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REVIEW: Liberty Equality Fraternity | Ensemble Theatre, Sydney

Mother and Son writer Geoffrey Atherden goes over old ground for his new free-wheeling play on our scared contemporary society. But a terrific cast makes it seem fresh.

Andrew Ryan and Caroline Brazier in Liberty Equality Fraternity (Pic: Heidrun Lohr)

Geoffrey Atherden is best-known for Mother and Son. Shannon Murphy seems sensible to his comic pedigree. It’s evident, for starters, in the impeccable judgment she’s shown in casting this 90-minute two-hander (plus one).

Caroline Brazier is Orlagh, getting more and more agitated as she sits, subjected to an endless loop of chillaxing music (succinctly chosen by Stephen Toulmin, who also greatly assists in the Orwellian ambience by way of state-of-the-art, touch screen “whiteboard”) in a lifeless, reflective, characterless interview room; full marks to designer Michael Hankin. She’s anxious, as she’s due to pick up her daughters, after school.

Enter Andrew Ryan, as Arky (a code named derived from archaeopteryx), a dishevelled bumble-wannabe, representing some discrete sort of quasi-government security agency, that’s holding Orlagh indefinitely, for pointless questioning. Arky and the agency have the dirt on her. Her two children have two different fathers. One is her husband, who doesn’t know he’s not the father of both kids. The agency holds this over Orlagh’s head, like a Damoclean sword. Or so they think. The agency wants to know why, on her Facebook page, she has referred to herself as Osama bin O’Connor and fashioned her mane of hair into a moustache and beard. “Do you know this man?” Arky incriminatingly insinuates, as he holds up a photo of the has-bin. “I might have sat behind him at the movies once,” she mocks; this one utterance being emblematic of the surprisingly devastating salvos the mild-mannered Atherden can and does launch.

But, unlike the US military’s, Atherden’s aim is true. It’s ironic, when one thinks back, that we were so up in arms about the mooted Australia card, during the Hawke years. While paranoia prevailed all around me, I thought it a practical idea. If one starts from the cynical premise that the government, banks, or whoever, already knows a good deal about one, there’s really nothing to lose. But of course, the information game has ramped-up a good deal since that comparatively innocent time. For example, a friend recently pointed out that all my Facebook posts are public, for all the world to see. What do I care? Maybe I should. But I don’t.

Which is precisely the kind of naivety and apathy Atherden is zeroing in on. It’s a tired subject, but Atherden gives it new life. It’s all too easy for Arky to come perilously close to fitting-up Orlagh as a terrorist and, had she been of, say, an Arabic background, he might’ve tried all the harder. It might sound conspiratorial, but one doesn’t have to cast one’s mind too far back, or wide, to recall bunglings or conclusion-jumping in our own backyard, whether by police, ASIO, or others. This history gives the play quite some potency. But never, ever, without comedy. Bureaucratic stuff-ups may be serious and infuriating, if not downright terrifying, when they’re happening to you, but tend to the comical when views from a distance, or in generic terms. And undercooked, cockeyed, but cocksure tools like Arky only make matters scarier. Er, funnier. Er, both.

Ryan plays it to the hilt; so good is he I can barely imagine anyone else in the role. Maybe Brendan Cowell. That’s about it. And Brazier is a perfect foil. Intelligence rubs up against ignorance. Impatience against persistence. Atherden handles the subject well and his characters even better.

The third wheel is Helmut Bakaitis, as a kind of Humphrey Appleby. He’s the big cheese, eventually interrupting wayward proceedings to evict the inexperienced trainee, Arky. Regrettably, despite his relative savoir faire, he doesn’t really prove to be any kind of saviour. In fact, he’s the nail in the coffin insofar as Orlagh’s indignation, finally breaking her resolve o adhere to her principled stand against this heinous and indefensible invasion of her privacy and intimation of some kind of guilt. And so she signs the piece of paper that will secure her release, but which also releases the agency from any responsibility for coercion.

Atherden cleverly interpolates a toilet break to indulge an absurd irony: while Arky and co have no end of forms with boxes to tick, they’ve run out of loo paper. The man’s a master of comic paradox. I’m not sure David Hicks will get his kicks en route, but the rest of us will laugh loudly, while we think.

Murphy, Brazier, Ryan, Bakaitis and the whole crew make Atherden’s excellent play even better.

The details: Liberty Equality Fraternity plays the Ensemble Theatre until March 9. Tickets on the company website.

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