Review: Scarlett O'Hara at the Crimson Parrot ~ theatre notes

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Review: Scarlett O'Hara at the Crimson Parrot

Scarlett O’Hara at the Crimson Parrot, by David Williamson, directed by Simon Phillips. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne, until July 12. Bookings: 1300 723 038.

Scarlett O’Hara at the Crimson Parrot is, as one of David Williamson’s characters might say, a dog.

It’s a dog with one theatrical idea, which is stretched very thin over two and a half hours. And it’s not quite a nice dog. It has the slightly resentful expression of a labrador that might pee on your shoes if you turn your back.

The play is the story of Scarlett O’Hara (Caroline O’Connor), an incompetent waitress in the sort of restaurant that gives Gordon Ramsay conniptions. In between pratfalls, she deals with her mother, a manipulative bully, and sighs with unrequited passion for her boss.

She fills the emptiness in her life with Hollywood movies. That’s the single theatrical idea: Scarlett drifts into Daydream No. 1 and the backstage screen fills with iconic images of a past era, Bogie and Bergman enacting grand passion for those who can merely watch and dream.

The restaurant is staffed by stereotypes – the dumb blonde (Marney McQueen), the testosterone-fuelled wog (Simon Wood), the frustrated chef-artist (Andrew McFarlane), the aging queer (Bob Hornery). Even Scarlett’s mother Maureen (Monica Maughan) is a cliché, drawn from classic tv shows like Steptoe & Son and Mother and Son.

As I sat stonily under a little private cloud in Row F, the audience around me rocked with laughter. What’s the point of cavilling against that? It inevitably seems mean-minded: as the program suggests, it means that you can’t see Williamson in the “right perspective”, and believe that popularity equals lack of seriousness.

But hey, I’m all for the popular. I adored the ingenious theatricality of the MTC’s production of The 39 Steps, which also riffed off classic Hollywood movies. I’m happy to be counted as a member of the Caroline O’Connor fan club. So why not let the laughter ripple on?

Travelling home with my cloud, I pondered why this work doesn’t merely leave me indifferent, but depressed. It’s to do with Williamson’s startling ability to think solely in media-generated stereotypes, and the complacent laughter this elicits from an audience.

In his essay Politics and Language, George Orwell speaks of a decadent English, in which “phrases [are] tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse”. “Language,” Orwell warns, “can corrupt thought….Every such phrase anaesthetises a portion of one’s brain.”

Williamson’s entire dramatic craft is prefab: at no point do we see through cliché to real feeling. This makes it insidiously comfortable to laugh at wogs, or footballers raping stupid blondes, or lonely old women.

And that’s depressing.

This review was (I think) in Friday's Australian. I am posting from London, so I can't check, as it's not online. There's no doubt alot more to say about politics and language, and I realise I have scarcely mentioned the production itself - 400 words doesn't leave much room - but Ms TN, ever ready with handy excuses, pleads jetlag. I invite you all to talk among yourselves...

26 comments:

Jana said...

Oh, do go see Anthony Nielson's Relocated, at the Royal Court Theatre, while you're here, Alison! It's worth all of the 1,000p the ticket costs on a Monday night! (And don't bother with Brecht.)

Hope you enjoy your stay.

Louise said...

In the light of this, remind me why we subsidise theatre companies again?

geoff said...

Very well said Alison, gives us lesser voices courage to speak, and balances out your overstatements about Bill.
Williamson, a speck in the eye of the Australian public, a very long three decade old wonder, an icon of Australian cultural blandness.

john said...

David Williamson is an embarrassment. He uses the Lowest Common Denominator as an ideology to immunise himself against criticism. He woos and cultivates the ordinary and easily digested in audiences. He is not a good popular or comic writer - compare him to someone like Neil Simon. What indeed does it say about subsidised theatre in this country, that has institutionally promoted and produced him for so long. The best thing he did in a long time was to retire - now this dumbed-down acontextual and insignificant woody allen copy.

margaret d said...

But the fact is subsidised companies will always produce him as they know he brings in the "nice night out" crowd. I'll bet that despite grandiose statements of change issued by each new regime, we will always see a Williamson sneaking into the season to hedge the bets.

Geoffrey said...

I agree with Margaret. Regardless of how I feel about Williamson's plays, his work apparently underwrites the more adventurous (read less commerically viable) programming. For that, we should be as grateful.

Louise said...

And what adventurous programming will MTC be providing with the moolah earned by this drivel?

Joanna Murray-Smith? A Tennessee Williams? Garry McDonald showeing off in a very straight Moliere?

Geoffrey said...

I wish I knew Louise, but I should confess: I actually stopped going to the MTC about 25 years ago and haven't been even remotely interested in going back for any reason since.

Alison Croggon said...

Hello all - still here, if in the other hemisphere, and will be blogging at some point about what I'm doing. It's been very interesting lately, hiding out in Norfolk talking eco-poetics and suchlike.

