Barry Humphries skipped out quickly after curtains, perhaps avoiding an awkward conversation with the playwright after. In fact, ushers misdirected the usual crowd of Melbourne B-listers and the post-show party fizzled. The stench still wafted from the theatre. This was grim viewing, possums.
Our most celebrated stage scribe got to his feet post-show to be applauded, a polite if halfhearted acknowledgement. He smiled contentedly. David Williamson is nothing but content. Blithely, indolently content.
Half-a-dozen years ago now, Williamson went on a cruise. Nose in the air, uncomfortable over our Howard-era comfortableness, he delivered a withering critique of aspirational Australia:
“I finished the cruise thinking that the ‘elites’ have an absolute right to avow that the things that mean the most to them are the works of art and intellect that our greatest creative minds and thinkers have produced, that intelligence and intellectual curiosity are not some kind of abhorrent anti-Australian behaviour, and that thinking seriously about the long-term future of our country and our planet is not some kind of cultural betrayal.”
Just who was he standing up for? Williamson hasn’t demonstrated intelligence or intellectual curiosity for years. And what better description of the languid liberal than “aspirational”? Williamson’s writing is as fat, lazy and stupid as any of those cruise-goers, a man who seeks nothing more challenging or substantial than recognition and legacy.
Don’s Party, for its bawdy faults, captured a time, a place, a mood. The sequel — which nobody really wanted, but Williamson premiered at the Playhouse last night anyway — perhaps achieves the same level of success: it’s certainly as vapid as the current domestic political landscape; as bereft of ideas as Don’s beloved Labor cause.
A cruise of Titanic disaster.
Grumpy old Don, after literary misadventure, is restless; hairless (and looks more like Garry McDonald). Kath remains by his side, for reasons that aren’t apparent. Cooley has mellowed into a sickly arch-conservative; Mal a lonely lawyer now divorced from Jenny, who rose through the Labor ranks with a burning grudge . They reunite for the 2010 federal election and moan about the listless campaign and mourn for Whitlam and Keating and the long-lost ideas men of politics.
From his comfortable sea-change retreat in Noosa, Williamson not-so-quietly seethes. He writes in the show program:
“These days, what have we got? What are the great questions being asked by our political leadership? — Will we build a new detention centre on Nauru or East Timor? Who can do the least and say the least about the great challenge of our day, climate change? Whether or not we should upset the mining companies by taxing their excessive profits? Surely, it cannot merely be the souring perception of someone in late middle-age that Australia seems less optimistic, less idealistic, less likely to take a stand on principle than it was …”
And that’s exactly what we get: wistfully bitter perception. Labor is controlled by machine men, driven by polls not policy; the fear-mongering Liberals are tied to slogans not solutions; nobody treats asylum seekers fairly; no one is committed to acting on climate change.
You’ve heard it all before. And you’ve heard it said much better. With greater insight. With sharper wit. From writers not battling an aging irrelevance.
The election wasn’t that long ago. But watching Williamson’s take, listening to Kerry O’Brien, firmly ensconced in retirement, call the card, with commentary from Williamson’s boomer brood this tired and predictable, it feels almost as nostalgic as the original film.
Don Parties On amounts to a series of disjointed and desultory sketches, poorly plotted, embarrassingly overacted, neither witty nor wise. It’s badly produced theatre; the Melbourne Theatre Company should be condemned for allowing “mainstream” theatregoers — and many will be attracted to Williamson and nothing else — to believe the artform isn’t any better than this.
But the real tragedy here is Williamson. The sheer laziness of Don Parties On embarrasses. Elites should exorcise him at once — Williamson now fails his own standards.
I published this broader critique on Crikey today. The criticism in the comments stream directed at my own stance has been fierce and worth reading. It was, I hasten to add, less a review of the production and more a comment on Williamson’s place in the cultural landscape.
On the play itself, it’s worth making a few points. Robyn Nevin directed this, somewhat surprisingly (she’s on stage in MTC’s Apologia next month), but seemed to have little influence on what we saw. How much encouragement she provided her cast to project so far in the absence of great lines and any real pathos we’ll never know.
Garry McDonald can act. I’m just yet to see him, in the theatre, in anything more than a pedestrian, predictable comedy (I’m reminded of MTC’s The Grenade last year). Robert Grubb (Mal) and Frankie J Holden (Cooley) do their best. And as their suffering partners, there’s a certain grace about Tracy Mann (Don’s wife Kath) and particularly Diane Craig (Cooley’s wife Helen). Long-lost Jenny (Sue Jones) had probably the meatiest role, but the confessions of depression and heartbreak — which could have added something really genuine to the play — were overcooked by Jones’ snarly-for-laughs performance.
The sub-plots, wedged into the bickering to provoke an empty narrative, were most objectionable. Don and Kath’s son Richard (Darren Gilshenan, in a really infantile portrayal) has split from a suicidal wife and taken up with a volatile younger squeeze, Roberta (Niki Shiels). Shiels, truly agile and over the top, throws herself about the stage; the crowd loved it, perhaps in the void of something really funny in the text.
The positives? The stage looked fantastic. Dale Ferguson has, as he did on Life Without Me for MTC last year, constructed an extraordinarily detailed and life-like set, capturing a faded suburban palace with great skill.
But I can’t offer any other reasons to see Don Parties On. Fans of the truly heady original are unlikely to be satisfied with the listless outcome. Much like the election itself, perhaps, but the prosecution is weak. And newcomers will wonder, as I did, why a David Williamson play was ever anticipated.
The details: Don Parties On is at the Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre until February 12. Tickets on the MTC website.