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Smurf in Wanderland

Photo by Brett Boardman

National Theatre of Parramatta and Griffin Theatre Company present SMURF IN WANDERLAND, by David Williams, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross. 2 May – 13 May.

SMURF IN WANDERLAND, a new Australian play, is the result of the enthusiasm of Lee Lewis, the Griffin Theatre Artistic Director’s promise to program a play about Soccer, that was thrown into the discussion mix at the closing session of the Australian Theatre Forum held in Canberra, in 2013, by Playwright and Performer, David Williams. Four years later, and as a resultant of Mr Williams further engagement as a member of the 2015 Griffin Studio: ” .. here we are.”, says Mr Williams, in his program notes.

Mr Williams was a major contributor (and founder) to the performance group known as Version 1.0 (e.g. THIS KIND OF RUCKUS; THE TABLE OF KNOWLEDGE.) The works were deeply researched verbatim theatre performances. Since, after that company’s demise: “Under the banner DW Projects, David Williams creates theatre works of social relevance, aesthetic rigour and emotional impact from research, interviews, transcripts and public documents.” SMURF IN WANDERLAND is one of three current DW Projects in development or performance. It is the first work, from Mr Williams, for the National Theatre of Parramatta.

Over the past fifteen years, I’ve built a professional reputation around crafting theatre works from the words of other people – from public inquiries, parliamentary proceedings, and interviews. I had genuinely believed that SMURF IN WANDERLAND would be a work of a similar ilk. But I found that the show only came alive when I placed myself in the narrative. And the result is the show you see tonight – a very personal account of football and Sydney.

In deed Mr Williams is both the Writer and the Actor, a one person show – aided dramaturgically, by Kate Worsley and Directed, by Lee Lewis. Set and Costume Design, by Charles Davis, Lighting Design, by Luiz Pampolha, and a mostly atmospheric Sound Design and Composition, by James Brown.

The work is constructed in two 45 minute halves (the football game time lengths) from a ‘Kick-off’ to a “Half Time” to a “Full Time” signal. Mr Williams after an introductory explanation and audience organisational orchestration (there is some lame audience ‘inclusion’), and several invitations to exit the theatre, if we want, gives us a history of his Western Suburban credentials/roots to help justify his divided self, as an attendee at both the Soccer games of Western Sydney Wanderers and Sydney Football Club (FC), in the franchise, sky blue, Sydney FC clothing-gear, most of the time.

Says Ms Lewis in her program notes, SMURF IN WANDERLAND

Coming to you in the disarming guise of a one man show, what may look like a simple love letter to the idea of ‘fans’ is actually a revealing analysis of modern culture identity and a passionate artist’s refusal to blithely accept governmental agenda and media laziness collaborating to denigrate the sport, the people and the city he loves.

If, only.

For me, in experience, in the SBW Stables, what evolved was a telling of a personal gradual ‘addiction’ to a sport form that reveals our narrator, cumulatively, viewing the world around him through the personal lens and prejudices of a spiralling and focused “Fan-actic” – suffering from a kind of soccer vertigo (remember the Alfred Hitchcock publicity images for the film VERTIGO?) This growing ‘illness’ was ‘horribly’ symptomatic in the confessed personal interweaving of the ‘game’ versus ‘birth’ demands of this Smurf’s time allocation and sense of responsibility. I feel sure, if, you have been disarmed by the ‘story’, you may think it a gently amusing dilemma, if not, otherwise, it may be, slightly, socially alarming. This is when, perhaps, the narrator’s voice, truly came alive for me – engendering a very concerned human empathy for ‘Smurf’ and for his circle of relationships.

The forensic dating of events and the many accessed details of ‘pivotal’ match moments, the side-‘wise’ passion of criticisms of the press, the police and the corporation management of his sport (whilst, I thought, ironically, wearing several Sydney FC shirts and caps – he telling us of his spending $145 on a franchised corporate shirt and having it personalised, at further expense), all reveal the ‘fanatic’ who is no longer just a simple fan of a sport, but is an ‘obsessed’ (as he admits), and may need some interventionary counselling.

For those of us who know not the sport or, much of sport fanaticism, this work fails to engage us to disarm our ignorance or trepidation to fully participate and enthuse in the body of this long performance. Neither the group chanting, we are taught, or, the static video images, of, mostly, newspaper articles and photographs we are shown on the side screens (what? no video recordings available, to show us the ‘magic’ of soccer in action?), or the deadening time consuming reveal of  banners in the auditorium – which only half the audience at any one time can read – can ignite us to disarmed enthusiasm, no matter how much I wished I could do so, so as to support the creative artists, in the demanded ‘moments’. I did chant along and handclap – I did! It is a laborious two hours or so in the theatre and, perhaps, only the fanatic will think it a worth while way to spend one’s time.

I, certainly, felt SMURF IN WANDERLAND, occupying, for two weeks, the Griffin Theatre’s stage, or at the Riverside Theatres out in Parramatta, where it premiered, needed some urgent script ‘doctoring’. Four years in the making this work is still fairly clumsy and full of textural ‘wanderings’  and forensic sport persiflage. It needed more dramaturgical attention to give it more justification for its programming, no matter how enthusing the idea in Canberra at an Australian Theatre Forum, may have been about the art/sport dichotomy. (It was at the end of the Australian Theatre Forum event – so, it may just have been brain-dead exhaustion that ‘floated’ it?)

I believe, the time and stage occupation, Theatrically and Social Conscience-wise (tick a box), could have been better served with a return of PYT Fairfield’s production of TRIBUNAL, which the Griffin presented last year to overflowing  demand. By the way, one wonders, if the National Theatre of Parramatta has offered TRIBUNAL a berth in their programming schedule in the West?

In a pre-show article in THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD (by Peter Munro -26th April, 2017) Mr Williams is reported as saying

He likens football fans to theatre buffs. “I see multiple shows each week and there’s an awful lot of shit you have to wade through to get those moments of magic,” he says. “Football fandom is the same. There have been many times where I had a strong disgust with what has been offered to me on the field. And yet I still come back for the next game, just in the hope that we should be better, we will get better.”

After ‘wading’ through SMURF IN WANDERLAND, for the Griffin Theatre Company, I concur. I go to the Griffin in the hope that “we should get better, we will get better.” SMURF IN WANDERLAND, new Australian writing at the Sydney theatre, which, exclusively, champions it!: “We will get better” – but when?

This is one of DW Projects on-going enterprises, the others include: QUIET FAITH (national tour April-July) and GRACE UNDER PRESSURE (Seymour Centre and The Big Anxiety). I felt it was ominous to read David Williams Writer’s notes in the foyer before the show which began with: “This show began life as a joke.” 

Hmmm, again.