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Photo by by Brett Broadman

The Big Time

Ensemble Theatre presents, David Williamson's THE BIG TIME, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, 18th January - 16th March

THE BIG TIME is a new play by David Williamson. It focuses on the world of the entertainment industry. The struggle of the actor. The struggle of the writer. All of them trying to reach The Big Time. For, as Mr Williamson tells us in his Writer’s Note in the program:

In the entertainment industry there’s only one place all hopefuls want to be. The Big Time. If they make it, they become wealthy, but perhaps even more importantly they are finally treated with respect. … That’s why the competition to make The Big Time is so fierce. …

He goes on to say:

Given that I’ve inhabited this world for nearly fifty years now, and that two of my sons are NIDA acting graduates, my daughter was an actors agent, and my wife was a drama teacher and a theatre critic, I know that in the industry that creates fictional drama, the real life drama can be intense. And that’s what made it irresistible to write about.

So, based on a life time engagement in the entertainment industry – first hand and second hand – Mr Williamson draws on what he knows, firstly, as a writer himself, dealing with agents and producers, then, of his two sons’ experiences as actors and his daughter’s and wife’s experiences as actor agent, drama teacher and critic. This, the truthful claim of ownership of this play’s territory, was re-iterated in the press publicity for this production.

Vicki Fielding (Claudia Barrie) and Celia Constanti (Aileen Huynh) went to Drama School together – NIDA, Mr Williamson tells us (where both his sons went). Celia was the naturally gifted one with a genuine collaborative personality, who was comfortable with her talent and shone at Drama School, she got to play great roles: who will ever forget her layered student performance as Masha, confessing to her sisters in act three of THREE SISTERS?!!!! Vicki, was the feisty, difficult talent, genuinely unhappy with her opportunities and felt discriminated against in the system of Drama School – she got to play the maid in the same production of THREE SISTERS, for god’s sake!!! (someone has to, I guess. Stanislavaki famously said “There are no small roles, only small actors”. He, of course, was the Artistic and Financial support of the Moscow Arts Theatre, and was – how fortuitous – one of the leading actors, in his own company! Vicki, on the other hand, is just a struggling no-body talent in an unappreciative environment.)

Celia has worked in the industry and become a famous and secure talent – commodity – of the television world – a Logie, New Idea and TV Week covers etc. Her work is popular but unchallenging of her ‘real’ talent. Vicki, has had no easy time and to stay in the profession has worked in fringe work, earning barely a living, but in an artistic field of challenge and growth, as compensation, she believes. These two, who have managed to stay connected as friends over their career years are often at loggerheads as Vicki admonishes Celia, at their coffee-meet-ups, for her acceptance of the easy path at the expense of her talent. (She sounds like a caring, ‘good’ friend.) Celia confesses her comfort in what she is doing. Then, somehow, Vicki, with no Directorial experience but with a ‘boots and all’ personality has been given the opportunity to Direct an ‘indie’ film – a film script , of much promise. What a turn-up, eh?! What an unbelievable industry risk taking decision! A difficult actress given the Directorial reins of an “indie’ film, with no practical credentials. Bravo, industry. (Believable?)

Vicki, abrasively, convinces the Producer of the film, Nate Macklin (Matt Minto), despite the fact that they have secured Rose Byrne and Hugh Jackman as the leads (it must be a great ‘indie’ film script?!), that they should test Celia for the lead. Celia, reluctantly does so, at the badgering request of Vicki and against her Agent, Nellie Brown’s (Zoe Carides), inclination. Believe it or not – and we want to, for Celia is a very likeable person – she impresses Nate and he wants to go with Celia, instead of the box-office certainty of Rose Byrne (oh, really). But, Vicki says ‘NO’, that there is something absent from Celia’s audition, even though she has promised, verbally, the certainty of the  role to Celia. Revelation: it is a blatant set-up and double cross of her so-called friend. The audience, I was with, drew breath at this audacious duplicity – it looks like revenge by Vicki for Celia’s talent and life good fortune, and her own frustrations. By the end of the play we learn that difficult Vicki is a ruthless operator who has no qualms about her actions. For Vicki, the industry is a dog-eats-dog world. Know your objective and passionately, ruthlessly, pursue it (she did learn something at Drama School, it seems.)

Woven into this is Celia’s partner of long-standing, Rohan Black (Jeremy Waters), who 15 years ago was a highly respected screen writer, but now is regarded as an industry ‘has been’ – no success for 15 years. He is spurned by the industry which connects us back to Nate. Nate baldly gives the humiliating disrespect-scene in an interview with Rohan at a ‘pitch’ meeting for a proffered idea. Rohan is devastated with this unequivocal statement of his industry standing. Added to all of this is that, his long time partner, Celia, wants a family, but really she is also the bread winner, and with Rohan not able to make an earning, it might not be possible! Strain on the relationship.

Rohan’s best school friend, an ordinary blue-collar bloke, not working in the entertainment industry, Rolly Pierce (Ben Wood), who meet up at regular beer-catch-ups, confesses of the collapse of his real world – marriage, job etc. Oddly, at the end of this scene, we discover that Rolly – who has not had an inkling of a creative bone in his routinely educated body, til now – has jotted down some notes of an idea he has had for a television series which he got while overhearing a bus conversation (on a bus, of course – his marriage breakdown as not gone well financially, for him) and hands them to Rohan. Rohan takes the notes but forgets about them until he is pleadingly reminded by Rolly at another catch-up.

