Shari Sebbens in The Hoax | Griffin Theatre

If two-time Griffin Award-winning playwright Rick Viede set out merely to point out that we can still be hoaxed by unscrupulous writers, it’s something of a tired cliche at this point. I mean, it’s not new. In this country alone, we can go all the way back to the Ern Malley affair, consisting of the co-creation, by writers James McAuley and Harold Stewart, of a fictitious poet of said name. The whole thing was designed to embarrass Max Harris, publisher and editor of Angry Penguins, and more generally take the piss out of modernist trends in poetry.

I hardly need mention Helen Demidenko. Of course, hoaxes in the arts aren’t confined to literature. Think of, er, Aboriginal painter Eddie Burrup, aka Elizabeth Durack. The whole mischievous concept raises all manner of captivating questions. Does it matter who signs a painting? Is it likely to be received as a better painting if Brett Whiteley’s insignia is on it, as against Joe Bloggs? Can the experts tell an adept fake from the real thing? When is homage just that? And when plagiarism? Where can the line be drawn between art and parody?

But if Viede is seeking to cast a broader net, to point to our need to tell ourselves stories, or adhere to others’, almost regardless of whether they contain so much as a grain of truth, then he’s really onto something even more potent. For mine, The Hoax — a co-production with Brisbane’s La Boite Theatre — takes a little too long getting there and the path is rambling, rather that linear. Still, he keep the journey lively, though this is as much, or more, about the quality of the production as the play itself.

Erstwhile social worker Ant (Glenn Hazeldine, giving what is very possibly his finest performance to date), a frustrated writer seeking fame, fortune and respect, hits upon Currah, a young indigenous girl who’s the victim of a shocking upbringing, duing which her father routinely raped her. He’s looking to cash in on the rich, inexhaustible vein of self-righteous tut-tutting that’s out there, just waiting to be tapped. To this end, he recruits the daughter of a client to become Currah (Shari Sebbens). Miri Smith is naive, at a loose end and up for it. He bribes her with a small amount of cash and we meet them, just getting acquainted, in an anonymous, upscale hotel room, paid for by conniving agent Ronnie Lowe (Sally McKenzie). By her side is the high-camp Tyrelle Parks (Charles Allen).

Even amidst his naked ambition, his urgent quest for celebrity, authority and admiration, there’s a certain soupçon of nobility in Ant. A genuine desire to be the change, to make a difference. At least that’s what he tells himself. Either way, he harbours conviction and always argues as if he occupies the high moral ground.

Ronnie has no such pretensions. Oh sure, she adopts a caring, maternal attitude towards Currah, but she can barely maintain this gossamer-thin veil of fakery. But she’s otherwise brazen in her unvarnished quest to dig up dollars, whatever it takes. Let them eat cake, is her outlook. If they want vanilla, give ’em vanilla. If they want strychnine, give ’em that.

But neither Ant nor Ronnie bank on Miri’s growing awareness of and appetite for her power in the game. She willingly becomes Currah and proceeds to subvert her mentors’ plans. She liked being raped by her father, she proclaims. This frank admission, far from curtailing Currah’s notoriety, transfigures her. She becomes an unlikely heroine; a living, breathing bastion of truth. Before he knows it, Ant has created a monster. A monster who sidelines him and steals Currah away from him.

To confuse matters further, while Ant is jealous of Currah, he loves and craves her company. Or is it Miri’s he seeks? Even he seems confounded by that question.

Director Lee Lewis has done a tremendously good job of bringing the best out of her actors. It certainly looks like Tahli Corin’s dramaturgy has been worth its salt, too. I’ve never seen Hazeldine look more at home or convincing. Ant really gives off a sense of his desperation and frustration with being a nobody. Sebbens, as Currah, matures 10 years in the space of an hour or so. McKenzie’s heart-of-gold hidden behind a steely exterior agent is a little too indulgently overplayed at times, but none could really find much fault with the characterisation overall, which is one of the highlights of the production. Allen is solid as Tyrelle, even though I’d trouble grappling with the real point of his character.

Renee Mulder’s design keeps things claustrophobic, adding to the pressure-cooker effect. While Steve Toulmin’s AV contribution wasn’t so great, his music and sound was a particularly powerful component of the whole production; it even had me jumping out of my seat at one point.

In the end, I have to say, for mine, the quality, discipline and kinetic energy (albeit fluctuating) of the production far exceeded that of the script, which tooled around for too long: Viede’s pencil needs a little sharpening. That said, its commentary on the elevation of celebrity above all else is a sobering one on which to reflect. We seem to have long forgotten what Tennesee Willimas once said and which Viede quotes, in preface to the published play: “Purity of heart is the one success worth having.”

If only Viede hadn’t gone out of his way (or so it seems) to shock us. It’s such a hackneyed and banal ‘trick’, performed too often by young Australain playwrights.

The details: The Hoax plays Griffin’s SBW Stables Theatre until September 1. Tickets on the company website.

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