Table of Knowledge: A city's story hits the stage

The controversial play The Table of Knowledge proves truth can be stranger than fiction.As the name suggests, it’s based on alleged sex scandals, bribes and other activities of the now (in)famous group who would meet at the plastic ‘‘table of knowledge’’ outside a North Wollongong kebab shop.The Merrigong Theatre Company show was developed with Sydney political theatre company Version 1.0. The script of the play is taken directly from transcripts of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) inquiry into Wollongong City Council which led to its sacking in 2008.TABLE OF KNOWLEDGEAugust 30 - September 11:IPAC, WollongongTickets: $56 - $20Bookings: 4224 5999Version 1.0 director and actor David Williams says trawling through more than 1000 pages of dry, legal documents uncovered a set of stories that a scriptwriter could never invent.‘‘It’s a fantastic set of stories. I mean, look at the appearance of the con men, it’s fantastic! Who could make this stuff up?’’ he says.‘‘These guys turn up impersonating ICAC officers, in an environment where everyone is extremely paranoid and they start extorting money from people. Where did they come from? Why do people believe they are from ICAC and why do they pay them?‘‘And then in the inquiry transcripts they are saying ‘well, I knew I’d done nothing wrong, but I paid them anyway’. But why? What kind of strange parallel film noir world do they live in?’’These events provided plenty of silly, comic material for the play - the con men are played on stage by balloons on sticks - but Williams says the biggest surprise in reading the documents was the element of tragedy and sympathy found in many of the characters.The plot involves many of the central figures of ICAC, including Rod Oxley (played by Williams), Frank Vellar, Beth Morgan, Joe Scimone, and Val Zanotto. Williams says some of the best parts of the drama come from what Morgan found out when she was put on the stand.‘‘She finds out that Frank Vellar, who she’s been having an affair with, and who she just broke up with the previous week, has been having several other affairs and she didn’t know that,’’ he says. ‘‘And she also finds out, on the stand, that the con men who were being quite heavy with her seemed to have a very warm relationship with her boyfriend and that he might have been encouraging that relationship.‘‘We thought it might just be a silly sex scandal with bumbling developers and other characters, but it’s actually a much more rich, emotional world than that - and that’s fascinating.’’The other surprising thing about The Table Of Knowledge, Williams says, is that council elections happen smack in the middle of the performance run.Williams says it was a ‘‘fortuitous happenstance’’ that has allowed The Table of Knowledge to be on at the same time as the council elections.‘‘The dates were set last November, and the new State Government hadn’t yet been elected or made promises about early council elections,’’ he says.‘‘It’s a bit scary too. Many of the people involved will come along to see the show and whether they make the cut of the stage work, and how the performance treats them. That’s occasionally intimidating.’’Even though it was unplanned, the uncanny timing of The Table of Knowledge means Williams and the rest of the Version 1.0 crew will be able to test out their theory that their plays are an important part of democracy.‘‘We like to think our works open spaces for public conversations about important issues and in this case that is literally true,’’ he says. ‘‘The show occurs in relation to this huge civic event and it is a unique opportunity for citizens to gather and consider what happened in the past and what kind of future they want.’’Version 1.0 has long considered that their work helps to encourage the processes of democracy in Australia.The company started in 1998 as a group of graduates from the University of Western Sydney theatre program. In 2002 Williams was given a document about the children overboard incident and originally intended to make a silly spoof taking off politicians involved in the incident.‘‘It ended up being quite a serious investigation of the way Australian democracy represents asylum seekers for political ends,’’ Williams says.They then made a number of other plays about political events like the selling of the war in Iraq and Deeply Offensive and Utterly Untrue about the Australian Wheat Board scandal, which played in Wollongong in 2009.Merrigong Artistic Director Simon Hinton says his theatre company, as the main public company in Wollongong, has a role to go beyond simple entertainment and ‘‘engage the community with different ideas and experiences’’.‘‘An essential role of theatre is to reflect society, and we thought (the ICAC inquiry) was a local story and we have a commitment in our strategic plan to give artistic voice to the Illawarra region and tell local stories through theatre. This is probably the biggest local story in years, so we thought how should we respond?’’Rather than waiting for years to pass and then commission a reflective theatre piece, Hinton says Merrigong wanted to engage the community while the events were still unfolding. Having presented Deeply Offensive and Utterly Untrue, he says they immediately thought of Version 1.0.‘‘Their theatre-making is about using primary source material and people’s real words wherever possible,’’ Hinton says.‘‘Deeply Offensive and Utterly Untrue was an incredibly entertaining piece of theatre given that it was essentially the AWB inquiry and transcripts, so we felt that the ICAC inquiry transcripts might make the basis of a similarly entertaining show.’’Hinton says The Table of Knowledge play will give audiences a glimpse of the central characters of the ICAC saga and a deeper understanding of what their actions meant for Wollongong.The play includes a question and answer session at the end so that the audience can engage with the story, which Hinton says will help people in Wollongong to influence the story and how they want to respond at the council election.‘‘It’s about helping the audience to understand some of the key factors of it, and make up their own mind,’’ he says.‘‘I live in Wollongong and read the Mercury and everything, but I still really didn’t understand a lot of it. But seeing showings and reading the script has really helped me gain an understanding.’’Hinton says not everyone in the community is happy with the staging of the play, especially at election time.‘‘There seems to be two views in this city,’’ he says. ‘‘One is that we should stop bringing up bad things that have happened in the past and just tell everyone that we love the Gong and be cheerful and sanitise that image.‘‘But I’m not of that opinion. I think we’re a city that is mature and sophisticated enough to actually face things that have happened in the past and really reflect on them and move on by examining what happened and taking it on board.’’

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