Photos – Jeff Busby
David Williamson has been writing for us and about us for half a century. Across theatre, film and television he has told our stories cleverly, humorously and often uncomfortably. At Melbourne Theatre Company alone, Australia’s most prolific playwright has had over 20 of his plays staged. In celebration of his astounding 50-year career comes this Queensland Theatre co-production remount of one his finest works.
Vaguely autobiographical, Emerald City is a sharp and candid exploration of art, commerce, sell-out, the nature and complexity of creative relationships and most famously, Melbourne Sydney rivalry. Alarmingly for many of us who saw the play the first time around, Emerald City is now considered a period piece and yet it doesn’t actually feel so. To only credit great writing as explanation for the work’s surprising contemporary resonance is to overlook the most depressing aspect of revisiting it. In some respects, Emerald City’s only nostalgia is its lack of mobile devices. In this click bait era of instant mastication, we probably like to think that a retro glimpse of our recent past would highlight just how far we’ve come in 30 years – but no.
While arts funding still cowers in the shadow of sports stadiums and a formal handshake between Melbourne and Sydney is unlikely in anyone’s lifetime, we can at least be a little grateful for some movement. Things in the boardroom probably are a bit better for women and indigenous stories are perhaps being told by a more diverse stable of actors but many of the questions Williamson asked of us are still seeking answers and many of the problems he highlighted still largely without solution. In discussing the significance and motivation for re-staging works like Emerald City, Director Sam Strong talked of the importance of not ‘missing out on our recent dramatic history and the chance to properly interrogate that history.’ Bingo, Emerald City really surprised.
Impossibly impressive entering the theatre is Dale Ferguson’s extraordinary glass cube stage design. With a stunning backdrop of shimmering crystal threads like an oversized Glomesh clutch, we’re in Sydney. These ostentations strands of glass arch evocatively of ‘The Bridge’ and the revolving cube keeps us forever imagining the glistening harbour below from apartments and offices symbolic and defining of ultimate Australian success. A design triumph lit cleverly by David Walters.
Fast paced and engaging, the company in this production is strong and work deftly to unfurl narrative. As expected, Nadine Garner and Marg Downy are standout. As Kate, Garner is stunning. Gritty, feisty, determined and funny, her journey is clear and her portrayal of a woman finding confidence and place eloquently captures the frustrations of wanting and deserving success. As Elaine, Marg Downy is simply a joy and seeing her impeccably deliver some of the play’s richest comic dialogue is to witness a consistent but understated genuine national treasure.
MTC have chosen wisely because Emerald City feels really significant. It’s wonderful to have those moments of vernacular recognition, to hear our words, see our stories and oddly feels like the treatment for the UK/US series Episodes written 30 years ago. Emerald City spotlights the ruthless achievers whose merits are spin over substance. These people still gain the harbour views on the graft and shoulders of others and it still stinks. For anyone who has run to or from, Williamson’s overarching message here is that location is easy to blame for our ills but an improvement in view and weather is superficial if our troubles remain unaddressed.
David Williamson remarks that the stakes of his own plays are not ‘searingly high’ but in Emerald City we have a great tale told with razor sharp witty observation that is a delight to watch and identify with.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by David Williamson
Director Sam Strong
Venue: The Sumner | Southbank Theatre, 140 Southbank Blvd, Southbank VIC
Dates: 6 March – 18 April 2018
Bookings: mtc.com.au | 03 8688 0800
A co-production with Queensland Theatre