Theatre for the latte masses

David, Cate and Andrew in happier (very recent) times – from SMH

It’s always sad when heroic high achievers begin to lose their powers, still more when they fail to age gracefully and succumb instead to bitterness and envy. But so it seems to be with David Williamson, once said to be Australia’s greatest playwright.

On the same day the Sydney Theatre Company’s season of new wunderkind Andrew (Lantana) Bovell’s blockbuster When The Rain Stops Falling opened at the Opera House to rave reviews, Williamson was bitching in the SMH about the poor judgment of the STC under the tutelage of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton in preferring “dazzle theatre” and “capital-T theatre” over the sort of “storytelling theatre” of which Williamson sees himself as the epitome.

Although the STC has just finished a revival run of his vintage play The Removalists, it appears Cate and Andrew were less interested in staging Williamson’s newer works penned since he revoked a previous 2005 decision to retire from the playwrighting caper.   As a result, Williamson has taken his theatrical bat and gone home via Kirribilli’s Ensemble Theatre, which is about to stage his new work Let the Sunshine (why all these weather metaphors? – it must be the zeitgeist).  The plot summary tells you all you need to know about why Cate and Andrew didn’t want it for the STC:

Let The Sunshine, starring William Zappa, Georgie Parker, Andrew McFarlane and Kate Raison, is a comedy about two ideologically opposed couples living in Noosa, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, who are forced to get on when their children marry and have a child.

“It is a rerun of Romeo And Juliet,” Williamson says. “It’s the Capulets and the Montagues but my star-cross’d lovers don’t come to an horrendous end. Comedy is based not on life-shattering events but ordinary people muddling through their problems.”

Sounds more like an attempt to recycle Travelling North by making the protagonists sea-changing Babyboomers instead of old codgers while grafting a confected ideological conflict onto an already tired concept. 

Jen and I certainly won’t be parting with the readies to see it, unlike Williamson’s last pre-“retirement” blockbuster Influence which we saw to our deep disappointment during its 2005 highly profitable run in Melbourne.  We more or less agreed with The Age’s review of that production:

The subject of Sydney’s radio shock jocks and their demagoguery may be new to the stage, but everything else about Influence marks it unmistakably as the work of David Williamson. Its characters have no surprises for us; its plot works with a clockwork neatness; it delivers a degree of satire mainly through exaggeration and manipulation of stereotypes; and its criticisms are predictably left-wing. …

There is no arguing with the play’s politics as such, but its limitations ultimately blunt the message. Opinions delivered by two-dimensional characters may arouse suitably predictable responses, but without the real sympathy that might bring about change.

It may be a harsh judgement, but there is something opportunistic about Williamson’s capturing of such topical subjects as displays of deplorable political reality without taking it any further.

Despite recanting his wise decision to retire, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Williamson that he’ll never again appeal to a more discerning audience while he insists on endlessly repeating his standard pitch to the large though profitable group of middle class, middle aged, vaguely left-leaning ABC viewers who’d rather chuckle condescendingly at their favourite playwright’s predictable barbs while congratulating themselves on their enlightened opinions than have their self-satisfied self-images challenged by anything even slightly raw or uncomfortable. 

Williamson obviously needs all the help he can get, so I thought I’d do what I could to assist by whipping up a script outline he might like to use as the basis of his next opus.  It’s a pleasingly reflexive and self-aware little piece of po-mo theatre, I like to flatter myself:

Simon Sewell is a middle-aged latte left-leaning lawyer with a boutique Sydney law firm aspiring to Slater & Gordon ambulance-chasing fame and fortune.  He and his vaguely hippy-ish wife Sandra (think Bettina Arndt without the gross self-promotion) are on their way home from a Monday evening session of David Williamson’s latest show at the Ensemble when they decide to drop in for a late night supper at a cheeky little brasserie on Military Road. 

Fretting idly about the current marital problems of their daughter Felicity and her husband Selwyn, an upwardly mobile metrosexual foreign exchange dealer with MacBank, they’ve only just settled into their focaccias when they are interrupted by the arrival of their next door neighbour Bob Battersby and his mousy wife Sharon. 

Bob is a loud-mouthed Coalition-voting real estate agent, and he and Sharon have a boof-headed son named Justin who plays rugby league for Manly Sea Eagles reserve grade team. In fact Bob and Sharon are on their way home from watching Justin go around with the Eagles and are in a garrulously friendly mood as they speculate about Justin’s prospects of promotion to first grade, what with Brett Stewart’s absence and a succession of poor performances from his teammates.

