Power or the passion: Griffin’s Emerald City

Growing out of the age-old ‘Sydney-or-Melbourne’ debate, David Williamson’s Emerald City is a timely look at the struggle any artist faces – maintaining artistic integrity, or chasing money and fortune – and sets it against the backdrop of Sydney in the 1980s, with all the big brash audacity that makes Sydney what it is today. Produced here by Griffin Theatre Company almost thirty years after it was written, Williamson’s play is a helter-skelter tennis match between acclaimed screenwriter Colin and his wife Kate, between Colin and seemingly well-connected hack-writer Mike, between Mike and his girlfriend Kate, between Colin and his agent Elaine, between… You can almost see each serve, each rally, each shot, every palpable hit (and miss), every point won and lost; it’s a giddy sparring match between equals, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the whole argument – even if it is, by turn, scintillating, bitter, snarky and futile.

When it was announced that Ken Done would be designing the production, I was expecting a riot of colour and lines, lots of yellow and blues and pinks and oranges; lounges and tables looking like they’d been ripped straight from Done’s canvases, all uneven lines and crayon outlines. The eventual set, however, seems rather anti-climactic by comparison: while there is the Ken Done artwork (‘Sydney by day’) adorning the walls of Griffin’s corner stage – the harbour view, in blistering vibrant glo-bite yellow – it is a reproduction, fragmented and enlarged in panels, a fractured kaleidoscopic vision of Sydney in all its boldness and liveliness. A wood-pannelled floor extends down the diamond, while a beige couch completes the image of an inner-city high-rise apartment that wouldn’t seem out of place now, let alone thirty years ago. Sophie Fletcher’s costumes are subtle, necessarily so, because anything ‘louder’ or more vibrant would clash with Done’s painting. There are the requisite stripes and spots, bright reds and muted beiges and black and greys, but it all works; set in-period in the late 1980s, Lee Lewis’ production is sharp and clear, the relationships between characters drawn swiftly and early, and as we sit back and watch the drama unfold, it’s hard not to be won over, not only by Done’s relentlessly optimistic yellow, but also the larger and more crazy snowballing of connections, schadenfraude and eventual satisfaction.
Mitchell Butel as Williamson-substitute Colin is fast-talking and passionate, torn between wanting artistic success and then chasing financial success, lured in by the possibilities of the commercial film industry. There’s a desperation in his monologue at the end of act one which stings, a neediness which rings hollow, as if Colin doesn’t quite believe he’s saying it, and it undercuts the speech nicely. Ben Winspear’s gruff and manipulative Mike is a laconic figure who soon gets big ideas, musters the courage to take on the system and makes a kind of Faustian deal from which there is no escape. Very much the antithesis of Colin, Mike is all swagger and bravado, Dutch-courage and ego, and it’s not long before the house of cards looks quite unstable, and threatens to swallow him. As Colin’s wife Kate, Lucy Bell is initially resentful towards their relocation to Sydney, but as her publishing career gathers traction (thanks to a powder-keg phone-call from Mike), she warms to the ‘Emerald’ city and her scenes with Colin towards the end are tender, compassionate and warm. Kelly Paterniti’s Helen is intelligent and opportunistic, and even though she seems to have taken a leaf out of Mike’s book of modus operandi, Williamson gives her dignity and verve which in Paterniti’s hands turns to a smooth seductive power. Jennifer Hagan’s Elaine is a dryly knowing and at times sardonic agent, tough but with a warm heart. Gareth Yuen’s Malcolm is a money-hungry merchant-banker whose eye is always on the overseas market and the commercial viability of a new product, but even he in Williamson’s hands is a person, and Yuen makes him real.
The late author Bryce Courtenay once said of Ken Done that he “uses colours the way Gauguin might have done had he been born an Australian.” Just as “Van Gogh saw the sun in the South of France and tried to wrestle it out of the sky onto his canvas, [so too has Done] borrowed a little of that courage and outrageous lack of caution to paint the Australian land and seascape and the things that play or swim upon it or in it.” Perhaps the same can be said for Williamson with his approach to the play, the way that it unfolds across a larger landscape, a larger canvas, something almost Shakespearean, in the way Williamson writes his characters out of caricatures and into human beings. Williamson’s script – and Lewis’ direction – is fast-moving and economical, and moves effortlessly from one location to another with the skill of a master dramatist, and perhaps owes more than a passing debt to one of Colin’s screenplays.
While this production has all of Williamson’s trademark wit and semi-preachiness, it remains a product of its time, unavoidably caught up in the late-Eighties mindset of ‘Australian stories with international reach’ which rippled through the cultural landscape alongside the naïve exuberance of a country about to celebrate the bicentenary of white settlement. While Lewis’ production acknowledges, plays to and with this (however obliquely), I couldn’t help but wish there was more of a darkness to the production, more of an edge to this Emerald City. We all know the Wizard is just another person like us, but we still want to be fooled; we still want to believe he might be the answer to our problems.
Everyone comes here along their yellow brick roads looking for the answers to their problems and all they find are the demons within themselves. This city lets ‘em out and lets ‘em rip… It’s got the best and the worst, and if you choose the worst, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

Theatre playlist: 67. Everybody Wants To Rule The World, Tears for Fears

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