Emerald City | Griffin Theatre CompanyLeft – Kelly Paterniti. Cover – Ben Winspear and Kelly Paterniti. Photos – Brett Boardman

In his scholarly work The Whore’s Story, Bradford K Mudge draws a distinction between what he calls “immortal” and “immoral” works of art. The former, he contends, is art for art’s sake, while the latter is art for money’s sake. As such, the commercial and the popular have become inextricably culturally coded as bad and devoid of artistic merit: as somehow duping their audience into forking over their money.

These questions about art-for-art’s-sake and art-for-money’s-sake lie at the heart of David Williamson’s Emerald City, revived by Griffin Theatre Company as the last show of their 2014 season. Colin (Mitchell Butel) is a screenwriter with modest commercial success but a large amount of artistic and critical acclaim. His wife Kate (Lucy Bell), who works in publishing, seems to share his ideas about art, eschewing the commercial to pursue books she is passionate about, books that might eventually change the culture even if they don’t sell a lot of copies. But both are forced to re-examine their positions when they encounter Mike (Ben Winspear), who has little artistic talent but a lot of commercial ambition, and who forms a partnership with Colin that makes him question whether money might be more valuable than art.

Griffin’s revival is brilliantly performed. Lee Lewis has assembled a truly outstanding cast. Butel and Bell as Colin and Kate are vital and alive, while Winspear turns in a virtuoso performance as Mike (all the more remarkable when you consider that he took on the role only a few days before the production opened). Their acting is all the more remarkable when you consider the material that they’re working with. Emerald City is a curiously hollow play: full of words, but not saying much at all.

I think this is because the central conceit – art-for-art’s-sake versus art-for-money’s-sake – doesn’t really go anywhere. This is a question that has been examined a lot (like, A LOT) in a variety of media, and I’m struggling to think of one new or interesting thing that Emerald City has to say about it. It basically notes that this highbrow versus lowbrow problem exists in art, and people have to find a way to deal with it. That’s it.

This is a shame, because I feel like playwright David Williamson – so often denigrated as commercial and disparaged because his plays are popular – would actually have a really interesting opinion on this question. Mudge argues that “immoral” works of art are in fact the shadow twins of “immortal” ones: that instead of being opposed, the two feed off and are informed by each other. But we don’t get anything like this nuance in Emerald City. Instead, the artistic and the commercial are set up as a binary, with a largely unquestioned assumption that commercial art is somehow debased or degraded. This leads to a script which essentially consists of the three central characters pontificating about the nature and meaning of art and/or the importance of money at each other. Butel, Bell and Winspear all do an excellent job of infusing these speeches with theatrical vitality, but there is only so much you can do with the material.

Not a lot actually happens in Emerald City, which I think contributes to the problem: there are a lot of words to very little action. It’s a fairly shallow treatment of the problem of the highbrow versus the lowbrow. The performances are genuinely excellent, and the Ken Done set is spectacular – these alone make it worth seeing – but I wanted Emerald City to say more, do more, be more.

Griffin Theatre Company presents
Emerald City
by David Williamson

Director Lee Lewis

Venue: SBW Stables, 10 Nimrod Street, Kings Cross
Dates: 24 October – 6 December, 2014
Tickets: $49 – $32
Bookings: 02 9361 3817 | www.griffintheatre.com.au

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