Review: Don's Party ~ theatre notes

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Review: Don's Party

Don's Party by David Williamson, directed by Peter Evans. Design by Dale Ferguson, lighting design by Matt Scott, composition and sound design Basil Hogios. With Glenn Hazeldine, Anita Hegh, Colin Lane, Steve Le Marquand, Mandy McElhinney, Travis McMahon, Rhys Muldoon, Christopher Pitman, Felicity Price, Jacinta Stapleton and Alison Whyte. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Arts Centre Playhouse until February 10.

The organ known as my heart was, I confess, a little heavier than usual as I donned the gladrags for the opening night of Don's Party. This play helped to turn David Williamson into the minesweeper of Australian theatre, imploding critical objections with an unerring radar for the popular nerve centre of middle Australia. He must be great, the theatre managers (and some shameless critics) would say: just look at that box office!

As if that's not enough to hold against Don's Party, I'd already suffered through it. My review of that production, a revival directed by Graeme Blundell, led some columnist to call me (I recall approximately) a joyless feminist twat with a humour bypass. Though, true, I was singularly joyless as I watched that piece of anthropological ham: I like my theatre live, thank you, like those Japanese gourmets who demand their dinner swimming on their plates.

Breathless reader, let me relieve your suspense (I know you are anxious for me): I didn't stagger out of Don's Party lobotomised by boredom and irritation, which is my usual Williamson experience. Peter Evans' production pricked some life into the play, and even suggested how bracing it might have been on its first outing in 1971: people talking on stage as they actually talk at parties! Banal marriages at various stages of disintegration! Sex! Lewdness! Profanity! Suburban middle class tragedy! This was Us! Finally! And we're funny!

(There's something to be said for this: maybe as much now as in the 1970s, since we have witlessly become an American cultural colony as opposed to a British one, and even have our own version of Vietnam. It's a little depressing that there's a refreshing cognitive frisson in hearing someone affectionately called "cunt features" in Australian on stage.)

In my fairer moments I admit that, once upon a time, David Williamson was known to write real plays. I have a modicum of respect for his early work, which, while it never reached the heights of his English contemporaries - I'm thinking of writers like Trevor Griffiths, Howard Brenton or Arnold Wesker - had a rude liveliness and dramatic sensibility that for a time promised something rather more than the boulevard theatre that Williamson ground out, year after year, until he retired a couple of years ago.

So, it's not Chekhov. I don't expect anybody except Chekhov to be Chekhov, and I certainly wouldn't bring this up if David Williamson himself hadn't claimed that he is Anton's reincarnation, backed up in this delusion by a raft of directors who appear to think that all that Chekhov did was to invent a few bourgeois characters and stick them in a loungeroom to chat morosely around the samovar. Let me be stern with the ghost of HG Kippax, who is perhaps responsible for this particular myth: if David Williamson is doing anything remotely like Chekhov, then I'm Mikhail Baryshnikov. Since I have three left feet and at ten years of age was my ballet teacher's private Gehenna, that should be enough to be going on with.

No, in Don's Party, Williamson is making a vernacular Australian version of the English drawing room comedy, the kind of thing exemplified by Noel Coward. Oddly, Coward died shortly after this play premiered, although I don't think there's a connection. Tarted up with an edge of drunken melancholy (hence, I suppose, the Chekhovian allusions), the play moves from order to chaos, and everyone's dirty financial secrets/underwear/strange sexual habits are exposed in the course of the play.

Instead of a fantasy of the English upper classes, we have the educated bourgeoisie, facing the first failures of middle age: Don himself (Steve Le Marquand), the novelist who has settled for being a school teacher, his wife Kath (Mandy McElhinney), popping anti-depressants, his best mate Mal and an unlikely assortment of friends, ranging from the elegant artist Kerry (Anita Hegh) married to a jealous dentist Evan (Colin Lane) to the Liberal-voting accountant Simon (Glenn Hazeldine) and his flirty blond wife Jodi (Felicity Price).

The occasion is the the 1969 Federal Election, which saw the Australian Labor Party vote bitterly split by the DLP. Don and his friends have gathered to allegedly watch the vote count on television, but really to drink, pose, abuse each other, thrash out petty resentments and try to get each other into bed. The men flock around the blonde right wing bimbo, the women cluster in the loungeroom and talk about their children and their unsatisfactory sex lives.

It's funny, but it's not that funny, and it's sad, but hardly tragic in the Chekhovian sense; it's full of those famous one-liners and the farcical bedroom comedy is enough to keep you going, mostly. My boredom meter started creeping into the orange zone in the second half, during all those maudlin confessions. But I've had worse nights.

Peter Evans has assembled a good cast, a meld of actors and comedians, and they inject this (it must be said, rather jejune) comedy of manners with a bit of vim. It's directed sharp and fast on a naturalistic set that's designed to chime with nostalgic chic: the smart suburban brick veneer, the paper lanterns, the vinyls on the turntable, the home-made pizzas (which seem to be actually cooked during the course of the play). The soundscape in punctuated by MOR 60s hits: the Rolling Stones, the Beatles. The wankers talk about French film auteurs, the lefties about marginal seats and mortgages. It's the play as social document par excellence, but the actors generate an admirable energy that makes the evening pass relatively painlessly.

