Reading between the lines?

Wednesday, August 10, 1994

Sanctuary

By David Williamson

A Playbox production

Sydney Theatre Company's Wharf 2 Theatre

Reviewed by Helen Jarvis

"David Williamson's latest play is a remarkable work because, in one sitting, it helps us to read between the lines. It is a rare and successful attempt by a Western playwright to illuminate the propaganda that is often called journalism," says John Pilger in the introduction to Sanctuary. "As a journalist I pay tribute to him for giving us such a truth."

Bob King, world-renowned journalist for his coverage for Time magazine of events in El Salvador, Cambodia and the Middle East, is confronted in his luxury hideaway "sanctuary" by John Alderston, an earnest PhD student whose thesis is a critical biography of King.

The play takes place in the short space of an hour or two in which Alderston seeks clarification of various points of factual accuracy concerning King's career. In the first half of the play the audience is shown case after case of Bob's dishonest reporting of events, most dramatically regarding activities of right-wing death squads in El Salvador, whose crimes Bob knew about but covered up. Bob defends his past: that he could not have changed events, that he had to protect his own position, repeating over and over "you cannot know what it was like if you weren't there".

Alderston takes a clearly defensible position of moral outrage and condemnation which has little impact on King, who tries to convince Alderston that the biography would be far more interesting if it got behind the facts to the reasons why he acted as he did.

Alderston is totally uninterested in the psychological justification in his earnest search for truth and reality. Suddenly he snaps and turns on King. The play shifts dramatically in the second half to focus on Alderston's psyche as we see his moral superiority collapse completely.

But this shift in focus undermines the momentum of the first half. From a powerful critique of the press and of the venality of the corporate world, Williamson shifts into agnosticism, as he says in the program notes: "There is still a lot of validity in Alderston's accusations about King's moral behaviour, but you have got to be just as aware of moral anger as any other type of emotion ... John personifies the thought that it's fine to have moral anger and to be disturbed by corruption and wrong-doing, but it can become a very dangerous, even uncontrollable force".

In Sanctuary Australia's best known contemporary playwright David Williamson moves from the social comedy for which he is so well known — Don's Party, The Club, The Removalists, Emerald City — into confronting more serious issues of truth and responsibility, life and death.

Aubrey Mellor's direction is sharp and taut, and the two actors (Robert Grubb and the playwright's son, Felix Williamson) sustain a gruelling tension throughout. This play deserves to be seen.

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