There’s a moment in the writing of every big political speech when the speechwriter just knows the outcome of the speech will be the exact opposite of what it intends. It might, for example, be announcing a huge new medical research fund when there’s nothing more certain than that medical research funding will be lower in 10 years than it is now. It’s the iron law of speeches: the loftier the ambition and rhetoric, like saying you’ll cure cancer, the less likely the promised outcome.
The new play The Speechmaker, playing at Melbourne Theatre Company, starts out with a grand game-changing presidential speech about capital-H Humanity but ends with the president agreeing to the assassination of his closest political ally. Every political speechwriter has metaphorically been there — even if no real-life speechwriter has ever quite been like the play’s Ed, a former event producer who hands out colour swatches and fashion look books with his speech notes. (There are people like that in politics, but they don’t write speeches.)
At the big-picture level, therefore, this new Working Dog comedy is a winner. But what about the little picture? It’s the little details that make satire ring true; get them wrong, and it falls flat.
I went along hoping to be surprised. I’ve never yet met a political adviser who liked Working Dog’s television series The Hollowmen, which ploughed similar ground. No one even remotely recognised themselves in it, and as a result it came across as cynical rather than satirical. I’ve got a feeling, however, that political professionals will laugh at this new comic play because it gets the little things so right as to be almost painful.
The first thing is the constant Purposeful Movement. In a political office everyone seems to be on the move all the time. Down the corridor to the media office, back up it again to see the wonks, into the leader’s office for the big decision, sprinting to the chamber to deliver the final draft just in the nick of time — pure madness that’s brilliantly captured in the play. Walking on the rotating stage floor, the actors resemble Thunderbirds puppets on a mission to save the world.
The second thing is the steady physical degeneration of the staff. Politicos start the day looking like the models in Hugo Boss and Prada ads and end up using their keyboards as pillows. It’s usually in this latter state of dishevelment that the life-and-death decisions get made. The ties loosen, the hair falls, the coffee cups and wine glasses pile up around the table, and before you know it you’re condoning extrajudicial execution. This is how decisions to turn back the boats are made — believe me, I’ve seen it.
The third is the foreign policy staff. As everyone in Canberra knows, it doesn’t matter who wins government, the foreign policy advisers are always unanimous and always 100% right, which explains how we ended up spending a decade in Afghanistan. Perhaps the most brilliant comic creation of The Speechmaker is Professor Calvin Schueller, on secondment from a foreign policy think tank to act as a totally amoral undersecretary of defence (think of Scott Morrison with a good PhD). Anyone who has attended too many think tank meetings will recognise his modus operandi immediately: the creation of absurd ends (“Permanent Pre-eminence’”; then the means to those ends (“Pre-emptive Strategic Asymmetric Asymmetry”); then ensuring the ends justify the means by hiding the truth (through “Obscuremetry”). In other words, keeping it so complex and opaque that no one has a clue what’s really going on. The Council of Australian Governments employed essentially the same principle under Kevin Rudd.
Like Walter Matthau’s character Professor Groeteschele in Sidney Lumet’s film Fail-Safe and the Stanley Kubrick parody of him as Dr Strangelove, Schueller creates a doomsday machine in the form of a terrorist squad (“good terrorists, if you will”), whose program of assassination can’t be halted even by the president. Hearing the professor’s insane remorseless logic unfold is the highlight of the play. Eventually, he’s the one in control, sitting in the president’s chair with his feet on the desk while the commander-in-chief listens to his crazy schemes for world domination — which is something every think tank extremist secretly dreams of. Some, like Gerard Henderson, even get to do it.
If there’s a true measure of satiric success, it’s getting the people you are satirising to laugh along with you. Gerard probably won’t laugh, but the rest of the political class will. So yeah, Working Dog, this time it really hurts — I laughed all night.