Renowned comedian, author, presenter and playwright Ben Elton had the rare opportunity to revisit and old work when he was commissioned to rewrite his first play, 198’s Gasping, into the contemporary and Australian-themed Gasp!. TRAVIS JOHNSON managed to get a question or two in edgewise.
We asked a simple question: tell us about Gasp!…
“Well, it’s a re-write, a reinvention and reimagining of a play I wrote 25 years ago called Gasping, which was shown in the West End in 1989, starring Hugh Laurie. It was a big hit and it ran for a year and a half but it was my first professional play. I think it was a very good idea for a play, a world where air becomes a saleable commodity that could be contained and people could be deprived of it – although that’s obviously not the intention of it at the beginning, everyone always has very good intentions. I wrote it very much as a farce, a very fast paced verbal comedy and there it lay for many years. I wasn’t going to do anything with it apart from perhaps maybe one day try and make a movie of it. I think it’s a great idea, the basic premise. I talked to Russell Crowe about it quite a lot a few years ago. We began to toy with it as a movie but, as with most movies, it never happened but we had a lot of fun with it.
“I never thought the play was right, with Gasping. It’s very much an ’80s piece. The comedy is very much based around this endless fun with the yuppie ideal and this sort of smart-talking smoothie – the comic version of Gordon Gekko, basically. But there it was, I was very proud of it, but I always thought it was slightly unfinished business.
“And then, when [Black Swan State Theatre Company Artistic Director] Kate Cherry very flatteringly occasionally, when we bumped into each other, because I frequent Black Swan – it’s my local theatre and a very good theatre it is, too – about whether I’d like to write a play for the Black Swan and whether I had any Australian ideas. Not that she was insisting but she said here you are, a Pom living in Australia and you’re Australian as well – is there a play?
“And the more I thought about what I would write about, I kept on coming back to the resources sector, because it’s about the only thing we like to talk about here in Australia. A bit less now, but a couple of years ago, from the Mining Tax through to the Carbon Emission Whatever – it wasn’t a carbon tax, we won’t go over that again – but between those two supposed taxes, it was just a sort of hysterical nightmare I thought, the Australian resources debate, led entirely by self-interested big businesses, in my opinion. I thought the attacks on the idea of a mining tax were outrageous – I mean disinformation on an extraordinary level, full page adverts basically saying everyone will be out of work and everyone’s super will disintegrate, evaporate if Big Mining is called to a little more account than it is at the moment.
“So I was just very interested in the resources debate. And never a mention of the environment, so it seems. Even when the carbon emissions became the issue, it was all ‘Will we be a bit worse off?’ Fair enough, I understand that. People trying to balance their budgets, I fully understand that they have to think about that as well as the planetary future. But it seemed that the reason there was a carbon emissions debate was never really debated – it was just ‘Rargh, it’ll cost you more money so you better vote Liberal!’ Anyway, I kept thinking I should write something about this – not a political polemic, but this is what we’re all talking about. So I kept coming back to Gasping, thinking that’s the play I should write now, I shouldn’t have written it 25 years ago. Now’s when I want to write a play about a thing that everyone thinks they own and suddenly it becomes something that becomes a global problem.
“So I went to Kate and said I’d like to rewrite a play that I’d written 25 years ago, I’d like that chance, and she was very interested. And here we are with Gasp!”
Gasp! runs at the State Theatre Centre from October 25 – November 9. For tickets and session times, go to bsstc.com.au.