2 June 2017

Seven reasons to see media satire Talk at the Playhouse

| Charlotte Harper
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John Waters as John Behan. Photo: Swift Taylor

What is the future of journalism? As Talk’s writer/director Jonathan Biggins said after the opening of the Sydney Theatre Company’s production in Canberra this week, the way things are going at Fairfax, Domain may soon be the only section of the newspaper left. “And I’m sure when Rupert Murdoch drops off his twig, unless he is cryogenically frozen and animated in some strange way and stays with us forever, but I’m sure that when he goes, that’ll be the end of The Australian, overnight,” he added. Biggins’ insights into disruption in the media sector are high on our list* of seven compelling reasons to book a ticket to see the new play tonight or at 2pm or 8pm tomorrow.

7. The power crowd
If you enjoy spotting radio hosts, TV presenters, newspaper columnists, politicians and other powerbrokers, make sure you get along to Talk one night this week. There were several ABC Canberra presenters and newspaper types mingling with our Legislative Assembly reps and staffers on opening night, and they will all be recommending it to colleagues. In fact, ABC Canberra afternoons presenter Laura Tchilinguirian has seen the production twice in the space of a few days, once in Sydney last week and again on Wednesday.

6. The ‘best playhouse in the country’
After opening night, Jonathan Biggins gave a short speech to subscribers and VIPs in which he described Canberra’s Playhouse theatre as “the best playhouse in the country”. He’s not the first to give it such a wrap, and we Canberrans are very lucky to have a facility like it to attract productions of this calibre. The facilities and services on offer before and after the show add to the experience, from Biggins’ talk before opening night to his short speech during the subscriber function after the show, and last night’s after show event with cast members. If you haven’t taken a look at the rest of the line-up at the theatre this year, make sure you do. The more we support the quality productions on show at the Canberra Theatre Centre, the more the programmers will be able to attract.

The full Talk set. Photo: Swift Taylor

5. The set
The magnificent stage set, which consists of three life-like media offices visible in all their contrasting glory throughout the production, travelled from Sydney’s Walsh Bay via two semi-trailers. It was worth it. The workspaces are exactly as you’d imagine they’d be if you visited News Ltd at Holt Street in Surry Hills (a shiny white editor’s office with modern equipment and no personality), 2GB in Pyrmont (a slightly dated radio studio and producer’s desk) or the ABC at Ultimo (your typical journalists’ shared space, with piles of paper and coffee cups everywhere), which helps the audience to feel as though they are experiencing an insider’s view of how these organisations operate. Having worked in half a dozen newsrooms and visited at least that number of radio studios over the years, I’d argue the set designers have done their job with precision.

Peter Kowitz as veteran ABC journo Taffy Campbell. Photo: David James McCarthy

4. The ripping yarn
Do you like your theatre storytelling to entertain you from start to finish? If so, you’ll enjoy Talk. The action is constant, with a script that is reminiscent of TV series like Newton’s Law and Crownies (with a dose of Frontline). Biggins has created believable characters with big personalities (just like those you’d find in real newsrooms) in Daily Telegraph acting editor Julie Scott (Hannah Waterman), radio shock jock John Behan (John Waters), retiring ABC journo Taffy Campbell (Peter Kowitz), digital upstart Danielle Rowesthorne (Paige Gardiner) and the Guardian-reading lawyer-turned-copper PC Fowler (Helen Christinson). The banter between senior and junior reporter; producer and presenter; and station manager and police media liaison manager is frighteningly authentic (with the exception, I hope, of the example in which Rowesthorne appears not to have heard of Oscar Wilde – note to Biggins, it is possible to be a digitally-savvy journalist without being a shallow and uneducated git).

The ABC set with the talkback radio studio in the background. Photo: David James McCarthy

3. Jonathan Biggins, writer and director
Perhaps best known in Canberra as a co-director, performer and writer of the Wharf Review, an annual favourite with theatre audiences here, Biggins is a satirist with a knack for making us laugh while exposing the worst aspects of life in this country. His writings include books such as The 700 Habits of Highly Ineffective Parents and the critically acclaimed play, Australia Day. In Talk, he turns his hand with aplomb to the state of the media in Australia. It’s as though he’s been a fly on the wall over many years in the editor’s office at the Daily Telegraph, the ABC’s newsroom at Ultimo and the studios of 2GB, and in conversations between police media liaison staff and our cops. The themes and plot are dark despite the witty banter that sustains the pace throughout, but that’s the point.

2. John Waters as shock jock John Behan
Australians of a certain age are all fans of John Waters, whether we remember him as a favourite Play School presenter of the 1970s or from his more recent but equally as entertaining antics as Darcy on Offspring. Waters, who has had a distinguished career in television, film and on the stage, absolutely nails the role of mega-successful talkback radio host John Behan in Talk. Look out, Jones and Hadley, this actor could oust you from your ratings-winning studios if he chose. Watch him dance his way off stage during the curtain call. He clearly enjoys every minute of the stage experience.

1. State of the media themes
Canberrans are thoughtful media consumers, and therefore right in the target market for this production. Talk explores the impact of commercial and political forces on journalists whether they’re working in newspapers, at the ABC or in commercial radio. The moment when John Waters switches seamlessly while on air from talking about the suicide of a man accused of child abuse to promoting Sealy Posturepedic beds is one example. The ease with which newspaper editor Julie Scott dismisses genuine news stories that may impact on the business dealings of her proprietor is another.
The play also examines the effect of the 24-hour news cycle and the immediacy of social media: the true story of a conspiracy among politicians, legal officials and media powerbrokers to pervert the course of justice will remain untold while the blow-by-blow reporting of the farce that is the result of the conspiracy goes viral. The audience is left to face the grim reality that good, longform investigative journalism is getting harder and harder to create, publish and, as a result, to find, while the mainstream media run around chasing the same old stories and wondering why they can’t cut through amid the flood of information (and misinformation) that cycles through our social media feeds.

Have you seen Talk? Did it strike you as overly negative about the future of journalism? What can media operators and professionals do to ensure a viable business model for their businesses? What can media consumers do?

*Yes, I really have written a listicle-style review about the superficial state of the media. If it gets more Canberrans reading and in to see Talk, it will have been worth it.

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How many people who contribute posts and comments to the RiotAct actually listen to the shock-jocks that are depicted in this play?

In fact, they are despised by some posters.

CanberraStreets9:52 am 07 Jun 17

I went to see Talk on Saturday; it was thought-provoking about the role of formal and informal news sources as well as a really nice tight piece of theatre.

In many ways, Taffy Campbell (Peter Kowitz) is the hero (albeit unsuccessful) of the piece – he struggles to find the why of what is happening as well as counselling his mentee (is that even a word?) to recognise that facts are not as clearcut as we might like to think and that baldly reporting events is not the news – finding the backstory, understanding why things are happening and questioning everyone’s motives is the role of good journalism.

The play gave me a lot to think about – including thinking more deeply about how I engage with news. It is far too easy to accept reports that align with my world view, rather than gathering the broadest range of information and analysis and judging news stories more empirically.

I must say, I was impressed.

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