Melbourne’s chattering cultural critics can kill two birds with one stone at The Playhouse this month: another unchallenging ‘mainstream’ (whatever that means) play from the Melbourne Theatre Company, another blunt social satire from the tallest of playwriting poppies, David Williamson.
Both writer and company are immediately on the defensive. The show’s program, at least, seems determined to pre-empt the inevitable criticism: “more regularly than we give him credit, he thwarts our expectations,” MTC insists; Williamson is a mere “victim of the assumption that those who make us laugh lack depth”, whose “variation in style, setting and subject” disproves the “patent myth” of sameness across his plays.
Who are they trying to convince? There’s a perverse sport, certainly, in cutting down Williamson and the companies that court him. Often unfairly.
So it’s genuinely disappointing when Let The Sunshine — Williamson’s latest post-retirement work, a co-production between MTC and the Queensland Theatre Company — lives up to expectations.
Let me rebut the rebuttal. Williamson, here at least, does fail to thwart our expectations. There’s simply nothing much new here; indeed, there’s a naked self-indulgence about the situation (an idealistic, post-hippy lefty sea-changing to Noosa; as autobiographical as anything Williamson has penned) and ideas. He may well be unfairly dismissed for levity, but that’s only a crime if the work fails to draw genuine laughs — and this doesn’t. And even the most devoted Williamson fans — there are many, rightly — will concede the common ground in his work. Far from a myth, Let The Sunshine only underlines the argument.
Many will see this play; Williamson remains reliably popular to theatre producers. Many will enjoy it. This isn’t a bad play. But it’s not very good, either. And as economically lucrative as this may be for the MTC, as comfortably relatable as this story will no doubt be to great swathes of the traditional baby-boomber theatre set, I actually reckon audiences demand a little more.
Toby (Robert Coleby) is a playwright … sorry, documentary filmmaker. The Right Wing Media took umbrage at his latest feature and so with wife Ros (Jacki Weaver) he’s fleeing the Sydney rat-race for a quieter life in Noosa. But the coastal oasis is not what Toby remembers — nothing much is what the rose-visioned romantic recalls, trapped in his Age of Aquarius — having been overtaken by rampant development and the cashed-up, pretentious conservatives he was trying to escape. People like Ron (John Wood), a boorish self-made property tycoon, a cricket-loving Howard-ite no less, and his Stepford Wife Natasha (Andrea Moor).
Natasha is an old schoolmate of Ros’ and an uneasy friendship of convenience reignites. Toby and Ron squabble fiercely over politics as their like-minded respective offspring — big-dreaming musician Rick (Paul Ashcroft) and buttoned-up corporate lawyer Emma (Rachel Gordon) — start an unlikely affair. You know where this is going…
The contrived plot is venial — as a platform for class and ideological warfare it’s sturdy enough. But the lack of real wit is unforgivable. The laughs from a generous audience on opening night came from the pratfalls rather than the prosecution; the cast — fine performers, all — extend themselves fully, awkwardly to engage.
The women, particularly, overreach: Gordon offers moments of pathos and well-timed schtick, though Weaver is reduced to arm-flapping exasperation while Moor (an awarded QTC favourite) assumes a Toorak snottiness that fails to overcome the caricature. Nobody on stage has much to work with, and director Michael Gow (QTC’s often-derided and now-retiring artistic director) can’t project much colour and movement onto set designer Robert Kemp’s glossy-white walls. Wood, at least, seems to have the most fun on stage.
Williamson should be on solid ground here. He’s a flag-waving progressive, a bitter enemy of so-called ‘aspirational Australians’ and the individualistic Right, who’s defended himself passionately against charges of moral elitism. He writes from the beaches of Noosa proudly, unashamedly of what he knows. All of his personal hobby horses are rolled onto the stage — so why is the execution so lilly-livered?
It’s hard to draw any other conclusion that Williamson’s former bark is now much worse than his theatrical bite.
Curtain Call rating: C