Williamson wit 101

Emerald City (Queensland Theatre and Melbourne Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

February 8 – 29

Emerald City 3 - Nadine Garner and Jason Klarwein

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.

Emerald City 3 - Nadine Garner, Jason Klarwein, Rhys Muldoon

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.

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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’

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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.

Emerald City -1- Jason Klarwein and Marg Downey

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

Science, Williamson style

Nearer the Gods (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

October 6 – November 3

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David Williamson’s “Nearer the Gods” intriguingly promotes itself as a show about the politics of 17th Century science. This appears affirmed by its pre-show Purcell Chamber Music sounds and when Isaac Newton (Rhys Muldoon) appears seated at a table centre stage, he is wearing a periwig and dressed extravagantly according to the play’s Restoration era setting.

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As he greets the audience, however, he informs us that the show won’t be performed in period costume after all. This emerges to be a wise directorial decision as it does not distract from the story and its essentially human conflicts, both internally and interpersonally.

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Under Sam Strong’ direction, what follows is fascinating, as feats of human endeavour often are to those distanced from their time. It begins in 1684, at the dawn of the Enlightenment, with Robert Hooke (Colin Smith) and Christopher Wren (Hugh Parker), two of London’s Royal Society’s most prominent scientists and architectural collaborators/co-designers of several important works in post-fire London (including the Monument to the city’s Great Fire), being called to meet with King Charles II (William McIinnes) about investigations into the forces of planetary motion.

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Also at the meeting is astronomer, Edmund Halley (Matthew Backer) who then travels to Cambridge to meet with reclusive professor Isaac Newton, who it is rumoured, might have something interesting to tell him about celestial mechanics. And so the story proper becomes about physicist Isaac Newton, known in his day as a natural philosopher. More particularly, it is about the personality behind the Physics, especially of this complex and quite difficult but brilliant man, estimated to have an IQ level of 190.

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The rivalry between Newton and Hooke (presented here as a vengeful and vain antagonist, despite Newton’s own uncompromising approach and inability to accept criticism) is evidenced in some bitter clashes as thy two great scientific minds, compete to be reputed as the greatest thinker of the age.

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Act Two then follows Halley’s push to have Newton’s 1687 Principia book (now regarded as the most important work in the history of physics) published, despite opposition from within King Charles’ Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge, the oldest national scientific institution in the world.

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Halley is a young and eager offsider to the cantankerous Newton, inspired by the genius’ enumeration of his three laws of motion as explanation of universal gravitation and excited in the discovery of new truths, even if they might be at the expense of his religion and in opposition to his wife’s (Kimia Tsukakoshi) essential beliefs system. Indeed, the compatibility or otherwise of faith and reason serves as an ongoing and enduring theme that enhances the play’s resonance not just as a historical artefact account but from a modern philosophical perspective.

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There are no weak links in this stellar cast. Becker’s Halley is sprightly, generous and secure. He is not only a likeable and relatable protagonist, but absolutely nails the funniest line of the show in light of his own legacy in his namesake periodic comet. And Muldoon is brilliant as the deeply troubled Newton, obsessed by and obsessive about his work, and his conflict with Hooke. Also of note is McInnes who makes for an imposing King Charles II, cocksure in his strut about the place, but also serving as a patron of knowledge, eager to embrace reason as the way forward to increase human knowledge.

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Certainly, “Nearer the Gods” is a play of big ideas. It is, accordingly a dialogue-heavy work. Still, though there is a lot of movement in interaction with its simple stage design, afforded by the all-new Bille Brown theatre, which is at-once new and shiny, but also with surprise nooks and crannies. And the spectacle of an otherwise-dark sparkling starlit theatre is a breathtaking Act Two highlight.

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“Nearer the Gods” is a fascinating work from Australia’s most commercially successful playwright. Beyond calculus and scientific formulas, it serves mostly as a celebration of human achievement. And there is a shared excitement in witness, albeit only dramatically, of ambitions being realised that will form the foundation of countless human advancements. And if nothing else, it will leave you wondering why exactly it is that we want to know why.

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David dreams on

Dream Home

The J Noosa

July 21 – 22

David Williamson is one of Australia’s most productive and popular playwrights, these days equally lauded for the accessibility of his works’ storytelling and condemned for their perceived deficiencies in meaning making. And “Dream Home” is another of his formulaic social comedies.

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The story begins with the joy of a young Sydney couple, Paul (Guy Edmonds) and his pregnant wife Dana (HaiHa Le), moving into their newly purchased, first home, eager to embrace the great Australian dream. However, the Shangri-la apartment complex soon turns out to be more nightmare than fantasy, as its dysfunctional residents begin to drop by. There’s Sam (Justin Stewart Cotta), the tough-talking, violent Lions-of-Lebanon bouncer bully and his seductive wife Collete (Xanthe Coward), Wilma (Katrina Foster), the cake-baking kleptomaniac and resident busybody, and Henry (Alan Flower) and his cougar wife Cynthia (Olivia Pigeot), a miserable married couple.

