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Emerald City

Photo by Brett Boardman

Griffin Theatre Company presents EMERALD CITY by David Williamson at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, 17 Oct – 6 Dec.

EMERALD CITY was written by David Williamson in 1987. It is, basically, a satirical comedy, about the, then, Australian Film and Publishing Industries. The cities of Sydney and Melbourne are secondary targets of interest for the writer. Mr Williamson seems to be writing from what he knows – it is tempting to read into it, elements of Mr Williamson’s biography – and if one does so, it, consequently, must have given some audacious heft to the comedy, for the audience, in the ‘eighties. Today, in 2014, not so much so, perhaps.

A Screenwriter, Colin Rogers (Mitchell Butel) and his wife Kate (Lucy Bell), a publisher, decamp from Melbourne to the Emerald City, Sydney, with their family. Colin has been managed by Agent, Elaine Ross (Jennifer Hagan), but finds that his vision for his work is diverging from hers, and joins up with a ‘flashy’ go-getter, Mike McCord (Ben Winspear) to write and self-produce their own projects. They look for the money support from a commerce-wise, businessman, Malcolm Bennett (Gareth Yuen). Mike has a sexy girlfriend, Helen Davey (Kelly Paterniti), who is part of the alluring temptations of this Emerald City – poor Colin.

The play shows its age with what now sometimes feels to be overwritten didacticism in its satirical intentions and, maybe, is not as funny as it was, because the consequences of the greed and power games played-out, by these characters at the centre of the play’s concerns, are what we are dealing with, socially, now, in a world where to be open for business by any means, at the cost of one’s own, now smudged ethical lines, is acceptably normal, and so, too blatant to contemplate, to be able to raise a laugh about without moral pain. Sometimes a vintage wine can turn to vinegar. All that glittered in 1987 is, indeed, not gold, or glittering, in 2014.

Other problems exist in this production, for me, which undermine, easy access to the comedy of the piece. Mr Butel, as Colin, an actor I have admired a lot (ANGELS IN AMERICA), seems to be uncomfortably mis-cast here, and creates a whirlwind of distracting energy as substitute for character substance and truth. Mr Butel, resolvedly, resorts to some very risky comic gesturing and vocalisations that, to me, seemed to be out of the realm of the play’s genre, in another comic sphere, altogether. Mr Winspear draws a fairly pencil thin characterisation as Mike, using, inexplicably, a forced ‘voice’ sound, as the core stroke of his creating, that forces the reception of his character, as, mostly, an unbelievable caricature – Mr Winspear took over the playing of this role from an indisposed Marcus Graham at very short notice, and some leeway of understanding can be made, although I saw EMERALD CITY, some three weeks into the season, and was disappointed with the lightweight choices. If the two principal men/characters, are, relatively, ‘crippled’, the play will have an even more difficult trajectory for success.

Ms Bell as Kate, has the right observational measures of her character and the stylistic masteries, necessary, for the success of her portrayal in the play. Her work is an object lesson of insightful assuredness to the demands made by Mr Williamson: truth, plus style, and all in a balance of expressive scale. Ms Hagan, too, has the dry wit of it, both with text and characterisation clues, while both Ms Paterniti and Mr Yuen, in supporting roles, demonstrate, further, what Mr Wiilamson needs to succeed: a clean sighted instinct for the truth of the characters and their function in the writing, with an uncluttered execution of the stylistic needs, highlighted by pin point line accuracies in delivery.

Lee Lewis, as Director, has invited the painter, Ken Done to create the background feature of a Sydney portrait in his inimitable style, and aided by the Costume and Set Design by Sophie Fletcher, enhanced by the rich and detailed warmth of the Lighting by Luiz Pampolha, sets a visual dazzle that creates a buzz of nostalgic double-takes for scary memories, for those of us that have survived into the present time.

Like the recent THE YOUNG TYCOONS by C.J. Johnson at the Eternity Theatre, satire of a particular time, doesn’t always work in a later time. Too much water has passed under the bridge. Your reception may depend on your coming end-of-year, Christmas cheer.