Reviewed by Lucy Ross
bad machine is a new Australian work written by Brooke Robinson, commissioned by Campelltown Arts Centre and presented at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre.
It follows the lives of four individuals and their unique experiences with the Centrelink Robodebt crisis.
For those fortunate enough to be unfamiliar, the Robodebt scheme was a method of automated debt assessment and recovery implemented by Services Australia that served a part of the Centrelink compliance program.
Over 400,000 people receiving welfare payments received debt collection letters informing them that they had been paid the incorrect amount and needed to return what was owed. These letters included the Australian Federal Police logo and the threat of six months jail time for non-payment.
The Department of Human Services stated that over 2,030 people died after receiving the Robodebt notice – out of those 429 were under 35, and 663 were classified by Centrelink as ‘vunerable’, which means they were either ill, having substance abuse challenges or were victims of domestic abuse.
It can be really challenging to consider statistics like this and translate these numbers into human faces, which is what this play pushes you to consider.
With all the other recent catastrophes we have experienced, the Robodebt system has probably been firmly pushed to the back corners of our minds. With the Australian Federal election coming up, now is certainly the right time to remember.
Brooke Robinson has written an incredibly provocative yet also emotionally touching play with bad machine. We understand the political themes, we see Scott Morrison’s face in the background – however Robinson is careful for politics to not be the primary focus. She is telling the stories of the people behind these statistics, giving them names and faces and feelings. While leaving the main antagonist, the Australian government, a faceless bodiless being that hangs so high over all of them.
This play is raw, real and visceral – the characters and their situations feel very familiar and relatable. Robinson has constructed this in such a way that really gets under your skin, brings you into these people’s lives and urges you to empathize.
There are four actors in the cast, all of which have one primary role and numerous ensemble roles. Not only did they seamlessly move through the play changing characters and accents at a second’s notice, but they did this while also adding and subtracting costumes and moving set pieces. Not only were these changes completely seamless but were choreographed beautifully.
We had the charming Abbie-lee Lewis as Eve, a former tennis pro receiving New Start payments while she’s getting back on her feet. She brought a lot of energy and positivity to all her characters that was very refreshing amongst the serious themes.
Gail Knight played May, a Centrelink employee who witness the devastating effects of the new system. She displayed a genuine warmth as May, yet also showed us a wonderful range of other colourful characters with ease.
George Spartels as Theo, a Greek-Australian in his 60s caring for his terminally ill wife, delivered a heart felt and devastating performance. He portrayed this character beautifully; his performance was incredibly detailed and really could not be faulted.
Unfortunately, due to illness we were unable to see Rob Johnson as Oliver. However, amazingly in his place we saw the director Lily Blatincz as Olivia, who served his roles brilliantly. Her characters were playful and delightful and her portrayal was certainly up the standard of the rest of the cast.
The set and costume design by Emma White is very clever. The stage is mostly bare, with the exception of the massive white columns that extend almost to the ceiling. This choice speaks very strongly to the political themes, giving us the visual of a parliament and the sense of how “small” these people are in the grand scheme of things.
bad machine will make you think about what it means to be in a democracy and will show the importance of human interaction.
It will make you reassess you biases towards those who receive welfare payments, and gives these people a strong voice.
It will show you just how devastating the intervention of technology can be, and will make you wonder…. what could possibly be next?