Together they are a melting pot of conflict, who individually turn to Paul for assistance in sorting out their lives. The result is more light-hearted farce than serious, contemplative drama, which unfortunately has to resort to reliable racial and gender stereotypes. However, it provides for many comfortable laughs from audiences who no doubt recognise aspects of themselves on stage and, as a middle class comedy of manners, minus the manners, is filled with entertaining lines. The inclusion of topical political gags, for example, are clearly appreciated by the packed audience. However, there is little innovation and more than one moment of discomfort when light is made of violence within the everyday arguments over car parks and garbage bins.

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Guy Edmonds is utterly endearing as the good-natured protagonist Paul who carries much of the production. That is not to say that there are any weak links in the cast by any means and it is indeed a privilege to see the bulk of the cast from the show’s premiere Sydney run earlier this year returned for its Queensland premiere. The interactions between Edmond’s mild-mannered Paul and Cotta’s intimidating tour-de-force Sam are a joy to watch as Paul frets over the possibility of Sam discovering that his now wife was once Paul’s lover. And there is a moment of absolute glee when the audience shares in audible gasp of recognition of a slip-of-the-tongue gone unnoticed by a character on stage, such is their investment in the narrative unfolding in front of them.

Clearly, despite any criticisms, David Williamson’s social comedy is as popular as ever and with its vivid characters and almost absurd plot, “Dream Home” certainly caters for this demand. Though their character types and scenarios may feel stereotypical and lacking in substance, the performances are all great and the comedy reliable, which can possibly never really be a bad thing, especially given that Williamson has been quoted as saying that he will keep on writing as long as people keep coming to his play.

The resonance of realism

The Removalists (Critical Stages)

August 12 – 16

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

David Williamson’s realist drama, “The Removalists” is an Australian classic for a reason and, as such, it is still able to engage and resonate with audiences, although in quite a different way to when it first premiered. Far from its landmark status transforming it into a monument, however, Critical Stages shows how the work is (unfortunately) as resonant as ever as it challenges its audience to ponder whether aggression is an instinctive human trait.

The power of the play’s storytelling is in its familiarity. The 1970s is far enough away from our modern experience to be different, but still close enough in notion or experience to make sense. The furniture, clothes and interpretations of acceptable conduct may be different, yet at the core there are behaviour patterns that still seem familiar.

Although “The Removalists” is primarily a portrayal of suburban Australian life in the 1970s, its exploration of sexism, domestic violence, and power and authority are important, if only to remind us of how far we have hopefully come from a time where sexual innuendo and inappropriate touching were not taboo and ‘giving your wife a bit of a shove’ was hardly arrest-worthy. In theory, there is no longer the institutionalised chauvinism portrayed, however, the show also examines notions of authority and corruption that have certainly rung true in the years since its 1971 publication, especially in this state (just check out Matthew Condon’s investigative books about Terry Lewis).

It is new recruit Neville Ross’s first day out of police training and what a hell of a day it turns out to be. The sub branch is the best posting in the city; the workload depends on what sort of mood you are in, he is told by his superior. Sergeant Simmons (Laurence Coy) is an unsettling character, an artefact of a man with strength of his corrupt convictions, who reveals the darkness of humour nature as he twists our perception of his interaction with Ross (Josh Anderson) and then victim Fiona (Lucy Heffernan) and her sister Kate (Caroline Brazier) from humour to discomfort.

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As the policemen detail Fiona’s assault at the hands of her husband, Kenny, Simmons’ lechery become unsettling, culminating in Act Two in a hypocritical, misogynistic tirade of judgment against the adulterous Kate. Similarly, at first Neville is likeable in his naivety, however, soon we are not sure how to feel about his character, such is the skill of Williamson’s writing.

From the beginning it is clear that this is a play of much humour, however, it is a humour that resonates now due to inappropriateness and political incorrectness. The play is both well-written and well-structured so that the segue from the humorous to the horrifying happens subtly, making its themes all the more conforming. Although we are initially positioned to hate the drunken, wife-beating Kenny (played to perfection by Ashley Lyons), sympathies soon change in response to his treatment by the local policemen.

The action is divided into two acts, distinct not only by the changes in audience empathy, but the intermission break and the changed set from functional police station to domestic apartment set, suitably furnished in the oranges and browns of ‘70s decors, down to the smallest of details. The costumes too, project an immediate sense of time and place, which contributes to the realism and thus the impact of the work.

All great art comes from a sense of outrage and as modern audiences, we should be outraged by the disturbing gender politics being portrayed on stage because “The Removalists” is an unpleasant story. It is difficult to watch but also very rewarding, for in its gritty explorations of some tough themes, there are some very fine performances.

“The Removalists” is David Williamson at his very best. It is not just an Australian classic, but a powerful play with an excellent ensemble cast as unsettling characters whose interactions are riveting to watch. Indeed, the whole cast give impressive performances, particular Ben Wood as the titular removalist whose dialogue delivery and comic timing are simply wonderful. The story, however, is of the policeman, and it is fitting the play’s final shadowed and harrowing image is of them, for it is their actions that will linger long after your leave the theatre.

