Review by Thomas Gregory
In 1996, a red-headed fish-and-chip-shop owner called Pauline Hanson stole a Labor stronghold in Ipswich to become a member of the House of Representatives in the Australian government. Hanson chose not to champion the cause of small business owners, women, or even redheads. Instead, she predicted that by 2050, Australia would be run by “President Poona Li Hung, a part-cyborg lesbian of Chinese and Indian descent”, and that this idea was horrifying.
Australia’s response to her then was the satirical masterpiece of a song, “I don’t like it,” by Pauline Pantsdown. Nearly a quarter of a century later, Pauline Hanson is still in the federal government. The victims of her racism may have changed, but it is clear that mockery will do nothing to slow her or her movement.
A new route must be taken.
For Roshelle Fong and Keziah Warner, this route is by exploring Hanson’s claim with sincerity. What would it be like, in the not too distant future, if we were to support a candidate that was a part-cyborg lesbian of Chinese and Indian descent? Partnering with Next Wave and the Chinese Museum, Fong and Warner have created an original piece that challenges us to look at the politics of yesterday and today, and ask “Can it change tomorrow?”
“Poona” is a part-interactive performance in which audience members take the role of staff members in the campaign, solving real-time crises much like you would expect in a political campaign. In a large conference room, the small audience gathers around a table to do everything in their power to help Poona win the election.
Should we take campaign funds from a mining company? What do we do if a sex scandal breaks out? (Since our candidate is a woman) what should they wear during a public appearance? Our choices have real-world consequences, the play taking turns based on how “the Australian public” reacts to this.
This might appear a daunting, and even risky, type of show to present. However, Fong and Warner have shown an incredible amount of wisdom and dramatic skill to cater to every issue.
Audience members choose before the show how much they want to be involved, from being actors in a scene to getting to sit back and watch without expectations. If the audience wants the actor to decide, pre-considered lines are given with sincerity. “But what does Poona want to wear?” is answered with, “I’m sure my stylist has made them all comfortable, and that is all I care about.”
Free will reigns. Two end-of-election speeches are sitting in envelopes. There are two different ways a media interview might go which will influence the outcome. In the show I attended, Poona won. The night before, she lost. This ability to “choose your own adventure” adds an element of engagement with the themes and messages of the piece. I stayed up most of the night thinking about what might have happened if only we had taken the money. What would Poona’s story have been? How would I have felt if “we” lost the election? Even though we won, did we do the right thing?
Breaking up these interactive moments in the campaign are more conventional pieces of theatre; vignettes that give us a look at the fears, joys, and relationships behind the scenes for the inner circle of Poona’s campaign. We get to see a mother express the pride in her daughter as she talks to the remains of her robot husband’s circuit board. We watch Poona’s campaign manager down her twentieth energy drink as she laments the fact that, as a human, she needs sleep. And we watch Poona’s cybernetic partner argue with the campaign manager over their loyalty to the campaign.
Full of humour and heart, these scenes draw us into the lives of characters we do not want to let down when we face the next crisis.
I’d like to praise a break-out role in this show, but I cannot. Quite honestly, there wasn’t a moment when an actor was not at their best, taking an incredible script and turning these complex characters into real people, right there with us, struggling through what it means to be represented and heard. Likewise, despite dozens of audio clips, presentations and videos, there was never a single glitch in technology or timing. There was never a joke written that failed to get a laugh or a moment of passion that wasn’t met with empathy.
The level of detail in the show is incredible. As Poona checks her “Fluffle” social media page, her biology is insulted by “@ARealScientist”. The voice actors who offer up media clips of the campaign could easily be mistaken for the well-known “shock jocks” we all know and hate today. The wifi password to the campaign office, as I note it quietly tacked on a wall nearby, is “fuTur3!sf3rr0fli!d2050”; the campaign motto being, “The Future is Ferrofluid” a clever play on words, and catchy song.
There is, however, a flaw in this production. Although not fatal, and quite out of the hands of actors and directors, it holds back the show from perfection.
It is to be found in the element of immersion.
Taking a role as part of the campaign team, solving issues together in a situation similar to a live-action roleplay, puts the audience in a position in which we cannot avoid asking the big ethical questions. The creators have made this experience fun, thoughtful, and inviting. It is easy to get lost in the moment and to believe you are a part of something big.
The more conventional scenes are powerful. We are getting intimate glimpses into the lives of these people. It is hard not to cringe in recognition of the mother-daughter fight in front of a TV camera, and a tear came into my eye as a loving couple made sure not to go to bed angry.
It’s the moving back and forth that is the problem. At no point can I fully let myself be immersed in one context, as I know I will be dragged away in a moment. How can I dwell on the fears of a widow for her child, when I am being asked what my candidate should wear? How can I interact with the candidate’s partner, having just invaded her privacy by watching her cry out in emotion she reserves for only those she loves?
This inability to be fully immersed ensures I’m never able to forget that this is only a performance. The constant reminder that this is, at best, a thought experiment, doesn’t do justice to the heart-wrenching humanity and community-building interaction we are being offered in any one scene.
“Poona” is two perfect performances, slightly damaged at the ends by coming together to form one memorable night. Challenge your biases, laugh in recognition of our universal flaws, and believe in a world that could be better.
“Poona” isn’t on for long, and audience numbers are severely limited each night to offer the best experience. I highly recommend you book tickets immediately because this is not one you want to miss.
Poona is on until the 23rd of May, with Auslan interpreted performances each Saturday. Tickets can be purchased via the Chinese Museum website.