The Unlikeables

17 July 2012 | 6:15 am | Dave Drayton

“Look at Game Of Thrones or Mad Men; these are not likeable people, but they’re fascinating.”

“Look at Game Of Thrones or Mad Men; these are not likeable people, but they're fascinating.” There's an emphasis on the 'fascinating' from Lee Lewis, director of A Hoax, a play populated by characters equally unlikeable and fascinating, which comes to Griffin following a production at Brisbane's La Boite Theatre. “I think we're in a particular time when audiences are very much enjoying unlikeable characters and the psychology of that.”

This all matters because the characters contained within the pages of Rick Viede's 2011 Griffin Award-winning A Hoax are, well, close to deplorable – a social worker wielding a client, as he peddles a work of fiction as a misery memoir; that same client, content to live the lie as a life of fame comes within reach; a publisher who sees amongst the misery only soaring book sales.

As a director then, how does Lewis get an audience to engage with a cast of characters whose actions seem to keep them at arms length? “I don't think engagement is about liking the people that these characters are, engagement is about understanding on a moment to moment level and enjoying watching that psychology work. I don't have to like a character to love watching them and that's the trick. Often writers will write characters that are likeable but definitely uninteresting to watch. These characters, oh my God, I would never want to spend any time hanging out with them, but by goodness I can never take my eyes off them as they work through this. We just get that sick feeling in our stomach where we watch people twisting, trying to make it all stick together. It's like waiting for a train smash in a film, you can't take your eyes off it.”

Before getting to take the words from page to stage as director, Lewis first came across Viede's script in her role as a judge for the Griffin Award, where its shock appeal was in full force. “I remember being quite worried in the first twenty pages of the play,” she recalls, “I was like 'Oh, he's not going there, he's not getting into that… Oh no, please no… This is so going to come unstuck… He shouldn't be trying to write something like this unless you really know what you're doing,' and by the end of the play I was so won over by the story of it, by the clarity with which he understood the motivations of his characters that I was won over to the idea of doing it, which was quite a remarkable feat.

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“Playwrights try different things when they write plays. They're either trying to change the way plays are written in order to suit the story they want to tell, or they take conventions and then the story they're telling becomes the focus; the new ground they're breaking if you like. This one has quite a conservative framework, but the politics of it were trying to be fresh and aggressive when it comes to Australian identity politics and that excited me, that there was a playwright willing to create a well-made play, if you like, for the sake of getting the politics across to a much wider audience.”

A Hoax runs at SBW Stables Theatre from Friday 20 July until Saturday 1 September.