At interval I rushed out and ordered two gins and tonic in a clenched and stertorous panic fearing the second half of the play might well be as bad as the first; and then, for want of tonic, a Black Label scotch with ice. But the second half was fine. For David not Kristin had written it, and the evening then rose to his long accustomed altitude of dull bland Shaftesbury Avenue acceptability. There were genuine laughs and some actual poignancy when Carla died of brain cancer and her daughter addressed her empty chair. But the first half came close to war crime, and in a better ordered universe Kristin would be tried in The Hague for it and get two years, and the Ensemble and David six months each for collaborating with the enemy.
It is time these implacable Williamsons were discussed with clarity and care. They have sued me, justly, once before this and received in reparation the ruin of the briefly resurrected Nation Review. And I did like very much Don Parties On and I said so publically, to David’s perplexed and mawkish gratitude, earlier this year. And we do talk warmly from time to time. But Nothing Personal, despite superb performances, a nice transparent-perspex design by Steven Butler and shrewd, longsuffering direction by Mark Kilmurry, up against it like no-one since General Perceval in Singapore, has insulted the intelligence of even its most pliable North Shore audience unforgiveably this time, and even they applauded only listlessly, wondering what precisely it was they had seen. Let me strive to explain this.
Bea, a female publisher, tells Roxanne, her assistant for thirty years, that the Booker Prize if won by a certain author would increase her sales, but a Booker Prize nomination would have absolutely no effect. And Roxanne nods as if this nonsense were news to her; or true. Bea deplores furthermore all novels of the multicultural bent (by which I guess she means The Slap) which ‘get down in the gutter’ and is righteously reluctant to publish them, preferring Anita Brookner. Naomi, her game young sub-editor, tells her times have changed and plots to overthrow her; and in part pursuit of this aim assents to being fucked by Kelvin, the wealthy handsome adulterous Chairman of the Board, in his Byron Bay hinterland farmhouse, to which he has flown her in his personal jet and to her surprise, after lashings of champagne, flung her to the carpet and had his way with her. Because of this, and her lying about it, her longtime squeeze Simon, an idealistic inner city architect intensely involved in public housing in Newtown, leaves her forever, being ignorant of the long tradition of stray fucks by lady publishers in most of the recent centuries. She copiously repents, and wants him back, and he, morosely returning to pick up hisx things … but I shouldn’t spoil it for you.
Nothing which deigns to occur in these eighty-two minutes which I will never get back has any plausibility except the brain cancer, and Bea’s neglect of her daughter in childhood, which persists in surprising her daughter, though not the rest of us, for decades thereafter; and, oh yes, Naomi’s metropolitan promiscuity, treachery, ambition, self-righteousness, presumption and venality. But not her or Bea’s manner of talking. No female publishers I have ever known in the course of twenty-two books have ever talked like that, like Playschool presenters unveiling the alphabet, nor known so little of life among the lower orders and refused to read about them. As always these Williamson characters speak in uncontradicted explicatory paragraphs, dumbed down to the level of those Women’s Weekly subscribers who increasingly crowd the matinees, and his people only vestigially exist outside the hobbling plotline he and Kristin have rough-hewn for them, one steamy summer Sunday afternoon in Port Douglas, Noosa, or Byron.
It is all very strange, and pretty familiar. It is what one might call the curious, continuing Williamson South Sea Bubble, unpierced and scarcely examined these thirty-four years. The Big Brand Name continues and its usual audience, unaware of any other Australian writing, turns up religiously to it year after year. It is as though no other Australian drama exists. The Slap does not exist; Grass Roots does not exist; Blue Murder; Rake; Underbelly; Hotel Sorrento; Beneath Hill 60; Breaker Morant; The Year My Voice Broke; Angel Baby; Honour; Noise; Traitors; The Games; A Hard God; Animal Kingdom; Cloudstreet; A Local Man; Pig Iron People; Country Music; Sky; Away; Blackrock; Intimate Strangers; Italian Stories; Myth, Propaganda And Disaster In Nazi Germany And Contemporary America; King of Country; Barmaids; Diving For Pearls: works of plain superiority to Top Silk and Corporate Vibes and Celluloid Heroes and The Great Man which pummel on the doors of the few available theatres while Williamson, still bizarrely thought our finest playwright when he is merely our tallest, continues to somehow prolong his underwhelming yet charismatic reign by yet another decade, yearly banking millions and ofttimes bellyaching that he is not praised enough — like Madonna or Albert Schweitzer or Carl Sandilands or Mother Teresa — for the suffering he has endured for his art, in a kind of parallel universe where rivals and standards and new opinions barely exist. It is a form of lunacy, like Enron, or Demidenko, or Norma Khouri, or Baz Luhrman, and should be exposed, or at the least mulled over by a Noosa psychotherapist.