One virtue of this production is that the women's roles are foregrounded. It's not as misogynist as it can seem (it might be truer to say it is merely misanthropic), although, no matter how you cut it, the hero is Cooley (Rhys Muldoon). The women adore him and the men want to be him. He's the ultimate portrayal of the Australian intellectual larrikin, the flawed but loveable hero-in-his-own-trousers, who lends any gathering a refreshing frankness and honesty: life is about shaving, shitting and fucking, and anyone who claims otherwise is a wanker. Although - like many of us, I expect - I've been cornered by his ilk at parties, and in such situations it's hard to see anything but a boor comfortably insulated from the smallest twinkle of self-knowledge.

Perhaps the least likeable character is the pretentious artist (played with a strange, hypnotic acccuracy by Anita Hegh) who says things like "I'm just getting into texture" and humiliates her browbeaten husband when he discovers her in bed with Cooley. Don's Party exposes the pretensions of all ambition, the inevitable compromises that life imposes on the lofty hopes of youth. Don's novel never gets written, Mal's political ambitions devolve into armchair expert and the only person who practises what she preaches turns out to be a hollow vessel indeed.

This play certainly satirises the follies of the middle classes, but the real question is: at what point does it begin to celebrate them? There is a difference between exposing pretensions and claiming that pretensions are all there are. To bring in old Anton again: although Chekhov explores human folly with the cool precision of a surgeon, he does so in order to discover the ways in which people attempt to make meaning in lives which threaten to crush human resilience altogether. Williamson's vision is never so large: he has been so popular because he uncritically reflects the way Australians like to see themselves. The virtue, in the end, is in the compromise, the via media. Art, ideals, principles: who needs them? They were only ever a wank, anyway.

Williamson showed us people like us. Or our parents (or grandparents) anyway. And the box office went ka-ching! Which is why Williamson gets the credit for bringing Australians on to the colonised stage, when in fact he wrote in a context of fine but largely forgotten dramatists like Peter Kenna, Patrick White or Richard Beynon. Well, I can't grudge him his royalties: I only grudge him the title of "Australia's Greatest Playwright", which is frankly embarrassing. Nothing that a glass of champagne doesn't allay, of course. It was that kind of night.

Picture: Rhys Muldoon and Travis McMahon in Don's Party. Photo: Jeff Busby


Ben Ellis said...

That's an illuminating take on the success of the play.

I thought I might add a few quotations from Katharine Brisbane's review of the Pram Factory premiere (11 Sept 1971) (source: "Not Wrong-Just Different: observations on the rise of contemporary Australian theatre"):

"Don's Party: Study of Inertia...

"There is no sadism, passion or determination, as you get in Albee, and no accuracy. The tone is instead facetious, the jibes that hit the mark do so by accident.

"Because the script is so formless the APG was taken by surprise by its popularity. But it is the familiarity of the characters that startles and captures the audience, not any dramatic contrivance by the writer. The shock of familiarity is still a novelty on our stages."

Ten months later, John Clark directed the Sydney premiere at the Jane Street Theatre, which Katharine Brisbane wrote up as "nothing short of a triumph". (6 July 1972):

"What John Clark has done so admirably in his production of this rorty comedy-drama is to turn a good play into a good marketable play.

"Such a director our young playwrights have long been yearning for--not someone who competently gets the play on, or one who mauls it into conformity for a preconceived but problematical audience. I mean someone with respect for the writer who presents his qualities in clever and attractive packaging."

Explaining the difference in her reaction from the Melbourne production, Brisbane wrote, "There is none of the desperation of the Melbourne production and almost none of the viciousness. In its place is an assured emphasis upon the dialogue, which reveals not only the stunning wit but a great warmth which has not before emerged from Williamson's work. Unlike most of his contemporaries he is not a satirist but writes with an almost unshockable compassion."

It's interesting the difference direction makes to the reception of new work, but there's also other lessons in that, I'm sure.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Ben - those are very interesting quotes! Also of interest are the English reactions when it went up at the Royal Court - one reviewer complained that one couldn't tell from Australians' speech whether they were educated or not and another wondered why Australia was so concerned about its immigration policy, when clearly "no decent person would want to live there". Dear me.

Of course, it's still possible to read plays as well as to see them in production, and to form a view of the text independent of the interpretations of other artists. But I'd say every play needs good artists to work with it, and to work with it in the right way. I guess it's one of the things that makes theatre so fascinating - so many variables.

Anonymous said...

Ben.. thanks for that... the compassion thing is something huge i reckon. It can be easily missed in the first or second reading. I didn't see the production Alison reviewed but it doesn't sound for her review like that element of Williamson's writing was translated by that particular production to that particular audience member! I'm very fortunate to be playing Don in an amateur production in Hong Kong next month. It's only after playing with the piece for a month that we are all starting to see the depth in DW's writing. Hope we all have some luck at least in conveying the depth and i think compassion is an illuminating word to describe it. Nice insight... thanks.