David Williamson’s family secrets

Don Parties On played at the Playhouse at the Arts Centre (Melbourne) from January 8 to February 12 and at the Sydney Theatre from February 17 to March 8.

We seem to have wandered into a final dress rehearsal. The playing area is a theatre foyer. The young woman setting up the bar is snuffling and sneezing. A family party, who have occupied a red plush couch against a far wall, are divided over whether to have “champs” or Gold Magnums. Decisions made, the plump mother, picked out by a bright overhead light, gazes seriously at her rapidly disappearing ice-cream as she eats it. Her big daughter sits on the floor at her feet also eating. On the wall behind them is a big and very ugly Aboriginal dot painting. As the family grazes, the “champs”-drinking father recalls that he watched the fireworks on television for New Year’s Eve, but can’t recall what he did on Australia Day (several days before). That conversation falls away as talking women pass across the foyer. One going from stage right to stage left says: “What sort of hospitality is this? Australian. Get over it.” Another, her course plotted in the opposite direction, says: “The supermarket was open but the pharmacy was sold out.” The room fills. Enter more actors including several intense, long-haired, bearded and slightly scary young men with shoulder bags. A young woman clutching a hessian bag flashing with tiny mirrors and glass beads leads an unheard conversation in a far corner. The crowd scene builds with new arrivals. Many seem to have been dressed by the costume designer out of the same Vinnies bin, or is it retro style they have chosen for the evening to go with the play they are about to see? Big-shouldered woman with dangly silver chain thing with hefty links around her neck. A woman, her top half encased in a broad all-covering and loosely hanging scarf and below a short dress that ends inches too soon—top and bottom out of sync. Horror mini-dress on older woman. Tall, dark-suited, balding, slim man projects his Williamsonspeak on the bar staff: “Do you by any chance have a Shiraz? You do? I’ll have it.” Returns to a short young woman. Possibly a grand-daughter, possibly not. They talk, she texts. Then the bell rings.

On the real stage Kath, Don’s wife (Tracy Mann), is wearing a tie-dye blouse and Aboriginal motif apron—perhaps leftover fabric from those paintings hanging around the Arts Centre foyer. Fortunately she changes before her guests arrive. It’s the Melbourne Theatre Company production of Don Parties On, directed by Robyn Nevin. It’s David Williamson’s reprise of Don’s Party—forty years later. Time has been cruel, for party-giver Don has turned from John Hargreaves, in the film, into Garry McDonald. McDonald’s Don is Garry McDonald. His performances are seldom very different. Like Garry McDonald and you’ll like his Don—though you may find it odd that he doesn’t once mention his mother from the television series.

It’s election night last year. Vaguely remembered characters, who age has reinvented, toll the door bell for admission. As they come in the actors give us a Don’s Party study guide reprise to help us remember who they are, or were. There is Mal (Robert Grubb), and later his divorced wife Jenny (Sue Jones), who has been a state Labor cabinet minister, will turn up. The angular and randy Cooley of the film (Harold Hopkins), has grown into “arch-conservative” Frankie J. Holden. With him is his stylish wife Helen (Diane Craig). She votes Green and wheels in the oxygen cylinder and mask Cooley needs for his emphysema. She also does wonderful things for kiddies in detention centres, and Don still lusts after her. There’s Don’s forty-something son Richard (Darren Gilshenan), who was offstage in his crib in Don’s Party and who has just left his offstage wife. There is also his teenage daughter Belle (Georgia Flood), and his flame woman Roberta (Nikki Shiels). 

Dale Ferguson’s set of Don’s house is naturalistic. The place has changed a lot over the years. Across the stage Ferguson has spread a suburban homes renovation of roomy kitchen, with large window showing Don’s two parked cars, opening onto living room, entrance area, and a picture window through which we glimpse a solid leisure centre water feature dripping with some of Melbourne’s scarce water—surely recycled. The naturalism stops there for the characters inhabit Williamson’s world and they are his familiar marionettes. It’s so out of sync with real Australia and so awash with intellectual Left pre-digested baby formula nourishment that the program even has a slice of text by Robert Manne which starts, “Politics is a strange business”.

Expect actors mouthing Left platitudes as they argue, batter and bonk each other and you’ll never be disappointed with a Williamson script. Yet, though the characters talk politics they lack the hard edges of real people with deeply held opinions. They are cliché-thin with the intellectual narrowness of a 7.30 Report segment; instant, one size fits all, Left opinion for the befuddled. If it’s ideas you’re looking for then stay home and think; this isn’t the place for real thought. His right-wing character, Cooley, is a Williamson caricature of a Left caricature. Though seemingly put together from a random selection of Fairfax tirades scanned over Saturday morning coffees he becomes, as played by Frankie J. Holden, a likeable, LOL character and very[smiley face]. Despite being a successful lawyer he’s a soft, stuffed, velour-covered teddy bear. The silliness in the writing is (thankfully) defused by the good-natured, booming pleasantness of Holden’s acting. When he speaks lines meant to terrify the Left you feel like cheering: “So what’s happening? Are that crappy Labor lot consigned to the dustbin of history where they deserve to be?”