But dragging myself back to the MTC - to be fair, thinking of it as a subsidised company is a moot point. Is 13 per cent funding (or thereabouts) really subsidising it? European companies might be being slashed at the moment, but even so they're not at anything like that rate, I'm not excusing the programming, although to be honest despite all my doomish prognostications last year, I've enjoyed more than I've suffered through this season. (The Williamson has definitely been my low point, but I've always been mystified by his popularity - if he were an Ayckbourn or a Sondheim, yes, I could understand it.) But on the other hand, there's been nothing that knocked my socks off, either.

louise said...

Fair enough Alison, I don't think anyone expects MTC to be anything other than a state theatre company. But if its colleague-companies interstate can devote at least some of their resources to more risky projects...over in Adelaide they entered into a co-pro with Brink of a new Bovell play and are finally doing Attempts on Her Life. In Brisbane they're seasoning their fare with a Heiner Muller adpatation of Titus Andronicus. You've discussed STC before I see. Is it too much to suggest that we're getting a pretty limited menu by comparison here in Melbourne?

margaret d said...

The answer to your question Louise is surely YES. Programming lightweight commercial fare is absolutely understandable and fine if it underwrites riskier, challenging projects that expand an audience's experience of theatre. If it is simply used to make money and fund even more lightweight pap, then surely the brief and responsibility of a State Theatre Company is being ignored.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Louise and Margaret - absolutely. The word that occurs to me is "timid" -what you don't get is any sense that our foremost local company is engaging at any level with the form or possibilities of theatre. I don't have any problems with lightweight fare, of course there's a place for that, but lightweight needn't mean mediocre. David Harrower is about the only thing that made my nostrils twitch this season, he's a fine writer, though again it's a little odd (I suggest ingenuously) that they've plumped for the obvious the Broadway and Sydney hit - At some point the MTC is going to have to bite the bullet and address this, because while Williamson might keep their aging audiences happy (I suppose, but that's certainly the assumption), those audiences are a vanishing demographic. And the theatre menu in Melbourne has been very rich and diverse the past few years, with the quality independent theatre, the Malthouse and MIAF, which leaves the MTC dead in the water with those younger audiences. Panic programming, maybe?

Anonymous said...

Don't complain too much you Melbourne folk--at least you have an Artistic Director in the building. We're still looking for ours in Sydney...

Anonymous said...

All that said - the cast did a great job with what they were given and Caroline O'Connor was once again, brilliant!

Scott Sparrow said...

If David Williamson can actually bring people out of their houses and into the theatre, and then have the majority of his audiences leave feeling like they haven’t spent an evening being spoken down to, but instead entertained and connected to the piece, then what more is an Australian writer writing for Australian Audiences supposed to do?

He made his point: life is not a movie, live in the moment.
He showed a reflection of Australian life in Scarlet (who is very much like many people I know, thou heightened)
And then he entertained us.

I was happy to spend a night at the theatre that wasn’t filled with pretentious snobbery, but was for the people. Williamson puts people in theatres, everyday people in to theatres, and that is why he is still so successful. He doesn’t write for the theatre elite but for the every day man.

However, the spine of the MTC is another matter…

Geoffrey said...

I agree Scott, and the David Williamson canon has always achieved exactly what you describe.

I have always been quite fascinated with this topic. It's similar to the programming issues faced by many performance companies – the opera, ballet, etc ... not to mention Television and Cinema Distributors/Exhibitors. It's all about bums on seats. I remember a cinema exhibitor telling me that he actually sold popcorn, icecreams and lollies. The film was quite secindary.

So the more bums, the more liklihood there is of salaries, rents, royalties, commissions, etc being paid.

The big elephant in the room here, and one that demands attention on various funding applications, is Audience Development. If they are constantly fed icecream with chocolate topping, then how will they ever know what butterscotch topping tastes like?

Anonymous said...

Which is exactly the problem in Sydney too Geoffrey - how can you expect the audience to have a relationship with dramatic material like Serpent's Teeth when most of what you have been feeding them in the way of new Australian writing is tepid comedy. Look back over their percentages of new australian work and see how much is comic and how much is dramatic work.

geoff said...

Hi all and Geoffrey. This issue cannot be reduced to the tired and old fashioned phraseology of 'bums on seats'. We need to ask why Germany can pack out houses to avante garde theatre and Australia cannot. We need to explain why a largely untalented writer of dialogue like Williamson first became known (with some plausibility), and has continued to remain so (with much less plausibility), in this country. We need to distinquish between good and bad popular entertainment - many popular Broadway musicals falling into the former category. Bums on seats? Why not striptease on stage, if that's all it takes. A good tease makes for better theatre than David, anyway (ouch).

Matilda said...

I have been thinking long and hard about this issue because I, too, couldn’t quite work out why I was feeling emptier and emptier throughout this play while others rollicked on. Being an actor working as an usher, I have and will see this play many times over and see each audience reaction as I do. The fact is, whether we like it or not, most seem to not only like it, but think it’s ‘brilliant’. Sure, there are some who come out at interval with stormy faces, waving their tickets at me saying ‘know anyone who wants this?’ but for the most part… they love it.

