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Photo by Prudence Upton

Crunch Time

Ensemble Theatre presents a World Premiere, CRUNCH TIME, by David Williamson, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli. 14th February – 9th April.

It is indeed ‘Crunch Time’, as this is, we are told, the last play that Mr Williamson will write. A Crunch Time that he must feel a pressure about: what, why and how he chooses to write as his ‘last testament’ on the stage. After 50 years of creative output, the most outstanding, prolific chronicler of our times, having observed, assessed and critiqued the churning social evolutions of our culture Mr Williamson puts down his ‘pen’.

I have always felt that Mr Williamson’s work, in the time to come will serve, particularly, as a fascinating sociological record for students of history and politics. His work as a kind of ‘verbatim’ marking of a crafted, edited entrance to all the tangles at all levels of our society in the shaping of Australia. His plays as well as being an entertainment of wit and melodrama are a social history – a text for our Social Studies Courses, where his words have been a gift to be made flesh via the intermediary of the actor’s body. Mr Williamson is then not simply a playwright. He has, perforce of his longevity, written over a very long period of the development of the Australian cultural scene. He has been, then, a kind of “Historian”, too.

In the good old days at the beginning of his career, it was thrilling to see many manifestations of the same play bursting forth from different companies in different cities, with different collaborators, at almost the same time – say, at the Old Tote in Sydney or the Melbourne Theatre Company or the South Australian Theatre Company. To have the same source text grow, uniquely, through those different perspectives as they landed on our geographically sprawled stages.

In those good old times the audience had the opportunity, if they had the time and money, to be serious ‘artists’ of the theatre as audience. They could compare and contrast a plays various incarnations! In today’s straightened times Australia mostly sees the same production of the one play toured around the sites – if the writer is lucky. We have a single production point-of-view instead of many points-of-view made on the material of the text.  And, so, it can be sometimes misjudged, not because of the writing but because of other collaborative failings – possibly the direction, the design, or the acting.

It is the common burden that all our contemporary writers bear. They can only hope that they are in safe hands when the gate-keepers of our performing art culture, give the pass key for their work to be seen. One chance, is what you get these days. They trust and hope that the appointed collaborators are appreciative and diligent.

Mind you, especially latterly in Mr Williamson’s output, perhaps the writing was at fault – dare I say? For some time I have lamented that Mr Williamson was writing too regularly, too quickly, a play (or two) a year. I feel that a playwright needs time for percolation of ideas, structure and character for a work to crystallise into irrefutable offers of possible excellence. (It maybe why I find Andrew Bovell the most interesting and consistent Australian playwright on our present stages – he gives his work time – ‘a slow cook’ before it is shown on the Main Stage.)

As a playwright Mr Williamson has often been underestimated as to the kind of writer he is. Most of us may remember him as a chronicler of family and extended family in a naturalistic style and setting. He is a much more complicated writer than that and I only came to appreciate his expertise when I was working as an artist with his work – either as an Actor or Director – and not just as an audience member. I often understood the characters and the always relative simple structure of his work quickly but never appreciated the complicated musical construct he employs, as an audience member. One can not just apply the Stanislavski method questions and an accompanying opening up to the identification of the character through thorough ‘personalisation’. One also found that one had to make a careful study of the musical structure, through his syntactical clues on the page with a close observation of his instructions, to discover how the content of the writing landed with a pin-point accuracy that was not only the key to character development and storytelling narrative but also revealed the precise time, note and colour for the ‘dramedy’ to really land. It is all on the page (in his best plays) – complicated but subtle. A careless or carefree Actor or Director can sabotage a production of a play, quite easily.

CRUNCH TIME, Directed by Mark Kilmurry, on an oddly shabby Design, both in Set and Costume, is made up of two main streams of interest for Mr Williamson. The first is a re-iteration of a pre-occupation he has had of late, and is the principal action motivations of his other play, now showing in Sydney – FAMILY VALUES – at the SBW Stables Theatre for the Griffin Company. Both plays are occupied with exposing cauterising sibling rivalry, the family history of it – with the parents pushed centre stage and are argued to be made responsible for it with their casual ‘favouritism’ – the unresolvedness of it and the destructive residue of it. The horrid arrested emotional development of the family because of it.

