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Paul Pavlakis and Neneen Hanna.
Photo: Michael Gliatis.

Peter McAllum and Karen Cobban.
Photo: Michael Gliatis.

POSTED: 06 AUGUST 2010

Golden Soil, by Carol Dance

Double Dare Productions | Parade Theatres, Kensington, Sydney | Until 14 August

With Golden Soil, playwright Carol Dance has created quite an exhilarating prospect.

The kickbacks scandal involving the Australian Wheat Board in the years leading up to the Iraq War provides fertile, golden soil indeed — for humour, satire, double-edged intrigue and pithy commentary on the morality, the ethics, the incompetence of all involved, including the AWB, the UN, and, of course, the Australian, US and Iraqi Governments.

But what makes the play so interesting is the way that Dance knits this very global story around the experiences of a single Australian family. They may be fictional, but the situation they’re in could very much be quite real.

David (Peter McAllum) is one of the AWB dealmakers at the centre of the scandal that grew out of the UN’s Iraqi oil-for-food program. At first cocky and quite proud of his role, he quickly finds himself entangled in a web of deceit, trying desperately to justify his actions and his reasoning — to the world, to his family and to himself. He’s certainly not a bad person, just one caught up in a world where “everybody does it”.

His wife Susan (Karen Cobban) is a surgeon, quite used to the shock and awe of the emergency room, but otherwise quite naive and innocent in terms of the real world, though maybe not quite so much as David thinks.

Their son Harry (Christopher Darling) is an idealist, a young Australian soldier fighting for the good guys, eventually in Iraq, and increasingly questioning his father’s role in arming Saddam Hussein.

With his mission completed, Harry is lured by the big bucks of Blackwater — trying to raise enough quick money to help his grandfather Pop (Tim Hunter), ironically enough a marginally successful wheat farmer always on the verge of losing his property.

When Harry cops a bullet, Susan finds herself a job in an Iraqi field hospital. She wants to help victims of war, but even more deeply she wants to help herself by finding out exactly how her son had died.

The cast is filled out by Paul Pavlakis and Neneen Hanna, who play multiple roles, including the newsreaders who anchor the wider context to the family drama.

Golden Soil is a fine story with some seriously good writing, and this world premiere features some good acting, especially from McAllum and Cobban.

More needs to be done, though, with the staging. The bits just don’t seem to fit together smoothly enough and the presentation becomes, for want of a better word, “clunky”.

Greater use of technology would help. The newsreader roles could almost have been prerecorded and delivered straight to screen, interspersed with actual footage, rather than from the newsdesk which merely cluttered the stage.

The use of Bruce Petty drawings is inspired — who better to explain the tortuous pathways and interconnections of a corrupt bureaucratic process — but their delivery isn’t. Plastic sheets and an overhead projector? How last century.

The technique of holding someone's photograph in front of your face to convey the idea of that person being interviewed doesn't work all that well either. It's a tad amateurish and certainly does nothing to promote elocution.

Golden Soil is a potentially brilliant play, but at this stage should be considered a work in progress, albeit quite an enjoyable one.

Winning the kickbacks gold for Australia ... Christopher Darling, Paul Pavlakis, Neneen Hanna, Peter McAllum, Tim Hunter and Karen Cobban. Photo: Michael Gliatis.