Nothing Personal [NSW]
I revel in the utter tedium of David Williamson’s plays, as they provide a mind-numbing reminder of just how great the great theatre in Sydney is – nothing makes a beautiful woman more enchanting than placing an ugly one beside her, after all. As such, this critic finds him and his work an absolutely vital part of the Australian theatrical landscape, being as it is not so much the base line of quality (independent productions often descending far lower) but more a nightmarish presence, an obese oeuvre that by its own repulsion spurs others more speedily onwards. Mr. Williamson should be commended for his service to the arts, as his self-sacrifice – whereby he continuously churns out examples of exactly what theatre shouldn’t be – is truly noble. One wishes that he never retires, and that he maintains his current playwriting capacity (three plays in Sydney this year) or even increases it. The play under review, for instance, is only the second work of his in this year’s season at the Ensemble Theatre, which is surely a sign that Australia’s most popular playwright is being woefully underrepresented, one thinks.
But let us focus on the specific play in question. Like a bogey hit from a bunker fifty metres from the hole, Nothing Personal is an outstandingly sub-par piece of theatre. For most of its two hours’ duration the work desperately strains to produce even the tiniest glimmer of competency with only the occasional burst of flatulent wit provoking any kind of ripple in the toilet-water. Mr. Williamson, however, valiant self-immolator that he is, is not one to let creative constipation get in the way of providing an evening in the theatre. Devoid of interesting characters, or an engaging plot, he nevertheless proves that he can at least structure a play well, such that one is never so bored and disconnected from the happenings on stage that they begin to daydream; rather he makes sure that the maximum tedium is never attained, thereby closing off any possibility of mental escape.
The story is full of dramatic potential that is skillfully never realized. Bea (Greta Scacchi) is an old and respected publisher who is constantly challenged by Naomi (Emma Jackson), the young upstart from the marketing department who is convinced that Bea is past her prime. Roxanne (Julie Hudspeth) is Bea’s underling and confidant; Lucy (Rachael Coopes) her estranged daughter; while Carla (Jeanie Drynan), who has a brain tumour, is both Naomi’s mother and foil. (No prizes for guessing whether the character with cancer survives to the end of the play or not.) There’s also Simon (Matthew Moore), Naomi’s boyfriend; and Kelvin (Andrew McFarlane), the CEO of the company, who takes a more than professional interest in Naomi. Theoretically, it sounds like there’s plenty of material for Mr. Williamson to do his usual joke-every-twenty-seconds shtick, but this is not to be. One assumes that Mr. Williamson was aiming for something different in this play, trying to be more serious than his other works, and as such the laughs are few and far between (this critic counted about ten proper guffaws from the audience the entire night). It isn’t until right before the end of the first act, when Kelvin invites Naomi for a business-meeting-for-two at Byron Bay, that one begins to feel more than a passing interest. The feeling is temporary, though, for, while the second half is better than the first, it still feels like much has been squandered.
The performances from all the actors are not terrible, but neither are they anything to boast about. (Given what Mr. Williamson has written for them to say, it’s a miracle they seemed real at all.) One tender part in the play, where Naomi is consoling her mother about to die, for instance, had no impact on my emotions whatsoever, benumbed as I was by most of what lead up to that moment.
Director Mark Kilmurry does his best with the material and expertly choreographs the scene changes, and unreserved applause can be given to designer Steven Butler, who has managed to create a perspex backdrop of bookshelves and furniture that is a pleasure to look at. Shame about the play, though.