We gradually become aware that the couple’s conversations are being progressively drowned out by the sound of a TV whose volume is being cranked up behind the counter, an unsubtle signal that the staff are keen to close up and go home.  The Battersbys suddenly hear their son Justin’s name.  Focusing on the program, they realise to their horror that it’s ABC Lateline and that Tony Jones is doing a follow-up to the recent Four Corners expose of NRL players’ penchant for gang-bangs.  Justin is being accused by a young woman with a pixellated face and electronically altered voice of doing a Matty Johns on her with his teammates in a backroom of the Steyne Hotel one night a couple of years ago.

Only a few moments later, Simon and Sandra recognise Felicity’s voice despite the anonymising distortion. In a flash of understanding, they grasp the reason for their daughter’s marital troubles and solve the conundrum of why their toddler grandson Kyle is such a stocky little chap in contrast to Selwyn’s emaciated greyhound physique.

An increasingly barbed exchange takes place between the couples, with no stereotypical stance or issue left unexploited.  Finally violence erupts, and focaccias and double decaf lattes fly in every direction.  Simon and Bob both end up in Royal North Shore Hospital with relatively minor but debilitating injuries.

The Second Act opens at RNSH reception, where  Felicity and Selwyn have just arrived to visit Simon,  unwittingly mistiming their arrival to coincide with that of Justin and his brand new girlfriend Charmyne Palavi to visit Bob.  Not surprisingly, the conversation rapidly deteriorates, and again no  contemporary cliche is left unturned.  Things are looking decidedly ugly, until veteran playwright and Manly fan Tom Kenneally co-incidentally arrives for day surgery on an inconvenient hemorrhoid.  Instantly recognising Justin as an up-and-coming Sea Eagles star, Keneally intervenes and successfully mediates the situation.  

Selwyn gradually comes to a long suppressed realisation about his sexuality, while Justin too gains insight into the reason why he can only maintain an erection with a sheila when his teammates are present and naked.  Selwyn and Justin feel a mutual spark and wander off rapturously arm in arm to look for a little Newtown terrace where they can set up house together. 

Felicity and Charmyne, on the other hand, are devastated and minded to beat the crap out of Keneally until he pulls out his mobile phone and contacts David Gallop, with whom he speedily brokers a deal for the girls’ immediate appointment as the NRL’s new sex and sexuality consultants.  They obviously know far more about the subject than the incumbent Catherine Lumby, whose evident failures are still plastered over tabloid front pages.

Meanwhile, Simon, Sandra, Bob and Sharon are having their own painful rapprochement.  After watching their respective Great Australian Suburban Dreams crumble to ashes beneath their feet, they recognise kindred feelings in each other, simultaneously achieving Zen-like insight into the impermanence of all things.  Both couples resolve to sell their adjoining north shore McMansions for lucrative redevelopment. Each buys a luxury caravan and matching custom-built hybrid electric/biodiesel Toyota Prado, and they set off together on the Grey Nomad trail boasting the smallest possible carbon footprint. 

By this time their tale has of course been immortalised on Australian Story, and they are feted at every caravan park by hordes of adoring codgers who see them as the living embodiment of the New PoMo Great Australian Dream.

I hope David isn’t discouraged by the evident impossibility of matching the intellectual and emotional power and nuance of this great modern allegorical tale.  Fortunately, I’m not egotistical about these things.  Rather I see myself as a sort of Playwright Ghostwriter to fading stars.  David only has to get his people talking to mine about a lucrative but anonymous script development deal.  If you see yourself in a similar gratifyingly self-effacing role, you might like to contribute your own version of Williamson’s next blockbuster script in the comment box.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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John Passant
14 years ago

There is no reserve grade, I understand. It’s the Toyota Cup (under 20s from memory) or feeder clubs in local competitions. Apart from that, could I suggest a political club, trips away on business, group sex ….

Nicholas Gruen
14 years ago

I like the scenario. I think it needs further development.

(You haven’t been ghosting DW all these years have you KP?)

Tony Harris
14 years ago

We probably should cut David some slack, he is a Collingwood supporter.

John, when the Muse takes flight the dross of daily life is transmuted into the gold of Art, the triumph of the human spirit results in deathless myths and timeless artistic creations that will provide inspiration for generations yet unborn.

Ken has missed his true vocation.

14 years ago

Awesome KP that would the first DW I went voluntarily to see ;)