A Conversation Review by Virginia Proud
The setting, a community conference. Attendees, families of the victim and perpetrator of a shockingly violent rape and murder.
Nearly twenty years since its first production, David Williamson’s play about transformative justice remains a potent mix of rage, guilt, and love. Although some degree of resolution is found here – it is theatre after all – it raises important questions about the efficacy and benefits of conferencing. And along the way, Williamson points a finger at broader issues of nature versus nurture, classism and toxic masculinity. It is a big, emotionally driven play done justice by this co-production from FizzWack Theatre and Dauntless Theatre.
From the outset, authenticity is created through clever, effective staging. We enter a dim room that could be a conference room anywhere. Slightly before curtain time, Jack Manning (Ben Mitchell), conference facilitator, enters and raises the lights. He begins his set up, a circle of chairs, checking the tea and coffee in the corner. It’s not drawing much attention from the audience and likewise, he pays no attention to our pre-show chatter, going about his tasks. Once completed, he raises the lights further, and the participants begin to arrive – we, the audience, are not hidden away in darkness, but witness to proceedings.
As the families enter, the societal archetypes on which this drama leans become apparent. Aided by some strong costuming, the ensemble conveys all we need to know about status and class, through body language, gesture and demeanour. The victim’s middle-class parents and the perpetrator’s housing commission family, with the up-by-the- bootstraps university educated daughter and self-made, doing-it-tough tradie uncle. Under the direction of Lee Cook, the cast does excellent work breathing life into these characters. Even when simply listening, their responses and reactions rang true; Mick’s (Doug Lyons) silent discomfort and rising stress was palpable as he listened to his brother Scott’s recorded voice describe his rape of Donna.
Coral (Kerry Davies) Scott’s mother is in tears almost from the moment she arrives. Davies gives a compelling performance that provokes real emotion with her uneasy mix of horror at the act committed, and a mother’s enduring love for her son. Her remorse and guilt are palpable, even as she pleads for support to save Scott’s life by having him moved to protective custody. By contrast, Scott’s sister Gail (Kadey McIntosh) is relentless in defending her bother, if not his actions.
Derek (Peter Prenga), Donna’s father, throws recidivism statistics and psychological research in the face of Scott’s counsellor Lorin (Julia Lambert), forcing her to defend her expertise and her record. Unlike Derek, Donna’s mother Barbara (Lisa Whitney) is more measured, her own response subjugated by the force of her husband’s rage. For me, Witney’s performance cried out for a little more emotional connection, as it is when she finally insists on talking about Donna, that this play turns toward resolution.
Cook has done a great job with pacing and finds its essential peaks and troughs, to avoid being borne down by the weight of righteousness and issue driven speeches. Being a Williamson play, there is some hammer and anvil in the writing, and that he has each character ultimately find and take their turn to express their individual culpability can’t help but feel contrived. For me, the most successful parts of the production came when the focus shifted to the family and human dynamics; the simmering anger and blame shifting within Scott’s family, the tamping down of grief within Donna’s. Watching Scott’s family tear at itself, and Mick’s deeply buried resentment of his brother finally reach surface was great theatre.
Bottom line, this is a rich piece of writing delivered in a powerful performance that felt all too real. The production ends as it began. The conference ends, the participants leave. The lights are turned off. No curtain calls.
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