So, Rohan, at the rock-bottom of his own creative life, reluctantly reads and, guess what? – man, oh, man you wouldn’t believe it – Bingo – an Eureka moment! Rohan finds an inspiration for a television series and not only that it has a great role for Celia and as she has given notice to her long running ‘soapie’ work this script is a possible come-back in a more meaningful work. Rohan the shining knight hero comes in for a two career bail-out! Celia, gets excited and  helps Rohan develop the script, especially the ‘fleshing’ out of the leading role.

The script is pitched to Nate and he loves it, and although, he has had to sack Vicki from her Directorial role on that ‘indie’ film at the request of Hugh and Rose – not done without acrimony, you can bet, considering Vicki’s displayed temperament – he has recently seen her acting in a role on television, and strike her lucky – offers her the role.

Poor Rohan, he is then forced to decide between his personal demand for his wife to play the lead (which they wrote together), or, Nate’s warning ultimatum that the project will be ‘flicked’ by Netflix, unless it is Vicki. Vicki has accepted it, it seems. Rohan, angsts, but concedes. Celia is destroyed, separation between the two ensues.

Then, guess what?  Vicki revenges herself on Nate, for her removal from that film as Director, and drubs Celia’s ego further, by reneging on her decision to play the role and flying off, she believes, to happier creative climes in L.A. Celia, Nate, Rohan and Rolly (oh, by the way Rohan had denied his mate, Rolly, any credit to the product, and so, no financial redress) are left without a thing. Because, Netflix bales.

Mr Williamson has created a fictional creative drama out of what he knows, that, maybe, has some shadow of a real-life experience, study. A cartoon shadow, really -this is truly ‘fiction’. For, THE BIG TIME, as entertaining as it sometimes is in its comic dialogue, has a very superficial, glib, bald dramaturgical structure. The narrative is packed with coincidental (contrived) events for dramatic impact (or, is it for exaggerated satiric effect?), that is risible. The context of the scenario’s background in THE BIG TIME is mostly drawn by the ‘name dropping’ of famous industry figures and institutions to give it, it felt, some patina of veracity. The characters in the play are, archetypes, drawn with pencil thin background, barely hiding their dramaturgical function.

It seems everybody in the entertainment industry has a price to hit THE BIG TIME. And that price always trumps the value of trust and love for other human beings – whether they be your business partners, your best fiends or even your long-time partner. There is a speech in the play, tacked into the weave regarding a social comment concerning the woeful state of professional, contemporary, ethics and the accepting of normalising its place in the world. It is thrown almost nakedly at us, in a word-smith magician’s flourish to, perhaps, hint, that THE BIG TIME is, indeed, a serious contemporary play of social and moral depth. It is unhappy that this notion does not come from within the action of the play but is tacked on as a kind of yellow paper stick-on.

Fortunately the Director, Mark Kilmurry, has the theatrical magician’s trick of ‘smoke and mirrors’ and handles the action on the stage with ease, on a clean uncluttered Set Design and fresh ‘modern’ Costume Design, by Melanie Liertz, lit with a comfortable gleam to keep an atmosphere of fluid action on the go, by Nicholas Higgins. The show flows crisply and leaves little opportunity for any of us really to have time for pause at all the ‘fairy-tale’ contrivance dished up to us – and it does have, after all, lots of funnies -and we are happy enough, it seems, to be distracted from the bitter social commentary, that could have been the spine of the action.

In the central role of Celia, Aileen Huynh, has a pleasing presence and a sophisticated revelation of someone with a backstory – we come to care for her. Jeremy Waters, tackles Rohan with reserve and an easy, not to dark a turpitude – he is not a villain just a thoughtless and hapless, spineless ‘goof’. Claudia Barrie, does what she can to bring dimension to the Vengeful Pyscho that is Vicki, but she is, relatively, up against it, the writing is stacked against her – Vicki ought to have played the ‘scheming’ Natasha in Three Sisters, rather than that maid at Drama School. It would have been preparation for Vicki’s real evolving persona! – Chekhov’s Natasha has her text stacked against her, too. Zoe Carides, has charm, in an underwritten role, and Matt Minto and Ben Wood, play function adeptly, their costuming helpful in creating character.

THE BIG TIME is a new play by David Williamson and this is its World Premiere. Mr Williamson has presented a new play once a year now for several years, like clock-work. They have become a box office staple for the Ensemble and are extremely popular with their audiences. The company usually has near sell-out everytime his work is curated in the Ensemble Season catalogue. It is an amazing and prolific output. Some may think it is too fast to maintain quality – the quality of the work is a poor compare with some of Mr Williamson’s early career.

THE BIG TIME is a little better than some of the other recent yearly showings and not too difficult to enjoy if you don’t look and listen too closely. It is, certainly, a better work than CELLULOID HEROES, Mr Williamson’s 1980 play that dealt, directly, with the entertainment industry – the film industry.

I understand the production is sold out!