Sunday, March 13, 2011

Don Parties On

Rachael Healey & Associates present the Melbourne Theatre Company production of DON PARTIES ON by David Williamson at the Sydney Theatre.

David Williamson’s latest play DON PARTIES ON returns to some of his beloved characters of some forty years ago.

DON’S PARTY (1971) was set on the evening of the 1969 Federal election. It concerns a group of young affluent friends, all with their personal, social and political achievements and aspirations on display. It is a splendid evocation of some aspects of the Australian culture of the period. It is full of personal hopes and collapses, of celebrations and despondency, of vulgar appetites and expectant ‘visions’ of a great future. It came at a major turning point in the development of the Australian identity (even of Australian Theatre culture).

Gough Whitlam was soon to cause an explosion of activity that boosted the morale of the country in a way that had not happened before. The future’s potential was exciting and invited daring. Similarly, David Williamson and his plays led the way into an explosion of activity that boosted the morale of the country that had not happened before. The future’s potential was exciting and invited daring. These parallels are keen in my visceral memory of living through that time. Don’s Party and the plays to follow had the galvanising wallop, for the audience, of the pleasure of seeing the Australian character on stage, in a relatively unbridled way. They were bracing and exciting evenings in the theatre, (in the recent revival from the Melbourne Theatre Company, still arresting and provocative.) of recognition. The plays were speaking to us, of us, for us. Over forty years later, a David Williamson play is still an event of fearful expectancy.

DON PARTIES ON is set on the evening of the latest Federal election, 2010. The world aspirations of Don’s hopefuls of 1969 has borne its fruits. Not all of it palatable. Not a lot of it of the quality that had been expected. Not all of it worthy of celebration. There is a pall of stinking sadness over this party. The sense of failure, even mediocrity permeates the celebrations of this night. Immaturity, shallowness and just straight –out pathetic behaviour dominates the action of the night, still. The soundtrack of the seventies, featuring Creedence Clearwater Revival, a banner sound for some of these characters, played before and during the production, sounds, in sonic terms, ‘tinny’ and thin (Sound, Russell Goldsmith). So do the lives of these characters. It is ultimately a night of mournful melancholia we witness. Not just for the election result of 2010 but for the sad life achievements of this group of Australians. Of a generation, I winced. Mr Williamson talks of his fondness of Michael Apted’s documentary series of SEVEN-UP, which chronicles the lives of a group of seven year olds every seven years into middle-age. The result is both pathetic and bathetic. So Don’s friends are now, too – the history we learn is not pretty.
Despite this despondent revelation, the audience still, on the night I attended the theatre, identified and accepted the shenanigans of this group of people, that seem to represent a generational cross-section of familiar life models/roles. The audience roared with laughter and applauded the final exits of some of these characters. Genuine affection and regard was given to the characters. This play works for a lot of the audience.

William Shakespeare wrote some thirty eight plays. Henrick Ibsen wrote twenty seven plays. George Bernard Shaw wrote over forty plays. Arthur Miller, thirty five plays. Alan Ayckbourn has written some seventy five plays. Neil Simon some thirty four plays. David Hare and David Mamet some twenty seven plays, each. Tom Stoppard some thirty eight plays. And David Williamson some thirty four plays. Some, including David Williamson, have written screenplays as well (in fact George Bernard Shaw received an Oscar in 1938 for PYGMALION!).

Some of each of these playwright’s plays are very good. Some are good. Some are not so good. Not all of them are good. I have thought that David Williamson’s THE DEPARTMENT, TRAVELLING NORTH, THE CLUB, AFTER THE BALL, FACE TO FACE, possibly, very good (these choices are very subjective, of course). DON PARTIES ON, struck me as part of the third category, not so good.

In DON PARTIES ON I found the characters not very profoundly motivated, in fact, sometimes, just mouthing political and philosophical ideas that did not seem to be genuine to them, however genuine they may be from the hand/mouth of Mr Williamson, himself. I found a lot of the comedy denigrating one line putdowns, of both sides of politics, both cultural and personal : infantile and mean, not of much wit or sophistication. Sometimes the text felt like a set of sketch review jokes, slung onto a slim narrative, without the relief of the musical input of, say, the Wharf Revue crowd to give acceptable ‘cover’. The melodrama of these people’s lives superficially sketched and observed : hardly credible, except as ghosts of DON’S PARTY, or as pop culture generalisations of new, younger generations. The later escalation into physical farce, with the arrival of a new character Roberta (Nikki Shields), an impossible leap to believe, despite the cartoon drawing that Sue Jones invested in the characterisation of her character, Jenny, earlier in the play, that may have been a signal to genre-bending. There were, for me, just too many genres at work and I felt they were clumsily wrought together. This work, however amusing for most of my audience was, for me, just not up to the standard, I had often delighted in. I was bored and wearied.

