There’s nothing more I enjoy than a trip down the memory lane of the 1980’s. The decadence, the fashion, the music, the hedonism, are all traits that are recorded in pictorial glamour of my own teenage years during that decade. And when I say glamour, I mean downright tragic choices burned into the pages of my photo albums.
Griffin’s production of David Williamson’s ‘Emerald City’, with its Ken Done surround set-scapes, pays homage to the hits and the colourful brush strokes of themes such as the portrayal of money over morals. Encapsulating Sydney at the time, the play features its own tragic choices of an era that couldn’t sustain itself and lived on a diet of pills, pomposity and speculation. Williamson’s ‘Emerald City’ is the story of Melbourne couple Colin (Mitchell Butel) and Kate (Lucy Bell), who move to Sydney for work and struggle to adjust to Sydney’s ruthless pursuit of the dollar over integrity and each have to make choices about how to survive and adapt. Amongst that, they meet Mike (Ben Winspear), whose lack of talent is no hindrance to his ambition and he soon overleaps obstacles of expectations by selling out the Australian Identity to acquire the Australian Dream of that ‘place near the harbour’. Described as ‘part love letter and part hate mail to the harbour city’, it is indeed both of those things.
This is classic Williamson which means that there is plenty of wit and plot intrigue but there’s a little something missing in regards to emotion. Williamson is the sledgehammer of political playwrights. What he lacks in subtlety he makes up for in humour and social satire. There are genuine moments of laughter that come out of this play, even if the relationships feel more transactional than truthful.
Butel and Bell bring an air of Melbourne superiority to their characters and tackle the tension of the clash of cultures and the status transition of their marriage with the skill of actors who have been at the top of their game for a long time. Winspear’s Mike was not so deftly portrayed. Replacing Marcus Graham in the last stages of rehearsal (does anyone else have a problem imagining Graham as Mike?), Winspear’s strained accent felt like he was pushing too hard. Director Lee Lewis should have helped him pull back as Mike is already ‘overpainted’, like a Done harbour portrait, and it meant that the gruff confident idiocy of Mike becomes a caricature of himself in a world where he was already bordering on that anyway. It’s too much and at times, hard to watch. Jennifer Hagan’s Elaine captured the comedy and has some of the best lines. Pity Hagan didn’t always land them and there were some flustered moments when it looked as if the actors were line grabbing to get back on track. Kelly Paterniti as Helen read as a young casting choice and gave an interesting dramatic interpretation to the seedy superficiality of Sydney when the ingénue lusted after by the men of the play looks barely legal. But Williamson at least gives some intelligence and depth to his female characters in ‘Emerald City’ and the direct audience addresses do go some way to expressing vulnerability and intentions as the plot unfolds.
The first thing that does catch your eye as you walk into the space is the Ken Done design, done by the Done himself. It’s as colourful as you remember and captures the Australian kaleidoscope of light, bright, gaudy glamour of the era. Sophie Fletcher’s costumes, by contrast, try to tone down the excess of the era by giving a stylish sense of the time- lacking in pretension and playing to the alternative artsy intelligence of Melbournian orphans in the social cyclone of Sydney. Whilst the costumes don’t speak specifically of the time, the set well and truly does all the work and allows for a subdued design vision in other areas.
Lewis has given a faithful rendition of a Williamson classic and apart from refining some of the bigger and brasher choices that push the play into one-dimensional -stereotypes (more Warwick Capper than Christopher Skase), she’s made a good fist of it.
It’s good to see the season finish with an old-school Australian play that reminds us of our canon of classics and our theatrical and social history.