Is this a bad thing? Perhaps, and I offer this tentatively, we need pop theatre. It’s all well and good for we theatrically educated to turn up our noses at painfully stereotyped characters and vacuous plots, but what if there were a place for it? What if it built a thin bridge between theatre-goers and non theatre-goers? Maybe, if there were a robust pop theatre scene, which guaranteed feel good, Cameron Diaz-style romantic comedy, more of yer average punters would be likely to take the risk on the price of the ticket. And having taken that risk and been satisfied on a number of occasions and been indoctrinated into a theatre scene, would be more likely to venture into deeper waters. That’s how it works, isn’t it? You start out watching ‘Grease’ when your twelve and you learn all the words and play it out with your friends, and then those friends discover something even cooler like ‘Dirty Dancing’ and then you all try to out-cool each other with edgier and edgier stuff until your discussing ‘Mulholland Drive’ over a bottle of Tempranillo at the opening of a short film festival in Berlin.

Perhaps the gulf is too wide for the average Australian. This opens a whole other discussion about the place of art in Australian education, which I won’t go into, but have we cut out the middle man with all our ‘high-arting’? In my job you come to know the look of excited embarrassment on the faces of those who are there for the first time. Thrilled but feeling like an impostor amongst those clearly more knowledgeable. They want to love it, and for the most part pretend that they do, but usually leave feeling like they’d waded out of their depth.

If we had a healthy pop scene, perhaps there’d be enough money generated to have theatre companies who purely cater to that set, which would build a greater theatre audience, who’s needs would eventually outgrow that kind of theatre, which would create an audience for deeper work and therefore leave other companies free to take greater risks. Perhaps then we could take some of the pressure off the current subsidised theatre companies to satisfy both needs, and in doing so, satisfying neither.

theatre enthusiast said...

Matilda, before your time, there was such a company right there in Melbourne. It was called J.C. Williamson's. Many look back on it now with embarrassment at a lot of the sheer crap they put on, but, as you say, perhaps it created a theatre itch in some people who otherwise would have never walked into one. The same argument is made about pot boiler fiction--do Jackie Collins and Danielle Steele serve a valid purpose in getting people to start reading who otherwise never would? An interesting but circular debate.

Alison Croggon said...

But is Williamson really "pop theatre", catering to "ordinary people" (whoever they are?) They're off seeing Indiana Jones at the multiplexes, surely? And I can tell you, I'd be elbow to elbow with them, it would be much more fun. I rather suspect that Williamson appeals to a certain sense of privilege, a very Australian sense, of course, which means it's in many ways apparently self-deprecating, but privilege nonetheless. Small-time elitism is still elitism: I'd rather it were upfront. Nothing wrong with being bourgeois, I'd be first up against the wall in the revolution (maybe second, when they get around to remembering the poets) but I feel that the petit this kind of writing appeals to is a certain meanness of spirit: the spirit that feels slightly ashamed of its racism and sexism and enjoys the thrill of its acknowledgement and then a certain absolution which leaves its privilege intact. I

Matilda said...

“I feel that the petit this kind of writing appeals to is a certain meanness of spirit: the spirit that feels slightly ashamed of its racism and sexism and enjoys the thrill of its acknowledgement and then a certain absolution which leaves its privilege intact.”

Exactly. That’s the very thing that makes it Pop.

Racism and sexism and the thrill of their acknowledgement is certainly not exclusive to the ‘privileged’. But, let’s face it, the average Joe IS the ‘privileged’ in the fat-white-western-world. So either way I believe that, I won’t say Williamson, but certainly this play is, in my opinion, pop theatre.

Cathy Chua said...

I was utterly offended by the employment of Connors in the main role. She is not an actor. She is a singer who has whatever tolerable acting is sufficient to get her through a musical.

I was shocked to go to a MTC production and have to listen to somebody miked - which is because she isn't an adequate actor. I wrote and complained to the MTC who replied that they always reserve the right to mike their actors, but the fact is, as far as I have ever noticed, this has not happened before.

Am I really the only one appalled by this?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Cathy, miking is actually quite common in the theatre and directors do it for all sorts of reasons. It's probably least often about being heard - these days it's most often a decision about sound design and the kind of quality desired in a voice. Though there are exceptions, of course, when actors are miked because they can't project, but I'd say that is pretty rare.

Cathy Chua said...

Gee, I've gone to a lot of theatre over the years and can't recall ever having seen an actor outside of musical theatre miked. Not one.

I'd love an example of the MTC using a miked actor in the past, if you can possibly think of one, or some other theatre production even.

I can possibly understand it for effect, but what actor needs to have that relief for their voice? Only an inadequate one surely!!

Alison Croggon said...

Probably too many to name - but ones I can immediately recall:

Women of Troy, STC (dir Barrie Kosky, starring Robyn Nevin)

Exit the King Malthouse (Malthouse/Belvoir St, dir Neil Armfield, starring Geoffrey Rush)

Food Court (Back to Back, Melbourne Festival)

The Serpent's Teeth (dir Pamela Rabe, Tim Maddock, STC Actors Company)

Moving Target (dir Benedict Andrews (Malthouse)

Season at Sarsaparilla (dir Benedict Andrews, STC Actors Company)

and so on and so on... as you should probably be able to guess from the calibre of actors in some of these productions, mics aren't used because the actors can't speak in a theatre.