David Williamson: The playwright we deserve


Review by Mark Stoyich

The Great Man
By David Williamson
Sydney Theatre Company
Sydney Opera House from March 9

A group of friends and relations of a once great and powerful man gather to eulogise him after his death, only to realise that he was corrupt.

So far, this could be Ibsen territory, except that Ibsen would have invested his characters with a degree of the psychological profundity which still gives his plays universal relevance. Instead, David Williamson has cranked up his great engine and produced a rehash of Australian political history since the Whitlam period.

Were the '70s really a golden age of reform? Or was it all just about sex? Did Hawke/Keating sell out to big business or were they just facing reality? Do young people care? Can the Labor Party be reformed and made to start caring about fairness again?

These are all interesting questions. But not, unfortunately, when discussed on a stage for two hours (without interval! Williamson's only concession to contemporary theatre) in a ploddingly naturalistic play by characters who are not much more than stereotypes.

The last surviving minister of the Whitlam government, Jack "the Duke" Barclay ( based, I assume, on Diamond Jim McClelland), an idol to his friends, all things to all men and a bit of a con-man, has just died. Those closest to him gather at his luxury flat, a set so white and shiny that it began to tire the eyes.

To his down-to-earth first wife Eileen (Shirley Cameron) he was a charming heart-breaker; his second wife Fleur (Genevieve Picot) is a true believer who wants to protect his reputation as a Whitlamite reformer. His neurotic son Adam (Toby Schmitz) is angry at his father for ignoring him.

His friend the terrible painter Terry (Max Cullen) has never gotten over the swinging '60s. His other friend Rhys (Gary Day) is a Keatingesque former Labor minister who hopes to take over the party. Ambitious, sexy young journalist Tegan (Vivienne Walshe) intends to help him, using Barclay's diaries.

These characters are rounded up like suspects in an Agatha Christie novel, to give their respective points of view. Rhys supports economic rationalism, until a psychologically ill-prepared change of heart. Tegan is the amoral post-ideological youth and doesn't believe in government, only context and control. Terry is pro-free love and anti-feminist. And so on.

A writer like George Bernard Shaw could get away with using characters as mouthpieces for ideas, because his ideas were interesting and covered millennia. This is probably meant to be Williamson's play for the new millennium, and it covers about twenty-five years of the history of that curious, failed religion-cum-tribe-cum-reformist party, the ALP.

Talking of the mediocre artist Terry, someone says that Australia gets the painters it deserves. Unfortunately, it seems ditto for the playwrights.