The compounding difficulty with this production (Director, Robyn Nevin) of the play, however, was the widely divergent skills of the actors in handling this kind of material. Gary McDonald (Don) and Robert Grub (Mal) are expert hands in this field of writing. Diane Craig (Helen) and Tracy Mann (Kath) are also old hands at creating plausible characters from this kind of material. All four of them sufficient, and, often, more than. But the others were variable from less competent to not competent. Several of these actors did not have the technical skills to handle this writer, who is formidable in his technical demands, when in top form. When not, as, I feel in this case, the craft techniques of the actors are even more essential. It is surprising to some to catch this skill need, for the technical demands in the best of Mr Williamson, are subtly intricate and are only consciously encountered when actually dealing with it on the rehearsal floor. It necessarily requires artists with primed technical machinery – like a top musician, equivalent to the density of craft skill that the Australian Chamber Orchestra reveal in their consistent concert practice. It seemed to me that errors in casting highlighted the problems of the writing. And while Dale Ferguson has designed another meticulous set of impressive naturalistic detail (Daniel Keene’s, LIFE WITHOUT ME), it is of such an enormous theatrical scale, bigger than the floor plan of the biggest McMansion you could imagine, that to convey the content of the text, let alone deliver the rhythmical score of Mr Williamson, it demands actors with craft and art of enormous experience. Not all of this cast could deliver, consistently, if at all.

A play with writing flaws, embodied by some actors without the technical proficiencies to solve the text demands and the difficulties of the set design and then the idiosyncratic venue sound problems is going to have some difficulties in achieving consistent excellence. One would believe that the Melbourne Theatre Company could choose almost freely the artists required for this task. Certainly, Robyn Nevin, one of Mr Williamson’s regular and great artists, interpreting his work over the last forty years as an actress, would know the demands, difficulties and requirements. Who, then cast this production? A puzzle?

When I added up the cost of my outing: $89 for the ticket, $10 for the program, $17 for dinner, $4 for a soft drink and a $37 taxi fare home I was more than a little miffed. Total: $157. I had taken out $200 at Circular Quay on my walk to the theatre to buy my tickets and almost consumed it all. What percentage of my weekly wage? One of my readers asked at the end of my blog on “In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play” if the cost, which I had also cited, was worth it. I have to say yes, in that case. But this case, not. Now, the cost is simply a self inflicted decision, that I incurred, out of interest (and loyalty) to the work of Mr Williamson. And I do not at the bottom of my heart, resent what I have done, but it is an object lesson that the theatre industry needs to take into account when programming , curating work for the audience. Too many consistently inert choices and one begins to find that the audience has to discriminate more assiduously where their limited funds go.

On my $37 trip home, however, I had one of those completely charming occurrences. My driver a burly, overweight, over the middle-age mark, Aussie from Dapto (now living and working in Sydney) asked me what I had seen. Some of my unhappiness was spilled out to him. I told him that many in the audience had had a great time. He said well some of those “mug punters” got their money’s worth and were happy for having gone. Yep, indeed, I agreed. He then went on tell me of having a girlfriend who had asked him to go to the theatre. It was to HOLDING THE MAN, at the Opera House. She told him it was about AIDS and gay guys. He was not pleased and encouraged her to go with someone else. She persisted. He acquiesced. He said at the interval he had had a great laugh. At the end of the play, he had been embarrassed as to where to look when the lights had come up in the auditorium for he had been weeping for some time. It had been a totally unexpected moving and forceful experience. I thought, wow, just another “mug punter” going to the theatre and having a life changing experience. Maybe, that was true for some of my audience that night. My taxi driver’s story was worth the cost of my night, for if I hadn’t gone to DON PARTIES ON on that night, my faith in the theatre might not have been so shaken and then so confidently restored. These things happen for good reason.

Sometimes those of us in the know of the art and craft of the theatre should look beyond the problems and appreciate exactly what DON PARTIES ON does for the ordinary “mug punter”. After all, as James Waites, mentions on his blog, the Australian theatre in all ways have benefited from the voice that Mr Williamson has found and tapped over the last forty year and just like Mr Shakespeare, or Shaw, or Miller, or… whoever, sometimes you get it more right than others.


hc said...

kevin - how accurate and insightful a review, and how generous in the light of this deeply disappointing production

Michael Hudson said...

Kevin, your review was your usual detailed and analytical critique of this work and a good read. I have done my background reading thru the links to the Crikey piece, and James Waites & Croggon and Crabb. Like Crabb I have not yet seen it (as I am overseas at the moment shortly to return) and may in fact not be able to when I return in a few days as it may well be sold out completely - it is STC and it is their moneybox dramatist after all. I actually thought that Mr Williamson had taken his pencils and gone home after the last critical scourge a couple of years ago and said he wasn't going to write plays anymore. Doing a follow up to
Don's Party would be like a car crash to most theatre goers - potentially masochistic, but you can always join the haters and still be quite socially acceptable. I would suggest that the simple Aussie tall poppy syndrome is mostly to blame for this - the theatrical critical "elites" (is Crikey in this category??) can almost guarantee a useful controversy by blagging the piece. Your piece and that of Waites at least give Williamson the benefit of a general career overview. I have somewhat tended to regard his later works as
somewhat 'theatre digestif' (as per Ionesco?) for the well-padded STC crowd.

Kevin Jackson said...

Thanks for your input. It was an MTC (Melbourne Theatre Company) production in the Sydney Theatre. The STC did not take it on in their season.