By Adam Rafferty
Prolific Aussie playwright David Williamson has accumulated a considerable back catalogue of plays from which to choose to venerate his 50th year as a playwright. So it’s perhaps a surprise that MTC Artistic Director Brett Sheehy has chosen of all the options available Emerald City as the celebratory production to stage in Williamson’s home town.
First produced by the Sydney Theatre Company in 1987, it’s a story that focuses on Colin (Jason Klarwein) a successful screenwriter and his wife Kate (Nadine Garner), a publisher of worthy, low-selling books, who move from ‘gloomy’ Melbourne to ‘glitzy’ Sydney to pursue Colin’s dream of hitting it big in the city they believe to be Australia’s cultural capital. As with much of Williamson’s work, it’s chock full of knowing allusions to suburb-specific peculiarities and parochial behaviours particular to the town, so for those who don’t know Glebe from Glen Iris all its witty local references can easily go wanting, especially when put through the filter of 23 years.
The autobiography of late theatre director Richard Wherrett might provide a clue to the reason Sheehy chose this particular Williamson work. At the time of its first staging Sheehy was Literary Manager at the STC and apparently suggested the name for the play to Williamson who then added the line of dialogue, “The Emerald City of Oz. Everyone comes here along their yellow brick roads looking for the answers to their problems and all they find are the demons within themselves.” A line that almost perfectly summarises the crux of the plot.
Despite offers to write more action-filled ‘movie-of-the-week’ style scripts by his agent Elaine (Marg Downey) – she of the afore-mentioned quote – Colin is determined to honour his uncle and tell the more sedate story of Australia’s war-era coast watchers. He teams up with Mike (Rhys Muldoon), a chauvinistic hack writer with experience in production, giving Colin the confidence to produce his own work, but the result is a disappointing flop which leads to selling out his artistic values in the pursuit of a hit. Meanwhile, Colin’s lack of achievement is contrasted by Kate’s success as the novel she has published by an aboriginal writer is nominated for a Booker prize in London. When the writer shows disinterest in the international honour, she too sells out her values for a taste of glory.
As a story for Melbourne theatre-goers in 2020, Emerald City is likewise of questionable artistic value, while being a sufficiently enjoyable entertainment as a museum piece. It’s almost refreshing to see a 21st century staging of a story set in living-memory with such old-fashioned values. It’s particularly interesting looking at the character of Mike, an archetype who in any contemporarily written play would be the villain of the piece, is here simply a chauvinist characterised as a larrikin.
Director Sam Strong has a mixed bag of success. He wisely chooses to have his cast speed through many of Williamson’s lengthy duologues and with the help of Sound Designer Russell Goldsmith finds a neat audio solution to the numerous fourth-wall breaking monologues. However, dressing Assistant Stage Manager Vivienne Poznanski in a distracting blue wig and using her as a mobile source of props for the cast creates the odd sense that Colin and Kate have perhaps taken on an indentured servant in their new Sydney abode.
The need to make the crew member a silent but certainly seen uncredited member of the cast could perhaps have been avoided if not for Dale Ferguson’s sparse revolving set. Featuring a white pergola-like structure, glassed-in on two sides to give the impression of homes and offices with harbour views. This is complemented by glittering beaded curtains, echoing the shape of the harbour bridge that allow Lighting Designer David Walters to create the ambience of both sunshine and moonlight glittering off the famous body of water.
Performances come to us confidently polished after a preparatory February season with the Queensland Theatre Company and Garner, Downey and Muldoon particularly demonstrate funny and well-honed characterisations. Klarwein skirts the sharp edges of Colin’s often difficult to like character, neatly ensuring we still want to see our protagonist win. Thankfully, Williamson also helps to save the character by giving him a near-miss with infidelity when Colin is presented with the opportunity cheat on Kate with Mike’s girlfriend Helen (Megan Hind). Ferguson’s costume designs are comfortingly truthful to the period for those of us who can remember it, but he makes a distracting choice by dressing Helen for her seduction scene in the noughts and crosses dress made famous by Kylie Minogue in 1989 when she first stepped out with Michael Hutchence. It hints at a subtext that seems difficult to connect with the scenario played out on stage.
Fans of Williamson will find this production a loving tribute and easily enjoyable diversion. If your trip to Oz is in search of something deeper, you too perhaps will find the “demons within”.
Images: Jeff Busby