When I was a teenager, I attended a theatre workshop organised by Australian Theatre for Young People. Nick Enright, who led the workshop, told a story about seeing the opening-night production of David Williamson’s The Removalists (1971) from backstage. Twenty years on, Enright’s description of the look on the audience’s faces as they contemplated the grisly dénouement of Williamson’s play stays with me. ‘They were the faces of people witnessing a car crash,’ he said, with a forthright sincerity that was utterly convincing. That moment, Enright said, had been a key milestone in his own development as a playwright.
Four decades since The Removalists, it’s difficult to imagine a new Williamson play with such visceral appeal. The later Williamson remains as prolific and popular as ever: recent productions such as Don Parties On (2011) have been huge box-office drawcards. As a playwright, Williamson retains much of his characteristic ambition to create new work that speaks to a middle-class audience. Williamson’s back catalogue is still regularly produced in student theatre and in schools, and his screenplays for movies such as The Club (1980), Gallipoli (1981), and The Year of Living Dangerously (1983) have comfortably earned him membership of Australia’s cinematic canon.
But for all his fame, Williamson is strangely unloved. Sure, he packs out shows. But his standing in Australian theatre is diminished for a figure of his undoubted achievements. For at least a decade now, his critical reputation has been in eclipse. In 2004, when Penny Gay penned a survey of ‘Williamson at 31 plays’ for Contemporary Theatre Review, it was possible to speak of Williamson’s ‘technical skills born of long practice’. Even so, Gay admitted, ‘it is hard to ﬁnd an intellectual, an academic, or a person professionally involved in the theatre who has gone to see a recent Williamson play without having been cajoled by a free ﬁrst-night ticket’. That was also the year when Alison Croggon compared Williamson to Peter Brook’s dreaded ‘deadly theatre’.
The recent reaction to Williamson’s work shows little has changed. When reviewing Don Parties On, Croggon lamented a special ‘circle of Hell’ in which negative reviews of Williamson’s new work generate a stereotyped cycle of reaction, controversy, and complaint:
Some critic, bristling with righteous fury, writes a slashing review of the Williamson phenomenon. Said critic is in turn accused of general nastiness, humourlessness and elitism. Williamson fans point once again to the box office. Various right wing pundits weigh in to opine about Williamson’s leftiness. Various left wing pundits complain about his lack of leftiness. Someone (often it’s me) says something plaintive about art. And everyone, his or her expectations satisfyingly met, has a marvellous time.
None of it has stopped the vainglorious Williamson bandwagon rumbling on. Sadly, there is a reason why Williamson so often ends up the butt of brickbats. He’s not very good. ‘Good’, of course, is a hopelessly compromised adjective for any critic of perception. Yet few theatre-makers can banish the elusive quality of quality from their consideration. It’s not Arnoldian essentialism: hoary clichés from the stage-door aside, there is such a thing as the craft of theatre, and there is a technical aspect to the task of writing things for actors to say.
This, for those of us who love theatre as a living art form, is what makes writing about Williamson so painful. Whatever your view of his popularity, or his audiences’ loyalty, or the one-man theatrical stimulus program his repertoire provides for the Australian main stage, the ugly truth is that Williamson is a limited playwright. His dialogue is often stilted, his plots pedestrian, his characters flat. Croggon’s comparison to Brook’s old description of ‘the deadly theatre’ is bang on: an oeuvre, as Brook wrote, of ‘old formulae, old methods, old jokes, old effects, stock beginnings to scenes, stock ends’.
All of which brings us to Rupert, Williamson’s latest effort. Its subject, of course, is Rupert Murdoch, a man whose long and extraordinarily influential life is, by any judgement, worthy of the treatment. It should be the perfect vehicle for a playwright at the top of his or her game. Murdoch’s audacity and business nous are matched by his entirely baleful influence on the public sphere of several Western democracies, including Australia’s. Here we have a man who, through his single-minded pursuit of a global media empire, perfectly embodies so much of what is wrong with our acquisitive age. Here, too, we have a rich family drama complete with intrigues and hatreds. What could be more theatrical?
Almost anything, it turns out. With Rupert, Williamson has given us something that only just warrants the term ‘theatre’. Much of the play is more like a lecture: a one-person narration by Rupert himself. Rupert is long, but feels longer. The whole first act could be abandoned with no injury to the plot, but even within scenes there are long flat patches where the ship of the stage comes to rest, becalmed by its playwright’s lethargy. The tone is stentorian; conflict is strangely absent. When scenes are dramatised, Rupert remains on stage like a megalomaniacal chorus, refusing to let the actors show what he would prefer to tell.
And the characters! Cardboard cut-outs have evinced more substance. Rupert’s second wife, Anna, at least has some dialogue, but their sons, Lachlan and James, are little more than accents. A cameo by Margaret Thatcher is entirely without nuance or depth. Murdoch himself is presented in a strangely superficial light: as a workaholic, basically, who just really likes buying media companies. Little effort is expended asking what drove the boundless ambition that took Murdoch from a small newspaper in Adelaide to the colossus of globalised media.
What saves Rupert as a piece of spectacle is entirely its direction by Lee Lewis, who presents Rupert as a kind of flashy, Brecht-inspired student theatre. She knows her script: at its heart, Rupert is a kind of thin Situationist agitprop, written to reinforce the prejudices of Williamson lovers – and Murdoch haters – everywhere.
The Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Rupert, directed by Lee Lewis, runs until 28 September 2013 at the Arts centre Melbourne, Playhouse. Performance attended 29 August 2013.