This STC/MTC co-production is an example of state theatre companies at their best. While some may bemoan their perpetual programming of “safe” classics, I defy anyone to actually watch this production and not concede that it is amongst the best theatre they will see this year.
Initially, one may have wondered if Don’s Party, being the most explicitly temporal of David Williamson’s holy trinity of 1970s classics (with The Removalists and The Club) has become something of a nostalgia piece, or worse yet, a source of rueful amusement towards its now decidedly “period” costumes, décor (wonderfully recreated by Dale Ferguson) and hairstyles (by Lauren A. Proietti). But, despite some initial audience titters along the lines of “oh Gawd, I remember wearing that, please don’t remind me”, any fears of the show taking on a Kath & Kim-esque element of straightforward cultural (cringe) mockery are quickly dispelled.
In fact, one of the more surprising things about re-viewing Don’s Party is just how confronting aspects of the play can still be. Even in a post-Mark Ravenhill world, the language is alarming at times. Not so much the individual words themselves, to which we are all by now surely desensitised, but rather by their often genuine abusiveness (towards women especially) in an ostensibly cordial scenario.
On the flipside, Williamson’s scathing satire of the then-contemporary sexual mores of the late ‘60s seems possibly even a tad outré in these somewhat more (outwardly) conservative times, yet it is not long before it becomes readily apparent that most of the sex going on is all talk, and even that which is happening leaves a lot to be desired.
Which rather leads one to the question: what is Don’s Party really about? Despite the STC’s canny programming of the work in the months leading up to a historically analogous federal election (although, one hopes, not too analogous…), Don’s Party isn’t really about politics, or at least not of the parliamentary variety. Although the play certainly has an arc of increasing collective inebriation, disillusionment and exposed inadequacies for its characters, it isn’t really particularly plot-driven either, compared to Williamson’s other great works.
While it would be true to say that the playwright is usually quite character-centric (especially before his “issue of the year” period), Don’s Party is almost a slice-of-life piece, presenting a wide array of different human foibles. Disaffection, rampant self-delusion, and outright hypocrisy are recurring themes for Williamson, but he perhaps never captured so many at one time in such a pithy manner either before or since.
Although many aspects of the play are quite particular to the suburban would-be intelligentsia at the cusp of the ‘70s, one cannot help but trot out the old cliché that much of the human failings so expertly depicted here are, dare it be said, rather timeless.
Although in this instance The Play is most definitely The Thing, one nevertheless cannot praise the quality of this production without giving considerable credit to the tremendous cast. Excellent without exception, these actors form one of the finest ensembles for a mainstage theatre production we’ve seen for some time. Although containing some very familiar faces of stage and telly, no one seems out of place or cast merely for star value, and everyone lays into their roles with both relish and tempered restraint.
Indeed, seeing a cast of this calibre brings to mind how easy it would be to make a meal of these often outrageous roles, to overact, mug or otherwise turn the parts into outright caricatures. However, director Peter Evans and his troupe have struck a perfect balance, understanding that the brilliant script already contains all the buffoonery and absurdity that the final product requires, and that for it to work optimally the actors need only play their characters “real”, without resorting to hamming it up.
Given this near-perfect pitch of acting across the board, it seems almost unfair to single out any individuals in this strong group of eleven thesps. Regardless, particular praise goes to Travis McMahon, who delivers one of his most perfectly nuanced performances to date, seemingly undaunted by the indelible spectre of Graham Kennedy over the role of Mack.
Also exceptional were Christopher Pitman, captivating as the increasingly pathetic Mal, Jacinta Stapleton playing the aptly-named “pornographic object” Susan without resorting to overboard vampiness, and Glenn Hazeldine who finds just the right calibration for his nerdy character Simon, perhaps the easiest role to overplay.
Special applause also goes to comedian Colin Lane in what is apparently his stageplay debut, doing a marvelous, understated job as the brooding Evan.
This production of Don’s Party is superb, and regardless of your attitude towards the merits of resurrecting modern classics, you will not see a better show anytime soon.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
A co-production with the Melbourne Theatre Company
By David Williamson
Venue: Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Dates: 20 September – 3 November 2007
Times: Mondays at 6:30pm, Tuesdays – Saturdays at 8pm
Matinees: Wednesday matinee at 1pm (except 24 October at 12:15pm), Saturday matinee at 2pm
Price: $73 / $60 concession Matinee $65/$54 concession
Bookings: (02) 9250 1777 / sydneytheatre.com.au