In CRUNCH TIME, the sons of the family: Jimmy, the elder, the sportsman and successful business manager, go-getter charmer, womaniser (Matt Minto), and Luke (Guy Edmonds) the younger, the nerdy, non-sportsman, an introverted IT expert, retiring self-assessed ‘victim’ of an alleged ‘toxic’ parent are set to ‘warring’ and are the centre of the play’s main action, as are the siblings, Lisa, Emily and Michael in FAMILY VALUES. The corrosive sibling relationships are almost caricature in both plays, and the ‘mother’ figure, Sue in FAMILY VALUES, and Helen (Diane Craig) in CRUNCH TIME are revealed as indulgent enablers, while the fathers, Roger in the former play, and Steve (John Wood), in the latter, are chronically neglectful if not absent influences in their respective families, each in a different way.

The quarrels are vicious and relentless and in experiencing them in the theatre in both plays they become exhaustingly tiresome, repetitive. One wonders: Is it the writing? Or, is it the relatively un-nuanced Direction or Acting? Does the writing have room for more subtle characterisations? In some cases I think so. Certainly Luke has the opportunity to be so in CRUNCH TIME but Mr Edmonds plays the same emotion – unbridled anger – in all his scenes’ realisations – it undermines the reception to the play.

The second writing-concern in FAMILY VALUES is the ethical debate about Australia’s treatment of the refugee dilemma, whilst in CRUNCH TIME it is the confrontation with the ethical situation around Assisted Dying – euthanasia – as Steve, the father, faces a swiftly deteriorating cancer of the pancreas. He wants to be assisted to death, before the quality of his life radically alters, and he passes the burden of his will to the family conscience – as he, as usual, abrogates the ability, responsibility, to do it himself – and with the sons typically emotionally unable to do it, it falls to the mother figure to be the consistent dutiful wife who undertakes the criminal but compassionate action. The consistency of character traits are one of the thematics of the play – the ‘leopards’ cannot change their ‘spots’. Not the father, the mother or the children, they all play their learnt traits to the end.

Mr Wood gives a performance of some dimension and Ms Craig is quietly delicate in her creation of the ‘good’ mother and wife. I did enjoy the work of Megan Drury (Susy) and Emma Palmer (Lauren) as the in-laws (long suffering wives) in this conflicted family environment – both actors negotiating the rickety moral actions of the relationships and the methods they use to survive them as best they can.

The pertinacity of the Euthanasia confrontation for the audience in the Ensemble theatre was palpable, and one wished it had more interrogation of debate. Certainly, I was concerned that the debate be better aired – indicating it but mostly dwelling on the responsibility of this particular family in agreeing to do it was a sentimental avoidance of the arguments, the pro and cons of the moral dilemma. That was a disappointment. Raising the social issue is not sufficient, especially considering my own age and diminishing physical mobility. I wanted discussion. It is a very personal modern concern and I would like as much airing of the argument as our institutional governments – religious and secular – duck and weave action and the facing up to societal wants and needs. I can put my pet to sleep to assist them away from pain but cannot do it for myself. What? In the tragedy of this family’s dysfunction and in the raising of the moral dilemma concerning Assisted Dying, Mr Williamson leaves our stages.

It was a moving piece of History to watch as the tall but bent grey-haired writer climbed down the steep stairs of the Ensemble auditorium to take a final curtain bow.

DON’S PARTY (1971), THE CLUB (1977), TRAVELLING NORTH (1979), the FACE TO FACE TRILOGY (2000) and his screenplays for GALLIPOLI (1981) and THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY (1985) are some of the works of Mr Williamson that I treasure. I am sure that his audiences have a different list from an incredible play writing output of nearly 60 plays.

Many Thanks, Mr Williamson.