Russell Cheek won the coveted title of Sale of the Century champion in 1993. Now, more than two decades later, his theatrical performance Who Am I? remembers and re-imagines this defining event onstage.
It’s clear that Russell Cheek’s 1993 victory on Sale of the Century has left a lasting impression. He still resides in the Bondi apartment purchased with his winnings and now 24 years later, will revisit the experience in Who Am I? at the Adelaide Festival’s Riverbank Palais.
Who Am I? depicts Cheek from 20 years ago, once more in the contestant’s chair enduring the stressful drama and comedy of competing in Sale of the Century. “This is a really strange and beautiful thing in my life,” he says. “Making a show out of this experience is very rewarding. Not many people got to win that show.”
Despite being an actor long before his stint on Sale of the Century, it was not immediately apparent to Cheek to develop the story into a live performance. Instead, the roots of the show developed as Cheek shared his tales with friends.
“We’d have people over for dinner, and some would know I’d won Sale of the Century, but some people wouldn’t know at all. Whether they had or whether they hadn’t, they would always ask, ‘can we watch a bit of it?’”
Stephen Abbott, the director of Who Am I?, was a regular presence at these nights. Repeated viewings eventually shifted Abbott’s focus from Cheek to his enthralled friends, recognising that a performance was occurring. Cheek and Abbott began to bounce ideas off each other and develop the show. “It took us 18 months to get the show together. It took me a year to write it, and tossing things around with Steve took another six months.”
For Cheek the purpose of Who Am I? is not simply to relive his victory. The show instead aims to dispel the mystery around the world of gameshows, connecting the audience with Cheek’s own experience on and offstage.
“It’s about motivation and determination and I try to see the bigger picture; how this stuff relates to life and most people. You get to see the opponents that I’m playing as well, and you get to see little things about them that can either be really entertaining or occasionally really boorish.”
Despite his tenure on Sale of the Century leaving a lasting positive impression, Cheek also aims to illustrate the less fun aspects of being a gameshow contestant. “I was so nervous,” he says of his time on Sale. “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I was doing all the right things; I was doing swimming and meditation. It’s not like I’m telling a story, I’m reliving all the emotion of this whole bloody drama, and it’s really emotionally draining. When you win that game you don’t get anything for nothing, they really get their pound of flesh.”
Part of that difficulty lay in the gruelling preparation and long waiting times between episode tapings, which Cheek wishes to translate this to his audience. “Part of my interests philosophically was the perception of time,” Cheek says. “When I had to come back to Sydney because it was the last week, it was like for me that time stood still. It was quite a surreal experience; it was like time would just not pass. It felt like it was a year.”
The show’s title, Who Am I?, is another means for Cheek to emphasise the humanity of gameshow contestants, people who are typically the objects of entertainment.
“I don’t think you can ever know totally who I am, but from what you see me go through, and how I react to it, you get a really good idea of the person that I am. I think you get to know me like a friend. A lot of the time on that show you can’t hide yourself.”
Who Am I
The Riverbank Palais
Tuesday, March 14 to Friday, March 17