Gasping For Change

21 October 2014 | 5:52 pm | Helen Stringer

Actor Steven Rooke is tackling “a play full of stereotypes” in Ben Elton’s Gasp!, he tells Helen Stringer.

Actor Steven Rooke is tackling “a play full of stereotypes” in Ben Elton’s Gasp!, he tells Helen Stringer.

Steven Rooke answers the phone fresh from a shoe-shopping trip; The Matilda Award-winning actor is preparing for QTC and WA’s Black Swan Theatre co-production of Ben Elton-penned Gasp!, a blackly comic satire of consumerism and corporate greed.

Brisbane-based Rooke started acting as a teenager in amateur theatre, and never really stopped. “I went to drama school at QUT straight out of school. I’ve moved up and down and around the country chasing work. It’s been a lifetime for me – 20 years of going, ‘That’s what I want to do, how do I make other people let me do it? And how do I get them to pay me for it?’” he laughs.

Rooke explains of his attraction to his latest role in Gasp!. “First and foremost (director) Wesley Enoch said I’d get an opportunity to work with Ben Elton. That sold me on the spot because I grew up on Ben Elton’s television and I’ve read every single one of his novels. And also the trip to Perth thing didn’t hurt. Sometimes you just chase the work. This one certainly came with lots of positives: working with Wesley, working with Ben, getting over to Perth for a few weeks.”

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From the writer of Blackadder and The Young Ones, Gasp! imagines a not-so-distant future in which consumerism and commodification has gone even madder; the diabolically greedy Lockheart Industries develops a new plan to rake in profits: privatising air. It’s a hugely successful venture but one which quickly divides the world between those who can afford to breathe and those who cannot. “The monster of that machine,” says Rooke, “keeps on getting bigger and bigger and… uglier and uglier until the whole thing implodes on itself.”

Rooke plays Sandy, an executive who, after a fall from grace, is hell-bent on clawing his way to the top. Gasp!’s moral core Sandy is not; the character has no remorse and no redeeming features. Rooke concedes that playing the archetypal unapologetic corporate believer poses its own challenges, not least of which is tapping into extreme levels of narcissism. But, he explains, “It’s a play full of stereotypes. [It’s] part of the joy of what Ben Elton does. He takes what you know to be true and says it out loud when a lot of other people won’t.”

Gasp! is a drastic rewrite of Elton’s first play, Gasping, which premiered in 1990 and starred Hugh Laurie. Rooke explains that Black Swan’s Artistic Director, Kate Cherry, approached Elton – who’s now based in Freemantle – and asked if he’d like to do a farcical play about mining. Having essentially written a thematically identical play 25 years before Elton suggested rewriting Gasping instead. 

While the play may come laden with wry social commentary, Rooke says, “At the end of the day we’re trying to make people laugh. Sure, there’s a great social message, but at the end of the day it’s a gag fest. If you can come and laugh a lot then that’s a useful two hours of your life as well.”

25 Oct — 9 Nov, Black Swan, Heath Ledger Theatre
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