Emerald City (Queensland Theatre and Melbourne Theatre Company)
QPAC, The Playhouse
February 8 – 29
The pre-show soundtrack of “Emerald City” features a distinct Australian flavour, appropriate for the Great Southern Land celebration of interstate rivalry, idealism and so much more. Shortly into the Queensland Theatre/Melbourne Theatre Company co-production, it is Noiseworks literally taking us back to the 1980s era of the David Williamson’s finest comedy in which creative couple Colin (Jason Klarwein) and Kate (Nadine Garner) have moved to Sydney in pursuit of further career success. Cue the Sydney vs Melbourne mentions that then proceed to make up majority of early scene dialogue. It is trademark Williamson 101, full of humour and witty social observations.
The 1987 satire about the film and publishing industries in Sydney (the Emerald City of the title) is also about marriage and its strains, especially when it is of two competitive partners trying to find a balance in life. This is Australia of the late 1980s, full of entrepreneurial optimism and materialism that see antihero protagonist Colin teaming with hack writer Mike (Rhys Muldoon) who lacks in talent but not commercial ambition, to work on a pet project.
Ahead of Act Two’s obvious ‘80s cultural references there are subtle nods to the era through double breasted suits, shoulder pads and pale pastel clothing; a screenplay is completed on a typewriter and first-thing-in-the-morning updates about the news of the world come courtesy of an actual newspaper. Some of its dialogue, however, lands with more of a modern day thud, especially some of the gendered jokes Mike directs towards his significantly younger girlfriend Helen (Megan Hind). But there are also some still hilariously funny one-liners, often from Marg Downey in fine form as the deliciously dry Elaine, Colin’s agent and producer.
Despite his character’s chauvinistic interactions, Muldoon helps us find a likeability in Mike’s brash insensitivity, before his undermining is fully revealed. Indeed, he seems to be having a great time playing the role of the archetypal Sydney operator. Likewise, Klarwein manages to give talented and celebrated screenwriter Colin an every-man sensibility that adds to the show’s appeal. His performance is a vital one, especially sparkling in his animated imitation of his just-turned-teen daughter’s life dilemmas. Nadine Garner brings a passionate energy to his socially conscious, successful publisher wife Kate, especially in call out of her husband’s integrity in his changed art vs business and money views now that he is experiencing commercial success…. And so we kick into interval to sounds of ‘New Sensation’
The aesthetic of costumes et al darken as Colin’s world collapses in on itself in Act Two. David Walters lighting design works well with the simple but dynamic staging (Designer Dale Ferguson), allowing much of the action to essentially take place in a glass box, which affords some wonderful mirror imagery and alternative visual perspectives. The backdrop allows us to see Sydney’s new money ‘80s sparkle with the hint of opera house sail curved into the sparking shapes. While in Sydney it is all about the water frontage, (“nobody wastes time debating the meaning of life in Sydney; it’s getting yourself a harbour frontage”), all that glitters is not blue, with Colin soon discovering the green murk beneath its surface, like in its namesake City of Oz tale.
Under the direction of outgoing Queensland Theatre Artistic Director Sam Strong, this is a sparkling revival of what is clearly an enduring play; while it is an entertaining story, it also still has much to say about human nature and our society. While not ground-breaking in its form, it puts real people and situations on stage, characters that despite the distance of time still possess recognisable human traits, conflicts and unfulfilled dreams. David Williamson has long been a writer of funny smart and popular plays. Given his announcement that, after half a century of writing plays, making him the most produced playwright in the history of Australian theatre, he has written his final drama, this is a production that everyone really should see.
Photos c/o – David Kelly