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A test of party loyalties

Forty years on, David Williamson is catching up with the guests from Don’s Party

29 January 2011

12:00 AM

29 January 2011

12:00 AM

Forty years on, David Williamson is catching up with the guests from Don’s Party

It’s an extraordinary thing, on the face of it, that David Williamson should write a sequel to his glittering and influential 1971 play Don’s Party some 40 years on. Don’s Party is set on the evening of the 1969 election, the one in which Gorton beat Whitlam, and Don Parties On is set on the election night of 2010, the one which has given us Julia Gillard’s minority Labor government. But the idea of a sequel to a play about young rads getting middle-class is a bit like Shaw, at the end of his life, writing in the wake of the second world war Pygmalion Revisited with an octogenarian Higgins and Eliza, his old fair lady of 60-odd.

Don’s Party was the real game-changer in Australian theatre because it took the virulent angry sexed-up vernacular of the newly educated classes and showed them tangled in the webs of middle-class contradiction. This was the voice of Whitlam’s Australia before the letter just as it was the signature on the cheque of the new Australian cultural nationalism. When that wily old English hamster Robert Morley, who was in Australia to do some drawing-room farce, saw Don’s Party at the Old Tote, he remarked to a reporter on This Day Tonight: ‘We have some very stiff opposition.’

And so cultural Melbourne was out in force to see the successor to the ancient ocker game-changer. Despite the oppressive humidity that kept everyone in shirtsleeves, Barry Humphries swept into the theatre in dark Savile Row tailoring and buttonhole. Nadia Tass, the filmmaker who rivalled the old Ealing comedies with films like Malcolm and The Big Steal was there with her husband David Parker, as was that ravishing actress Kate Kendall, late of Stingers, who is soon to do that offbeat musical Next to Normal. And Mary Rubin Schepisi, some of whose pictures adorn the show, was there with a gleam in her eye.

It was bound to be something, a Don’s Party Rides Again directed by the finest naturalistic director in the country, Robyn Nevin. Nevin understands with an unequalled subtlety that the Australian vernacular is not, or not simply, a camp argot.

So what happens with Don Parties On, this self-conscious bit of resurrectionism by the country’s best-known playwright (the one who made the jump from the cutting edge to the commercial mainstage in one step) directed by the nation’s premier realist?

It’s a mixed bag. Dale Ferguson’s lavishly realised recreative suburban set looks as if it would make a hole in a mortgage. The production is consistently entertaining and full of bustling detail, and so is the play it animates.

It has to be admitted that Williamson, even when he seems to be confusing surface and depth, is a greater master of construction and exposition than any Australian playwright who has come after him. And Nevin is utterly professional in keeping the ball on the bounce.

Don — the role which Bruce Beresford’s 1976 film immemorially associates with the late John Hargreaves — is played by Garry McDonald, whose unforgettable Seventies incarnation was as Norman Gunston. It’s odd casting because Don, old or young, should be a leading man, preferably handsome if ruined, rather than someone who, in Shaw’s phrase, nature cannot wither because he has never bloomed. Given this, McDonald handles the role with an easy pensive grace that never deviates far from the flattened comedic patter that we’ve seen him use in a dozen Williamson or neo- Williamsonian routines.

The play is centred on the recent Gillard/Abbott election and we see Don, one-time school counsellor, in communion with his old mate Mal — the Ray Barrett part — former high flyer, and Cooley, stud, lawyer, man with an oxygen mask. Then there are the women: Don’s everlastingly patient wife Kath, Cooley’s cool compassionate wife Helen, and Jenny, former wife of Mal who has had a successful career as a politician but who has experienced her own heartbreak, not least as a consequence of her sexual free-for-all with the long-ago partiers.

These are the old timers, the once and future kings and queens of Williamson’s world. Then there is the pressing drama of Don’s family. His son, a successful 42-year-old advertising man, is conducting an affair with a younger woman. His wife (who stays offstage) is in hospital after taking an overdose and his daughter, Don and Kath’s teenage granddaughter, wants to kill him.

The interplay between this hysterical black farce and the flickering lusts and remembered desires, the flaunted nostalgias of the 60-something old timers, is done with considerable skill. The construction of the play is tight and the tempo, in Nevin’s hands, is expert.

Frankie J. Holden has a sort of sickening oafishness as Cooley that is a comic delight and Robert Grubb has the right kind of pompous indefatigable garrulousness as Mal.

The difficulty with the production is that it’s hard for Nevin and her talented cast to penetrate the interiority of the male characters, who are such a compound of piss and wind. Their rhetoric is meant to be a key to their humanity, but it can prove an obstacle, perhaps more particularly with a director who has a cold eye for masculine braggadocio.

The women fare better than the men. Tracy Mann as Kath initially seems mannered but grows in stature, and Diane Craig as Helen has a cool credibility that’s impressive. On the other hand, Nikki Shields — so impressive in her Malthouse debut as Julie Forsyth’s lady-in-waiting — is dreadfully at sea as the histrionic girlfriend, and unfortunately she is almost matched in awfulness by Darren Gilshenan as the son. Georgia Flood, though, from TV’s Tangle, makes a fair fist of the grand-daughter, Belle.

The standout performance in this nostalgia filled revamp of a play is Sue Jones as Jenny. She brings to the part of the woman who fell into a pit of melancholy, who saw one child die of AIDS and had an abortion she didn’t want, a superb, passionate, uncompromising reality. She gives a riveting, utterly convincing performance of a leathery woman, bitter but brilliant, and she does justice to all the ravages of age and pain.

This is the kind of acting Robyn Nevin is famous for and which she is so good at eliciting from actors. In Sue Jones’ portrait of the older Jenny we finally get the realisation of a Williamson character that preserves the dramatic thread and actually has an authentic depth. Her performance is a reminder of the Williamson who once transfixed the world and of the way he’s still there as a potential in this ghostly exercise of a play.

Don Parties On is at the Playhouse until 12 February and Sydney Theatre from 17 February to 8 March.

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