It must be said (thanks to reasonably robust criticism of recent plays on my own behalf, as well as my editor, which inspired a wordy response from the great man himself and much comment in the media at large), Crikey has something of a fraught and tenuous relationship with David Williamson. You’d think this would make any further sinking of the slipper into a prostrate playwright’s kidneys easier, but I reckon the reverse is true. There’s a danger diehard defenders, lethal loyalists and employed actors will be still further consternated by any shadow of doubt cast across the playwright’s prodigious personage. That we might seem habituated to churlishness. Or self-indulgent, psychopathic terrorists, targeting tall poppies (and, let’s face it, Willo’s both vertically endowed and mature enough to qualify as both tall and a poppie), whipping up controversy to feather our own, humble, indie media nest, like a pathetic, mini-me News Of the World; a veritably microscopic Murdoch.
Yet it would be dishonest were it to pretend anything but my visceral reaction to DW’s latest, co-written with eminent medico, Mohamed Khadra. So (deep breath, held), here goes.
In the first half, I quite quickly warmed to the subject of euthanasia being used as a premise for opening up a hornet’s nest of family relationships and as a container for developing characters. Director Sandra Bates has cast well, if from a more limited pool somewhat familiar to Ensemble regulars. Heading the cast is veteran actor Martin Vaughan, very arguably one of this country’s finest ‘character actors’, who very nearly manages a thoroughly naturalistic performance, save for some tremulous, Parkinsonian-style affectation, and is on the whole a very convincing old codger. Indeed, the playwright-deity has put in one of his best turns with regard to Des, an elderly man devoted to his dying wife, or at least desperate to be seen to be. It’s something we see in real life: two apparently sweet old dears, sobered and softened by age, who choose to subjugate the secrets of their troubled marriage (for every marriage is troubled, isn’t it?) in deference to dotage.
The statuesque Kate Raison, as well-endowed (in the financial sense) daughter Katie, rechannels her bitchy turn from her soapy days to good effect. But Katie is not so much bitchy, we learn, as strong, resilient and a bit of a Mars bar: there’s that initial crunch in the realm of the outer layer, but it’s all fudge and caramel inside. The fudge, however, is tempered by a fierce intelligence that manifests as a kind of compassionate pragmatism. Normally, perhaps, the very idea of compassionate pragmatism would be anachronistic, a contradiction in terms, but this character makes it a possible reality and, again, it’s one we might well recognise from real life. The other daughter, Megan, is played believably and quite effortlessly by Tracey Mann. Like Raison, she has transcended her sudsy past in showing she’s easily capable of muscularity on stage. Megan is a diehard lefty, probably much as Mr W would still prefer to see himself. Thirdly, there’s penniless composer and favourite son Tyler Coppin, as Max. While Coppin is as credible in his role as his colleagues, in theirs, he was the only one on stage who lacked audibility and clarity. But Davo has hit the Mark in portraying the structure and diversity one finds within a family unit, so often comprised of personalities so divergent only blood could possibly keep them in any way bound to each other.
Then there’s the doctor; the prof, Ali Sharif, played, with some aplomb, by Daniel Mitchell. Sharif, clearly, is a thinly-veiled stand-in for the ‘co-wright’. He’s used, albeit forlornly and less than consummately, as an easy motif for opening up the spectre of entrenched racism in once-was-WASPish Australia, but it’s a wholly unsatisfying and unsatisfactory toe-in-the- water attempt that smacks of tokenism.
I interrupt this ‘response’, as my intellectually pretentious counterparts are want to call reviews, to relate that it’s impossible to know what the relative contributions of Willimason and Khadra are, so I can only but hope I attribute credit and blame where due but, given that Williamson is the ‘elder’ of the writing profession, I’ll lay most of both at his doorstep. That might mean a bouquet, or a flaming Edgar, or both. We shall see.
So, on the bouquet front, we can loudly applaud (for, on the first night, they observed, and they reckoned that it was good, and sprang to their feet in ovation, especially the former doyen of Demtel) Williamson’s talent for character, at the very least. In that respect, he’s still got it. And he might well have it, if not on his own, in quality and quantity that outranks and outweighs any other Australian playwright. Indeed, the first half of the play was good.
But interval invited ensuing chaos. The play fell apart in the second half, descending into a didactic diatribe that shows little or no respect for the audience. Yes, we know we have to address euthanasia. Yes, we know we have to address exploding health costs. Yes, we know there’s a kind of affluent obscenity to perpetuating lives that will soon be snuffed out in any case. But c’mon! Who, Khadra, Williamson, is going to be the first politician to set down parameters for who can live, or die? Who will rise to the moral, ethical and, yes, if you must, socioeconomic challenge of proposing parameters for why, how, when, how long? Who will be the first bureaucrat, or medico, this side of a sociopath, to pull the first plug from the wall? For we all know euthanasia and ‘sensible’ decisions about allocating care are fine, well and dandy in the realm of the abstract and academic. It’s bringing it into the realm of the everyday — there’s the rub. And an abrasive rub it is. More like coarse sandpaper than Sorbolene. One can almost smell the coffee: there’s Dave and Mo musing over late morning cappuccino, by the beach, in Noosa. It all sounds so noble; so worthwhile. Their purposes and passions are inflamed; blood courses, as if through two large phalluses. They’ve no idea how tedious it is, though, for them to lecture us. We know. We know.
The second half is saved only by some plot exposition and extrapolation of relationships between characters. That is good. Very good. But ruination comes with the playwrights’ determination to be topical; provocative; controversial. The effect is about as controversial as wearing brown shoes with a black belt. And when, for pity’s sake, did David Williamson become so consumed by economic rationalism?! Is that the only basis on which we should be examining these questions?
What happened to that prickly provocateur; that sharp social observer and commentator; the dry, wry satirist? Where did he go? Well, Noosa, I think.
Don’t put yourself through it at just any cost. Hang out for the cheap seats and leave at intermission.
The details: At Any Cost? plays the Ensemble Theatre until August 27. Tickets on the venue website.