A welcome examination of the impact of new technologies and attitudes on the media landscape.
The highly anticipated Sydney Theatre Company production by Wharf Revue fame, Jonathan Biggins, will please critics of the accelerated media cycle and growing reliance on social media platforms. In writing and directing this piece, Biggins makes transparently clear his attitude to the increasing dependence of technology in the media landscape and the demise of journalism as an investigative art. While such views may be warranted, as demonstrated by the fake news publicity that attracted so many people to this piece, perpetuating such stereotypes runs the danger of making the production fall victim to the very attitudes it portrays as so problematic in modern populism.
The setting is split three ways between the radio studio of shock jock, John Behan (John Waters), the ABC office of retiring journalist, Taffy Campbell (Peter Kowitz), and the swanky surrounds of newly minted acting editor of the Daily Telegraph, Julie Scott (Hannah Waterman). The clever design allows interchangeable and simultaneous scenes to be played out effectively, while keeping the attention squarely on the broadcasting suite occupying the top floor. With attention to detail of the props, right down to the Fairfax front pages decorating the leftist enclave of the rusted-on ABC stalwart, Mark Thompson’s set design is an impressive use of the limited stage space. Combined with the strategically positioned floodlighting of Trent Suidgeest, the stage is metaphorically set for the left-right divide of news production.
Screeching onto stage with the ironical dialogue that has attracted such a cult following for Biggins, the initial banter is fast-paced and sharp, featuring loads of contemporary references borrowed from real life headlines such as rants against cyclists and controversies with Sea Eagles players. Waters is perfectly arrogant as the quintessential shock jock, injecting humour and vitality to a role which is innately intended to be despised. The first scene launches straight into the action with the arrival of the two most ineffectual cops imaginable, Shane Jacobsen lookalike Ben Wood and the slightly untenable Guardian-reading, ex-lawyer Helen Cristinson. The arrival of the police cause battle-axe producer Belinda Steele (Valerie Bader) and a delightfully camp sound engineer Ashley Jarman (Kenneth Moraleda) to speculate about what their colleague could have done to attract the attention of law enforcement.
Meanwhile, on the first day of the job, News Corp editor, Scott is desperately trying to find a sensationalist piece that will catapult sales, slow the tide of redundancies and pander to the newspaper’s western Sydney base. The contrast could not be more stark with outgoing broadcaster Campbell’s last day on the job. Cynical, despondent and apathetic, the public servant has all but given upon on public broadcasting, labelling the phrase ‘let us know what you think’ as the most depressing six words ever conceived. Linking these three distinct pinnacles of journalism is the story that perpetuates itself. Rebel radio man Behan is resisting arrest for contempt of court due to broadcasting previous sexual assault charges regarding defendant, Charles Turner. With the revelation resulting in a mistrial, Behan attempts to seek justice in the court of public opinion, refusing to relent in disclosing private details about Turner, his relationship with his ex and his family.
Any reasonableness about the story soon becomes lost as the media goes into hyper-drive with the non-stop broadcasting of a vigilante under siege. When Campbell attempts to dig deeper into the facts by speaking to undisclosed but reputable sources for reliable information, he finds his leads being hijacked by the superficial tweets of the ‘fresh out of UTS’ journalism cadet, Danielle Rowesthorne (Paige Gardiner). In probably the second-most important character in the play, Biggins uses Rowesthorne to represent all that is wrong with the changing media landscape. Her obsession with trending on Twitter and appearing in Buzzfeed’s top ten takes precedence over Campbell’s attempts to impart his sage wisdom, drawing the ire of Campbell and by extension most of the baby boomer audience. Through the slightly patronising exchanges that take place in the ABC office, we are left in no doubt as to the dystopian direction Biggins sees media as heading towards. By pandering to reflexive attitudes on contemporary disdain for advances in media, Biggins risks alienating the very audience which he needs to influence, if there is any hope of survival for the industry.
Talk is an entertaining, albeit superficial depiction of the evolution of news broadcasting. Despite strong performances, the cardboard cut-out characters representing the Sydney media world make it impossible to undergo deeper analysis of the transition taking place. The result is a one dimensional take on what makes news tick in this day and age as seen from the vantage point of someone who definitely prefers the old way of doing things.
Photo credit: David James McCarthy