When the French novelist André Gide was asked to name his country’s greatest poet, he replied, “Hugo, hélas.” Would we say, “Williamson, alas”, if asked who Australia’s greatest playwright is? It’s 50 years since his first play was produced, as we were reminded on Wednesday night when we saw that tower of a man looking awkward as he was presented with a bouquet of flowers to celebrate his longevity and the revival of one of his better-known but not earliest plays, Emerald City. We know the legend of David Williamson. Way back in his Carlton days, his La Mama and Pram Factory days, he wrote a number of the greater plays in the Australian repertoire – The Removalists, about the cops; The Club, about footy; and Don’s Party, about politics and bright hopes, shattered hopes invested in politics.
Back in Williamson’s first bright heyday you could hear a touring British thesp such as Robert Morley declare his work the stiffest possible competition to imported British romps. There were the early productions that live in the mind’s eye of old theatregoers, the performances by the likes of the great Peter Cummins. And then there were the Bruce Beresford films of Don’s Party and The Club that ensured, as surely as Elia Kazan did when he put Tennessee Williams on screen as well as stage, the idiom of David Williamson – rawness and wide-eyed innocence in the face of self-confessed idiocy, moral or fortuitous – would live forever in the Australian psyche, or its refraction in the dramatic memory.
But then Williamson changed, Williamson adapted, and the question was raised of whether the fruits were ever forgivable. At the first height of state-subsidised mainstream theatre, David Williamson – unlike Jack Hibberd, say, who with A Stretch of the Imagination arguably produced the masterpiece of the reborn theatre – rode the waves. He became the triumphant survivor who continued to write plays people kind of liked – masses of people, not just the disgruntled, hard-to-please cognoscenti. He wrote plays such as Emerald City, which is partly about the paradoxes of success and unsuccess in a small country, in its biggest city, in the face of every kind of shoddiness and every kind of vaunted boulevardierism.
The Melbourne Theatre Company has revived it now in a co-production with Queensland Theatre, and the Sam Strong iteration is striking for the virtuosically brilliant central performance of Nadine Garner and for some very able support from Marg Downey and Megan Hind. However, it also has an awkward performance by Jason Klarwein as the scriptwriting figure, and there is a long, bewildered moment where the audience wonders what subarticulate cliché of a dramatic universe they have stumbled into.
Emerald City was written in 1987 and filmed in 1988 – with the blindingly charming John Hargreaves as the chap who tries to write, and a very young Nicole Kidman as the youngest of the women. It’s about the central paradoxes of how the man who looked like the Henry Lawson of an Australian drama he was inventing by the instant went on to write the Gallipoli script for Peter Weir and became at times something akin to the Neil Simon of the Australian stage, churning it out, almost the born boulevardier. And this went too, with the productions of his plays – in particular, by Sydney Theatre Company, which he sometimes hated – and the flirting with all manner of ideas (Margaret Mead, literary theory in university English departments) where he seemed to be exhibiting more breadth than depth.
The emerald city of the title is Sydney – the brash, materialistic, up-yours-with-the-rent harbourside horror of plutocracy and vulgarity as it can be seen with the always already moral and superior eyes of Melbourne. Then again – and Williamson will never let you forget it – there’s the famous Paul Keating remark, “Mate, if you live in Australia and you don’t live in Sydney, you’re just camping out.”
The hero played by Klarwein – who seems in some ways the stylisation of the playwright’s soul – is busily writing film and TV scripts that he would like to have significance, while constantly wanting the pot of gold, the fame, the full catastrophe. The old consummate professional Marg Downey tells him Melburnians just open their mouths to preach. On the other hand, his wife, played by Garner, is Booker Prize-nominated for a book about Aboriginal people (she’s previously been in anthologies published by – who else? – McPhee Gribble). And then there’s Rhys Muldoon as a time-serving hack, riding on the back of the Melbourne moralist with success written all over him because he’s such a ruthless chancer. Never mind his beautiful squeeze of a girlfriend (Megan Hind), whom the hero fails by a hair’s breadth of integrity to let himself have sex with.
The best production I have seen of this stretch of middle-period Williamson, when the playwright was examining his own entrails, also hailed from Queensland. After the Ball was directed with a consummate command of Williamson’s invigorated dramatic idiom by Robyn Nevin, with Bille Brown as an introspective maker of ads who always almost knew he was a born artist. It was performed by a superb ensemble cast including Max Gillies, and, although it is a minor play, it showed an exemplary command of Williamson’s dialogue (that should never be done “camp”) and his sweeping capacity to command dramatic realism.
The person who does this with bells on in this production of Emerald City is Garner as the writer/publishing woman. She knows with an absolute sureness of touch how to riff through the long paragraphs of Williamson’s never less than skilled dialogue on a coherent streak of moody emotion. She completely inhabits the playwright’s idiom and she realises – which is half the trick – the character is meant to be both likeable and comical before and beyond any moral confusion. Garner captures the gleaming charm of her character and this allows her in moments of candour and confessionalism to find room for the bareness and the disconsolation. It is a superb performance.
On the other hand, Klarwein, in the portrait of the artist as an on-the-make klutz, seems miscast. He is unable to project, as Garner does, an implicit moral intelligence on the run; there’s no comic timing of any precision and you wonder uncharitably why the great Melbourne beanstalk is being played by this Queensland cane toad. Klarwein is heavy, he squelches through the one-liners and moral prevarications. It’s all a bit wrong-headed. It’s too charmless to give the compounded character his dues.
Muldoon as the chancer is far better, if not entirely fleshed out, but with forceful bits of histrionic yobbodom that command the stage and make explicable and viable the ambiguous lure of success that hovers around the play like a constant, never-quite-resistible cloud of existential emptiness.
The real problem with performing Williamson once he got really famous is that the fame – or rather the lust to succeed in a world where success means almost nothing but not quite – is the object of the playwright’s scrutiny. That scrutiny is itself ironic and has to be presented with an incessant volleying verve.
Downey, in a very Melburnian performance as an old Sydney worldling, is superb, with her clipped vowels and her ability to drop from archness to a voice of bare truth. Here again you can see vindicated the absolute need for comic technique if you are going to get within spitting distance of Williamson’s flickering seriousness and intermittent introspection.
In the role of the sumptuous, not stupid girlfriend of the slick success man, Megan Hind has all the allure and sure-footedness the role demands and she is likeable, which is the sine qua non of Williamson’s ambiguous, always unstable charm. Ray Chong Nee, in a big-gestured, boomingly projected performance as a backer and merchant banker, is an interesting variation on type. The scale of the performance works here, whereas this very talented actor is so often misused in productions because his lavish set of skills is cramped and confined.
This Emerald City production by Sam Strong is better than it first seems. The direction is dominated by a relentless use of the revolve, which runs the risk of simply indicating a mindless clockwork doom, and you wonder about Dale Ferguson’s design, which features a wall of metallic curtain on all three sides that changes from a steely grey through deep green to a vibrant dark red of danger. This provides a not bad-looking but somewhat abstract accommodation for the actors, and the actual action of the play is sparser and less detailed than it might be.
Anyone who goes to this Emerald City with a head and heart full of remembered banalities of Williamson will get plenty to support their prejudices. There are times when the banality of the mere references actually sounds like Joanna Murray-Smith on a bad day. But there’s something here, a light in the tunnel that indicates we’re watching more than a period piece. And Nadine Garner shows with the skill of a great dancer, the skill of a musician, why David Williamson – alas and alack, as you may – is, God help us, the great Australian dramatist we somehow chose to have.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 14, 2020 as "The tone of King David".
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