What is worst about all this is what one might call the Kristin Williamson Rule of Thumb, which declares all sins that are initially denied are always forgiven when at last found out. Thus Bea’s neglect of her daughter Lucy in childhood and her contempt for Lucy’s working class bloke is initially punished by her banishment from her grandchild’s life, but is then, after haughty confessional declamation, forgiven and re-embraced. And the workplace sexual harasser Kelvin, rebuffed in love, yet retains the respectful friendship of the gorgeous, talented female he so briefly whanged and so lavishly shamed in the Byron Bay hinterland (there is no Byron Bay hinterland, I come from up that way, discuss) and now in penance overpays. It is the ethic of a female inner-urban careerist long practised and skilled in Spin, one who, in her haughtily glamorised memoir David Williamson: Behind the Scenes, understates, by my count, her own unhidden adulteries while overstating and hyperbolising David’s; and I speak with some close personal knowledge of this, and of matters long known by a few surviving elderly readers once agog at the Williamson-Ellis exchanges in Days Of Wine And Rage, whose re-publication Kristin has lately forbidden, printing the legend, as she is wont to do.
…Some aged lingering grudges inform these present rancorous ruminations, of course, and some envy of a public success and national esteem so inordinate and ill-gotten. But most of it, I swear, is altruistic aggravation at the yearly gazumping of theatres hallowed and crowded as the Ensemble by such blithering shallowness as this while great works like, say, The Will, by Amy Maddison, are performed unnoted in tinier, grimier spaces to audiences blown away by their excellence.
Greta Scacchi, a formidable, tall and erotic presence, gives her Bea what beef and heft and brain she can, recalling now and then Faye Dunaway’s simmering Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Julie Hudspeth is very good as her longtime supportive plain-speaking lieutenant Roxanne. Matthew Moore has a whiff of Stork about him in the gloomy mistrustful role of Simon, Naomi’s patient cuckold, here played very well indeed. Jeannie Drynan is blithe and moving as the oversmiling, overbuoyant, bulky, grandchildless cancer patient Carla; Emma Jackson very fine as Bea’s vengeful, scalded, unforgiving daughter Lucy; and Andrew MacFarlane persuasive as the wealthy womanising wooer Kelvin, especially in the boozy, bumpy seduction scene and its nods towards date rape. And Rachael Coopes makes a fair deal of sense of Naomi, the usual Kristin supergirl, jangling, righteous and brimming with sexual doubt and moral ache, who will always opt for the money and whore herself when the opportunity, and the tempter’s dick, arises. And Mark Kilmurry’s direction, given the text, is miraculously subtle, measured and somehow, despite the mounting vacuity, dignified.
But whatever the signature’s truthfulness it should not have been staged as written. A couple of weeks’ rewriting after some workshopping and some lacerous dramaturgy was essential and might just have saved the first act from its unceasing embarrassments and me from alcoholic excess, but I doubt it. Some research on the publishing industry might have helped. Les Murray’s fine definition of publishers, ‘air hostesses in training’, might have added a laugh. But sheesh it was a shocking night.
None of these glum, exhausted, necessary judgments were arrived at with any pleasure I assure you in the last three cranky nights of their accumulation. I too would prefer, like David, a quiet life. But the Emperor’s New Clothes have been falsely acclaimed for too long by a lot of intelligent people who should know better, and proudly worn for too long by a nice man, fallen among flatterers, whose foot has been for too long on the throat of larger talent, causing harm to our civilisation.
And so it goes.