The Ensemble Theatre and David Williamson have been married for some time. It’s one of those marriages that seem to keep both partners happy and as time passes, the partnership settles into one of those really comfortable relationships reliant on security and familiarity, even though they probably find each other predictable and boring. It’s safe with the devil you know. You know exactly what you’re going to get.
‘Happiness’ was exactly what I thought I was going to get. Directed by Sandra Bates, it was as predictable as the grey resurfacing in my hair’s regrowth. Unlike my hair, it’s not as if all the predictability was unwelcome. It’s just that I’m not going to be surprised by the behaviour of any of the characters, the dig at right wing politics, the disillusioned middle aged characters whose own marriages have fallen into a slump, and the portrayal of women as superficial. The play is all of that. Examine Professor Roland’s (Mark Lee) life. His wife Hanna, (Anne Tenney) is a lush. She’s cheated in the past and is bored by her marriage. Enter, stage right, her old lover, Sam (Peter Kowitz), rich and successful and ready to spice things up. Meanwhile, Roland and Hanna’s daughter, Zelda (Erica Lovell), who’s frustrated by her own lack of direction, re-examines her own relationships to find that elusive ‘happiness’. It plays on popular psychology of scaffolding or coaching people into finding happiness, letting go of past hurts and finding gratitude in what you have in front of you.
It has some humorous moments, some witty dialogue and a few chances for characters to enjoy themselves. It firmly grounds itself in comic realism. It makes a solid use of the stage. It discusses fairly current topics. It is what it is: David Williamson. Not unpleasant but perhaps forgettable.
The story did have some moments brighter than others. In fact, if more of the play centred around the character of Zelda (Lovell), it may have been much more engaging. There were two scenes that made me stop watching Christopher Stollery sleeping in the audience or forget the distraction of the two old women up the back who, Beckett style, took three painful minutes to unwrap their Werther’s Butterscotch Originals, and both of those scenes belonged to Lovell.
The first was when she reads her letter of gratitude to Ronnie (Adriono Cappelletta) and the other was when she is confronted by her Murdoch paper editor, Evan (Glenn Hazeldine). Both of these scenes, and especially the latter, enjoyed shifting expectations ever so slightly in trying to give its characters depth- something usually missing from the formula of many of Williamson’s characters. Hazeldine took this small role of Evan and manipulated him into a character that we could love and hate simultaneously and allowed his physicality to tell a story. His ability to step outside the words and play with the moment certainly drew the audience in. Lovell took the role of the angry young woman and tried to give it layers, as much as Bates would allow in Williamson’s world. The actors did their best to fulfil the writer’s material and the director’s interpretation.
Anne Tenney’s questionable ‘drunk’ acting at the start probably needed a re-working. In fact her character, Hanna, for a role that is so often seen in the play, had limits to what it can offer and if I had a criticism of any of the cast, it was the first half of the show with Tenney. I know Williamson can play with the obvious but even Tenney pushed that to the limits with her character. Perhaps that’s exactly what Bates asked for- it’s hard to know. I say, scrap the whole storyline with Roland/Hanna/Sam and the play might have been much better. I’ve even heard a rumour that the casting was reshuffled when Williamson sat in on rehearsals so if these characters and its actors are so interchangeable, maybe give them more dimensions to flesh out these roles.
The set (Brian Nickless) of the glossy TV screens that indicate location (Surry Hills, newspaper office, etc), the neon Happiness sign, the plastic chairs and tables, neutral and superficial, were more than appropriate to indicate a cross between bland and functionality. The set felt irrelevant but really, it was. Essentially, the play just needs an open space with a few chairs and tables and that’s what you got. Dressing it up would have felt very out of place.
‘Happiness’ should keep the oldies happy and perhaps you could hand them out unwrapped boiled sweets pre-show . I didn’t mind the show. I certainly didn’t hate it. I’m just struggling two days later to remember much of what happened and that is exactly what I thought I was going to get.
Sometimes expectations are met.