For mine, it's probably one of Williamson's messier plays but, as is his wont, Dead White Males has riveting moments, one or two 'I wish I'd written that', pithy as one-liners and a fabulously provocative premise, as it zeroes in on the feminist-driven argument that so credibly contends a grossly disproportionate and, as such, distortional academic focus on contributions made to Western civilisation, historically and contemporaneously, by European males.
For this production, directed by Tom Massey, the Genesian's stage is tilted towards us, at an alarmingly steep angle, the pitch of which would seem downright dangerous to the players. (Perhaps this was why Golda Baker was unable to front, as Grace Judd, 'due to injury'.) There are also what appear to be straggly strips of masking-tape affixed at angles resembling the segments of an orange, with words upon them. While this caused much interest and investigation at interval, if it was intended to be a lateral component of set design it failed abysmally, since even the downward-facing stage was not oriented such that their true purpose could be ascertained; at least not from the stalls. Odd. Off-puttingly so. Please explain, Catherine Lock. Also off-putting were the laughable costumes.
Accordingly, big Dave has created the pompous, didactic character of Grant Swain played, almost too well, by Matt Jones. Swain's deep self-belief is mimicked in his deep, confident erudition before us, his assembly of genuflecting students. Full marks to Jones for his studied, meticulous reading of the archetypal academic, in constant danger of disappearing into his own fundament.
Holes are gradually picked by Williamson in the fabric or, at least, sincerity of Swain's ideological position, who perverts Foucault in the deference to his own perversion, in seeking to seduce his A+ student, Angela Judd (Sophie Blacklaw). Blacklaw's diction is sometimes, or often, doubtful and, at times, or often, she seems to be engaged in a race to the finish, given the speed of her delivery of lines. She also falls prey to Susan Carveth's costume 'design', ignominiously subjected to tights and a flanny, in homage to bogans everywhere. It's not the sort of garb typically visible on campuses; and I've seen a few, from Sydney, to Wollongong & Darwin.
Son of academics and co-student of Angela's, Matthew Blackwood Hume, was another fashion victim, along similar lines. This is dress that shows no awareness whatever of real-world attire and, in itself, almost totally obliterates the cred of the characters. Though maybe Massey is more culpable. He certainly seems complicit: Steve is an unreconstructed 'good bloke'; dumb, but big-hearted, who wants for nothing more than to be a mechanic. This, the offspring of academics? An off-the-rails artist? Sure. Unrepentant drug addict? Absolutely. But a grease-monkey? Uh-uh. Of course, Williamson went awry here, too. Too many years in his own ivory tower in Rozelle, one suspects. There is a touch of irony in Williamson's laudably biting satire on the self-indulgence and glaring hypocrisy of academics indulging in the great debate on literary theory that raged so vociferously in the '90s, but what this pretentious-in-itself examination masks is a profoundly knowing exposition on the nature of family and intrafamilial relations.
The play opens as the audience files in, with Shakespeare, in puffy white duds, poring over a parchment thoughtfully. At curtain, there's a brief, literal recapitualtion of Roland Barthes' Death Of An Author, in which the bard is met with a bullet, for his sins in perpetuating phallocentrism in cultural and political expression.
A few reservations about diction aside, David Woodland is pretty damn good as the sharp-witted young Shakespeare, whose insights on the inevitable transcendence of human natures over ideology triumph gloriously in the end. Emily Potts, as the prettier, flirtier co-student, politically and intellectually incorrect, yet true to herself, is engaging, but tends to 'act' a little too much. She's not alone in this: Enrico Babic, as Angela's father, Martin, is almost unbearable and, in one scene, seems to regress to the petulant frustration of childhood to play it. How much he or Massey is at fault in this one can only but conjecture. His opposite, his wife, high-flying executive Jessica Squires, seemed distracted, unsure, her mind elsewhere and, as a result, I was also distracted; rhythm, momentum and continuity of the play were thus broken. Indeed, taking the nuclear family of Angela, Jessica & Martin on its own, the performances often dipped well below those I'd expect from an average highschool production. The lady who had the difficult task of stepping (presumably at very short notice) into Baker's shoes did far better, reading. Julie Zimmerman and Karenza Stevens, as Sarah & Monica Judd, bitter-and-twisted sisters of Martin, were vaguely adequate, but the unquestionable star was Marty O'Neill's Col Judd, the fading patriarch of the clan, whose naturalistic style could, should and, if they've the eyes to see it, does serve as an object lesson to many of the aforementioned. Even his other cameos were remarkable and considerable; especially his brief appearance as Lear. How any director can allow such gaping differential between players and performances is, to be brutal, beyond me; it beggars belief. O'Neill was luminous; (the interview with his granddaughter, Angela, is the very core, heart and conscience of the play, or he made it so). Others were appalling.
Still and all, a replay of one of Williamson's best (if most structurally-flawed) is a worthy selection: any dig at high culture, at the expense of more accessible, universal expressions, is a good dig. It is, on the one, lesser hand, David Williamson talking to himself and those of his ilk, indulging in an intellectual dialectic; but, on the other, it's a potent & important study and scrutiny of the dynamics of family. There's something in that, at least, for all of us.
As to the production, it is deeply-flawed, but the material is more than robust, pointed, provocative and pithy enough to see you through. And O'Neill's contributions will sustain you for a week to come.
Genesian Theatre presents
Dead White Males
by David Williamson
Directed by Tom Massey
Venue: Genesian Theatre, 420 Kent St, Sydney NSW 2000
Dates: 3 July - 7 August 2010
Times: Friday and Saturday nights @ 8pm, Sunday matinée @ 4.30pm
TIckets: Adults $25 / Concession $20 / Family $75 (2 adults, 2 children, additional children $15 each) / Group (10 people+) $20 per ticket
Bookings: www.genesiantheatre.com.au | (02) 8019 0276