Don’s drag party

Managing Carmen (HIT Productions)

Gardens Theatre

July 18 – 19

ALF is a tough game, a rough game, a fast game. And at 23, Brent Lyall (Jamieson Caldwell) is its brightest star. As a two-time Brownlow medalist, his name is known by everyone in Melbourne. But this club captain and cash cow has a secret; he likes to cross dress as Carmen (aka Carmen Getit). He likes the way he looks and he likes the way it feels. But, as the audience is repeatedly reminded, he’s not gay, isn’t transsexual and doesn’t want to be a woman.

Enter his manager-funded financially-ambitious trophy girlfriend (Annie Last) and an old-school, relentless sleazy sports journalist (Trent Baker) and the stage is set for drama, comedy and some fabulous frocks, in accordance with the long theatrical traditions of cross dressing and gender confusion. The result is a humorously predictable theatre experience that plays on the popular conventions and cultural psyche insights that make David Williamson’s works so popular.

And Williamson knows football. His hugely successful 1977 satire, “The Club” captured the macho world of Aussie Rules in its behind-the-scenes portrayal of the Collingwood Football Club. “Managing Carmen” still, unfortunately, contains two-dimensional characters. Brent’s agent Rohan (Brandon Burke) is throwback to “The Club” days and sports journalist Max is a stereotypical character of little depth. Brent, however, is somewhat refreshing in his intelligence and introspection; he likes to watch documentaries and prefers self-obsessed girlfriends who won’t always be asking what he’s thinking.

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And this is Brent’s story. A big brother style image of his face as backdrop dominates the entire production. Caldwell gives an excellent, accessible performance as Brent, even if his portrayal of alter-ego Carmen sometimes ventures into Chris Lilley, “Ja’me: Private School Girl” territory.

This is a show typical in Williamson style and tone, even if it sometimes slips into slapstick. Beyond the comic fodder of Brent’s revelation and its subsequent management, this is a story about gender and sexual politics, the cult of celebrity and the nature of addiction.

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Although transitions are smooth, the numerous short scenes, particularly during Act One, do little to aid in the development of comic momentum. At two acts of approximately 50 minutes each, it is a palatable length and a good night out courtesy of one of Australia’s most prolific and produced playwrights, even if, in many ways, it lacks the witty, sharp dialogue and keen observations that typically personify his work.

Hell hath no fury like a beneficiary scorned

When Dad Married Fury (Christine Harris and HIT Productions)

Gardens Theatre

March 7 – 8

David Williamson’s 2012 play “When Dad Married Fury” is safe theatre of the traditional kind. And there is nothing wrong with that. It is, as it promises to be, humorous and entertaining in that David Williamson way. Williamson realises that there is a reason why the drama of family dynamics features at the core of so much theatre and although this work is one centred around relatives and relationships, it is far from a toast to happy family life.

Brothers Ian (David James) and Ben (Drew Tingwell), along with their better halves, are gathered in Sydney to celebrate the 70th birthday of their recently widowed father, Alan (Denis Moore). Alan is a shonkie, but ruthlessly successful, businessman (worth about $100 million), but also a ‘sex-obsessed old bastard’ who has remarried an American woman known as Fury, who is half his age. Although they are yet to meet Fury, the men are convinced of her untrustworthiness and, as such, are keen to secure their intended inheritance.

Like the brothers, the audience must wait to meet the Fury of the title. We hear her described as a heaving-breasted former beauty queen, half Alan’s age, so expect a stereotype. When Annie Last finally takes stage as the larger than life title character, three-quarters of the way through Act One, she is actually quite engaging and personable…. until she begins discussing her narrow-minded, fundamentalist Christian beliefs and Tea Party allegiance, whereupon it appears that she’s a nutter.

But this is where things start to get interesting, not in terms of character relationships so much as the script’s detour into discussions of politics, religion and business. And although it is set in the aftermath of the 2007 financial crisis, there is still much of relevance within its subject matter, with sharp dialogue that is, for example, peppered with comments about the arts, artists and funding.

As arts academics from near-to-Byron-Bay (where the hills are alive with the sound of pottery wheels), Ben and particularly his wife Laura (Tanya Burne) are the moral oracle of the audience. Laura’s progressively more inebriated party interactions are a highlight, for her performance as much as the insightful accuracy of her social commentary. They epitomise the light-hearted nature of Act One, the levity of which is also reflected in the sharp lighting and simple set of coloured panels, allowing swift transitions and naturalistic use.

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To a certain extent, Act Two subverts the stereotypical expectations established before interval as Williamson throws in some plot twists and starts to flesh out the stereotypes. In fact, it is soon apparent that these are not archetypes after all, but three-dimensional characters, with their own stories to tell for, as the dialogue reflects, there is no black and white in a world that no longer operates on handshakes and looking someone in the eye. Indeed, things unravel in Act Two as secrets are revealed and old wounds opened. Although the most interesting character is Fury, who emerges as not just a colourful character but a complex one, there is focus also on each brother’s marriage.

While “When Dad Married Fury” is, as it promises, a story of family relationships and greed, it is also a witty, well-paced exploration of the resoluteness of belief systems and ideologies in contemporary culture.  And when it comes to a traditional theatre treat, you can rarely go wrong with a good dose of Williamson political and social satire.