I remember the cultural frisson of the early 1970’s in Sydney. The whole social and political culture was bubbling with the positive possibility of change. Emblematically for me was the burgeoning Australian Theatre and television. For instance, Channel 10 had produced a soapie called NUMBER 96 and I was seeing my life reflected in lots of ways in the stories that the entertainment world was making available. Change was imminent in every way and in everyplace. John Bell, Ken Horler and Richard Wherrett along with an excited group of other artists had set up the NIMROD Theatre at what is now the SWB Stables in Kings Cross. The Old Tote was out in Kensington but its choice of material was relatively cautious in what it selected for the Australian audience to see. Not much Australian repertory.
One of my first thrilling experiences in the theatre was a production of THE REMOVALISTS by a young Melbourne writer, David Williamson at the Nimrod Theatre. Here on a stage were real, ordinary working Australians in a situation that was part of the fabric of our day to day life. They could have been neighbours. A dysfunctional and broken family with the growing sense of the equal rights for women, the deteriorating tolerance to violence of the male species, the risqué sexual innuendo of objectification of the sexes, and the open exposure of police violence and corruption. The palpable thrill of the cheeky daring of showing us police brutality, mixed with the toxic but nevertheless thrill of domestic sex and violence leavened with good old Aussie disparaging comedy was thick with daring. “Will the bloody coppers from round the corner at the Cross turn up and close the show?” was certainly part of the volatile cocktail mix of attending the theatre at Nimrod in 1971. This was possibly a dangerous place to be. The Theatre was a dangerous place to be at!!!!!
This revival of this seminal play at the Wharf Theatre cannot and does not have the same edge to it. 38 years later (Oh, my God) the play sits in a culture that has had an inevitable and obvious shift in its values. Mr Williamson in his program notes begins “It’s hard for the current generation working in the Arts to understand what the late sixties and seventies were like in Australia.” The play that Mr Williamson had written was not realism however but “black satire.” And that "THE REMOVALISTS" wasn’t much to do with police brutality, it was more a moral parable warning us about the huge propensity for violence lurking in the human psyche.”
So, it is interesting and a testament to the strength of the writing that this production of the play can bear the weight of a 2009 PC (politically correct) version of the text. The Australian novel, THE SLAP by Christos Tsiolkas, the big hit of the reading season this year, among my set of friends, is a terrific frame to place this experience in. The intolerance to violence of any kind. For what I received at the performance of this play, I attended, was a moral melodrama. The seriousness of the material was at the fore. It was interesting, for instance, to see, Sacha Horler shift the character of Kate Mason, centre stage for some of her scenes and give what was generally a recognised stereotype of the “slut” (my memory of the character in 1971 and subsequently other productions as well) to a “ballsy” contemporary woman declaring, in her way, if a man can have an affair outside marriage, so can a woman: Shut up the hypocrisy.
The set design (Jacob Nash), presents a raised white platform against a clean black wall, an image of a boxing ring - a play that may be just a black and white coloured argument. Along with the empathetic lighting design by Luiz Pampolha the production unravels in a clear and uncluttered reading of the play. But what was once more razor sharp in the satiric comedy is now, relatively, serious moral melodrama.
The acting by all is committed and impassioned. The emotional playing is realistic in it’s intensity. For my relative experience of the play, what I missed in this production was the detailed and dense humour that is present throughout the writing. It appears, then, to me, that the production lacks a dimension, that is in the writing: The comedy. The production and the acting as solid as it is, is a little too two dimensional for me. In striking the balance between the dangerously provocative play of 1971 in the cultural "revolution" of it’s time and seeing it through the eyes and lives of the artistic company of this production of 2009, maybe it has undercared for the satirical comic possibilities. Maybe these younger artists reflect the world of THE SLAP, too uncritically for me. The text work seems to steamroll over the deadly accurate humour that is in the text and is still accurate for today. Either it is a deliberate choice by the director (Wayne Blair), or it has been under explored.
Still there is something of note here. Much like the Peter Evans, MTC production of DON’S PARTY (also written in 1971 by David Williamson) of a year or so ago, there is a contemporary twist to the production that the playwriting can bear. The MTC production had the sly and cauterising “Aussie” comic cruelty and the scalpel of the writer revealing the psyche in the tender flesh of our culture but Mr Evans also realised and strengthened the position of the women in the play. Normally my experience of that play put the vulgar and “endearing” aussie bloke at the centre of the piece and the women were merely relatively underwritten punching bags, of peripheral concern, for the comedy. But my memory of the recent production was of the women revealing a sense of growing unrest and dawning possibility of power and it felt centre stage. It was the staging and the intelligence of emphasis of the director and actors, for the writing itself was virtually untouched from the original published text. So, here, in Mr Blair’s production, the politics as moved its focus and it is very interesting. The problem is, that unlike the DON’S PARTY production, the comedy has been neglected in its details.
I have always felt that as Mr Williamson’s plays, which were always an audience success but not always a critical success, will reveal their strengths as time distances them from the contemporary satire that we the audience responded to, to the wonderfully observed anthropological and sociological studies of Australians and Australia. A study of humanity, that peculiar thing that is Australian humanity. Snap shots of a particularly powerful kind that I am sure will give Mr Williamson the proper place he should have in respect to his magnificent output.
Danny Adcock (who has replaced Steve Bisley mid rehearsal) as Sergeant Dan Simmonds, the avuncular and predatory mentor to Constable Neville Ross (Dale March) gives a good, solid reading of the role. Sexually it tends to be a little brittle in its inclinations, so tends to caricature occasionally, but certainly the delineation of the function of the character is clear. Mr March is fine in the trauma of the emotional last scenes but tended to comment and telegraph his comic business in the opening scenes, not trusting the audience’s ability to read his choices. Ashley Lyons as Kenny, the husband appeals in his “Stanley-like attraction” but throws some of the comic opportunities away in pursuit of absolute verisimilitude, similarly, Alan Flower, as the Removalist, who seems to miss the accumulative humour of Mr Williamson's gag: “I’ve got ten thousand dollars worth of machinery tickin’ over out there in the drive” Best work comes from Sacha Horler who brings some clout to Kate. Eve Morey as the underwritten Fiona does well.
The Sydney Morning Herald heading of it’s review is “A solid revival of an Australian classic.” I would agree, I might say stolid as well. But then times have changed and I may be asking for too much. Or am I just being nostalgic for a more dangerous era in the theatre?
Playing now until 29 March. Book online or call 02 9250 1777.