caroline Stacey.
May 3 May 19, 8.30pm
Matinee May 19, 2.30pm
Tickets: $30 full; $26 concession and groups.
Previews: May 1 and 2 $20
Bookings: 6247 1223
Return to Frank McKone's Home Page