Understanding brutality


A Conversation
By David Williamson
Directed by Sandra Bates
Ensemble Theatre, Sydney
Until November 3


The theme of violence against innocents, and the justice or impunity that follows, has never been more timely. The real culprits behind the recent terror attacks in the US, those who trained and financed them, and those in the West who made their acts possible, even inevitable, may never be brought to justice. East Timor lost a third of its people to the state terror imposed by the Indonesian military regime. Will the leaders ever stand before a court?

David Williamson, Australia's most successful playwright, is back on the boil with this powerful and moving drama, the second in a trilogy on the subject of "community conferences". The first, Face To Face, also at the Ensemble under Sandra Bates, was a gripping, highly praised theatrical experience.

These plays make strong theatre because Williamson has found a worthwhile cause that also happens to have dramatic potential. He's an advocate for this type of mediation as a substitute for wasteful, lengthy court cases that only benefit the legal fraternity.

What is a community conference? According to the NSW Department of Corrective Services pamphlet, it is "a meeting of people affected by behaviour that has caused serious harm. The conference provides a forum in which offenders, their victims and their respective supporters can seek ways to repair the damage caused by the incident and to minimise further harm".

Offenders and victims are supposed to benefit by expressing their feelings and understanding of the other side. The outcome of the process is a signed agreement which may involve an apology, reparations and community service.

So far so good. But of course reality is never as neat as well-meaning bureaucrats would wish, as Williamson knows, having attended many hours of such conferences.

In the case of the characters in A Conversation, a young woman, Donna Milsom, has been raped and murdered by Scott, who is out on parole after being jailed for previous rapes, and is now in a maximum security prison.

In the absence of direct victim and offender, the conference takes place between Donna's parents, Scott's mother, sister, uncle and brother, and Lorin, the prison psychologist, who had recommended Scott's release on parole, with Jack Manning (Geoff Cartwright), a mediator.

Director Sandra Bates has avoided all the usual trappings of theatre to give this play a raw edge and documentary feel that brought the audience into very close engagement with the characters. The intimate Ensemble space is ideally suited for this kind of theatrical confrontation.

Donna's father Derek (Robert Coleby) has come to the conference armed with documents detailing the torture that was inflicted on his daughter before she was killed. His wife Barbara (Diane Craig) has come with her grief and a conviction that she will never be able to recover from the loss of her daughter.

On Scott's side is a family who still can't quite believe the barbarity of what he has done. Their sorrow is bound up in feelings of guilt.

Into this mix, Jack, the mediator, throws the explosive device of a tape recording of Scott describing how he raped Donna, convinced that she really wanted it. This of course lights the fuse for the verbal battle that occupies the stage for the next two hours, and I, for one, was totally caught up in the grip of these people's emotional turmoil.

It's tempting to put a political spin on what happened, and Williamson seems to encourage this. Donna's parents are well-off business people, while Scott is from a working-class, deprived background, lacking a father figure.

"There are factors", says Scott's sister, who mentions the fact that Scott was sacked from his job by his uncle shortly before the murder. But it's left up to the audience to try and work out responsibilities.

In my view, the play shows that society as a whole cannot deny responsibility for acts of violence carried out by individuals, or pretend that it doesn't concern all of us.

To give any more details of the evening's entertainment would be to spoil the play's impact. Suffice it to say, this is Williamson at his best, in a fine and convincing production.