Returning after its debut season at the 2022 Adelaide Fringe, Demagogue is a dialogue-driven social and political satire from SA theatre collective Safari Street Creative. This year, it is running alongside a staged play reading of their new work Stabbing the Ghost, which focuses on the state of journalism in an age of democratised content creation and social media.

Demagogue, meanwhile, depicts two other key figures of the modern public sphere. Chris, an ambitious government politician aiming to be premier one day, and Kate, a hard-headed marketing executive and the party’s spin doctor, are an unhappily married power couple played by Safari Street co-founders Spencer Scholz and Samantha Riley.

The play’s fast-paced hour takes place within an exclusive school’s waiting room, where Chris and Kate have been summoned by the school principal to discuss an at-first-unspecified act of vandalism committed by their daughter. Promotional photos for Demagogue show the couple alongside a severed bronze head, giving some suggestion about the specifics of what she has done.

Whether it was a mindless prank, familial revenge, or motivated by political protest and the desire for revolutionary change becomes key to how they manage the situation’s consequences.

After its premiere, both Scholz’s writing and the performances from him and Riley were highly praised, drawing comparisons with the rapid-fire debates and philosophically-charged style of Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing exchanges. These highlights continue to hold up in this second run, with the continued uncertainty and escalating tension of recent geopolitical developments only adding to their impact.

But where Sorkin’s oft-noted liberal idealism inevitably offers closure and inspires optimism, Demagogue displays a Brechtian edge in its exploration of our contemporary discursive sphere and cultural temperament. Regardless of how an audience might align with the various perspectives voiced, gestured toward or dissected, any sense of easy catharsis or obvious messaging remains absent. Perhaps appropriately, we are left uncertain what to make of these two cynically successful, deeply dysfunctional characters, or their various rhetorical power plays.

Chris and Kate are (seemingly) guided by whatever will help them win – whether against each other, or in the game of politics. Motivations remain deliberately unclear and shifting throughout, with only a few brilliant monologues puncturing the façade and revealing – maybe – the deeper, truer psychological core of what is playing out.

Truth and honest communication are fundamentally important concerns here, but we can never quite see them clearly – obscured behind layers of convenient argument, sophistic irony, and competitive deflection.  At the end, the two leads leave pointedly through separate stage exit doors. What is to be done remains an open, vital question in their wake.

Demagogue is playing in The Studio at Holden Street Theatres for an extended season until March 3. A free play reading of Safari Street’s new work, Stabbing the Ghost, will also be held on Saturday, March 2.

Read more 2024 Adelaide Fringe coverage here on InReview.

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