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REVIEW: Managing Carmen | Ensemble Theatre, Sydney

David Williams steers clear of heavy-handed, didactic temptations — unlike more recent efforts — with a new play about a cross-dressing footy player at Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre.

Leigh Scully and Morgana O'Reilly in Managing Carmen | Ensemble Theatre (Pic: Natalie Boog)

Well shucks, I’ve monstered David Williamson’s recent plays as much the next (Crikey) critic. And no, David, we don’t wear that as a badge of honour. At least I don’t. I regret having to do it. But conscience, integrity and artistic judgement, to the limited extent I might possess any of them, have impelled me.

Yet, much as I like to spoil a near-perfect record and tamper with the dialectic that’s become the horse for the course where relations between the tall, hirsutely-browed playwright and this publication are concerned, I have to disagree with my Briswegian colleague and loudly proclaim that I quite like Managing Carmen. And for a number of reasons.

First of all, the ANLT and AO seems to have at least temporarily set aside his streak of misery and refrained from lecturing us on, say, the economic imperative of euthanasia and selective treatment of the aged and infirm (At Any Cost?). His not-so-vaguely Nazist sympathies in this realm aren’t his best look. This is, for all intents and purposes, non-issues-oriented Dave; a side I don’t particularly recall having seen before. It’s as close as the big man is likely to get to the rompery of, say, a Neil Simon, who has the subtlety to insinuate subjects of substance into his plays rather than seem to address them head-on. This is a fine art. An a fine balance. And DW has made a fine attempt, largely successful. Yes, rompery, if you will, without the stompery.

Rachel Gordon is Jessica, some kind of spin doctor recruited by Rohan Swift (Glenn Hazeldine in, probably, his very best performance to date), manager of an Aussie Rules footy team, to bring star player and captain, Brent Lyall (Leigh Scully) to of his shell. Swift has also hired Clara (Morgana O’Reilly), who has a distinguished history of horizontal performance, to play the part of his suitably sexy main squeeze. This to appease sponsors and make all concerned a motza. The motives are far from noble and like the best-laid plans of mice and men, there’s a hole in the big cheese’s plan. Brent, it turns out, has an alter ego. Carmen. Yes, Brent likes to cross-dress. He likes the way he looks. He likes the way he feels. Inevitably, word spreads and Rohan’s chief concern becomes keeping it from intrepid,old-school, sleazebag sports journo, Max (David Hynes). Quite right. A simple farce, of tenuous credibility; like so many of the creme de la creme of that genre. Which means that, to have any chance of getting the ball between the posts, big Dave had to kick really hard and long, with a script steeped in craftily-phrased one liners, coming thick and fast, apace, in your face. On this score, he delivers. This is the Davo of yore, back on the bike.

The characters might be stereotyped, but they’re real enough, icons of the popular, collective imagination, if not actuality. Hazeldine goes for broke as the lovably bent entrepreneur and is the standout. Hot on his heels is O’Reilly, as the gold-digging Clara. Hynes is characterful and larger than life as Max, but his lapses into high-camp mannerisms make the casting a little questionable. He gets away with though (just) and in a way it makes it all the funnier. Both Gordon and Scully seem to have more trouble getting up to speed, pitch and energy-wise, but Scully, at least, ramps it up as the play progresses.

Director Mark Kilmurry has fielded a strong team overall though. Shondelle Pratt’s choreography inspires a lot of unbridled fun and helps no end in upping the pulse. When I see television screens implicated in a set I hold my breath a little, as they’re so rarely exploited well. I needn’t have worried. By flashing varying images onto one or more screens at a time, designer Steven Butler has derived an ingenious way to set new scenes sans the distraction of shuffling props and such around. Speaking of ingenious, I presume it was Kilmurry’s decision to butt scenes hard up against each other. Not only is an actor from a previous scene sometimes left on stage, but there are comings and goings even while scenes are unfolding. It’s doubtful such bravery would be deemed workable if only considered theoretically, but putting it into practice sets a template other producers should take a good, hard look at it. It’s a revelation. I also particularly favoured the selection and use of music.

This isn’t a message in a theatrical bottle, but I did like the way the play, between the laughlines, peers at the cult of celebrity; the rampant, reckless commercialism and cynicism that’s overtaken sport; the proclivities of players that mightn’t fit the mould. There will be those, I expect, who’ll see it otherwise, but I liked the fact that double Brownlow Brent favours drag, but isn’t gay. It’s a stereotype skilfully steered around, alluding to a broader spectrum of possible identities more reflective of the real world. The fact that’s, against all predictions, Brent’s teammates, on learning of his after hours pastime, continue to welcome him with open arms may not fit expectations either, but tends to inspire hope, which is no bad thing; especially at this time of year, I s’pose.

The one big disappointment, which is clearly visible from the other end of the field almost before the match begins, is Jessica and Brent’s attraction. It’s only a better of time before business succumbs to pleasure. Still, stranger things happen and, cliche it may be, but whole lives are lived in marital union, if not wedded bliss, on flimsier bases. And, yeah, OK, it all gets a bit Priscilla in the end, but we all had a helluva good time with that, didn’t we?

Time to cut Mr Williamson a break, I reckon. I’m glad he’s given himself one, actually, by steering pretty well clear of any heavy-handed, didactic temptations. David may be back, mojo intact. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, Managing Carmen kicks a few goals.

The details: Managing Carmen plays the Ensemble Theatre until January 26. Tickets on the company website.

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