But, of course, it’s the Left members of our audience who break into applause at leftist pieces of hollowness. When they do so the other part of the audience sit on our hands. That too is interesting, for our Friday night audience seems as politically divided as the election voters Don and his friends are following on television. From the stage there are attacks on Nick Minchin, for whom David Williamson has a particular dislike, Tony Abbott and Bob Katter. In a drama performance you are not always aware what the audience about you is thinking but here our humour betrays us. The play’s Left snipes evoke supportive laughter from one part of the audience, but another large part of the room stays silent. There is shared humour and unshared political humour but when some criticisms of Islam are made there is an eerie silence across the whole auditorium. 

This time around Mack, the dirty-photograph-taking character played by Graham Kennedy in the film, is dead. The old Lower Plenty house, bought for $14,000, has gone up in value, and the unpleasant sixteen-year-old Belle, an eco-Nazi with all the charm of a baby Bob Brown, estimates its worth as $750,000 “at least”. In Williamson’s world even the kids have an eye for real estate. The televisions have got bigger and the memories smaller. There are cries and laughter, Baby Boomer rants, new generation sketches, tears and loving. So, forget all that, it’s the sub-text that is fascinating. Williamson has done it again—put the boot into his nearest and dearest. In his wife’s biography the most references under his name in the index refer to “based on real people”. Once more we are thumbing through the grubby parts of the Williamson biography and witnessing the public embarrassment of his friends and family.

Even the fact of Williamson’s betrayals of family and friends in his plays are subject matter as Don is revealed to have written a book and used his friends as unwilling subjects. Attacked by his angry victims, Don uses the Williamson defence, with humour that does not really deal with the real hurt that his plays have caused to some of those closest to him: 

Don: You exaggerate things for dramatic effect.

Mal: You didn’t exaggerate the size of my dick. 

Kristin Williamson’s biography of her husband wrote of her hurt at his hands. Character Jenny takes up the theme:  

Jenny: For the first time we realised how you really felt about us. You were supposed to be our closest friend … I finally dragged myself out of that slimy well, and it took years, Don. Believe me. 

This is not a mea culpa or a sensitive admission of what he has done, but foreplay before doing it all again. In Don Parties On Williamson compulsively returns to the sexual activities of the couples and there are moments, which the audience finds amusing, which must be sheer hell for his family and friends to sit through. It’s not unreasonable to imagine with a Williamson play that what happens on stage comes from someone’s biography. So where did fiction hint at reality? 

During the evening hard nut Jenny turns weak, and is torn by guilt as the alcohol flows. Sue Jones turns the character round and about and inside out. She takes her from assertive bossiness, bitchy feminist, betrayed and unfaithful lover, guilty mother, to a slightly sozzled and more than lost old woman. It’s a captivating performance, both frightening and tender. From good second-rate material Sue Jones moulds a first-rate performance. Her admission that after a wife-swapping incident she got pregnant and then aborted the child plays in audience silence. Capped by an example of its author’s cringe-making and sometimes embarrassing anti-male prose (and he seems to have surrendered to the feminist offensive in the arts) it’s a typical example of the Williamson technique: 

Jenny: I had no idea who the father was. I had to have an abortion, which was the worst thing I ever had to do.

Mal: We had four kids already.

Helen: Ohmigod, Jenny. I’m so sorry. I never knew.

Jenny: I still feel terrible. I still have dreams. She’s four or five and running towards me. She looks the same every time.

Mal: You couldn’t have coped with another.

Jenny: I should’ve had her. I wanted to have her. But you said no. You didn’t just say no, you yelled no. You yelled and yelled.

Mal: It mightn’t have been mine. 

Sex and the Williamsons has been a very public entertainment. There has been the much-written-about long ago episode of a sexual fling involving Bob Ellis, the Williamsons, and a billiard table. You would have hoped that by now these things had been discreetly put away but a version of this now pops up as a defining moment in the play. Fortunately the billiard table has its privacy respected and is not mentioned. Kristin Williamson wrote that she was glad that the Ellis revelations, republished in a book by Frank Moorhouse, had been out of print before their children could have seen them. This was before they were again publicly revived in the media by Louis Nowra in 2009. Then Mrs Williamson was worried about her children being made aware of all this. But here we go again and it’s Williamson coming very close to his own past as Richard and Belle learn of the sexual athletics of their elders engaged in what Mal describes as “a bit of innocent wife swapping”: 

Richard: Six of you having group sex together?

Kath: No, just four.

Richard: You didn’t know whose child it was? Had to have abortions?

Kath: That wasn’t us. That was Jenny. 

David Williamson—and it’s helpfully indexed in Kristin’s biography as “David leaves her (briefly)”—left her and their family for another woman, for eight hours. That too is uplifted as material by the playwright. Fictional Don, who is given more staying power than his creator, once left his wife for another woman, for a week.

In the play Richard, a high flyer who is so wet you wonder how he ever leaves the ground, is dumping his wife and family for attractive red-haired loony Roberta, played with broad-brushed loopiness by Nikki Shiels. The stage fatal femme is close to being plagiarism of the description Kristin provided of the woman her husband left her for: “Attractive, deceitful and brilliantly manipulative. She’s already ruined one high-profile married man’s life and is on the lookout for another.” This absolutely ghastly character is delightedly applauded by the audience as she leaves the stage after a lovely pill-guzzling faux suicide attempt. Don reassures his son that her suicide wasn’t really intended: “It’s hard to hold centre stage if you’re a corpse.”

Don Parties On is funny and is an impossible thing, a successful sequel. There was, as is usual for a new Williamson play, some stage-managed media argy bargy around the place between Williamson and his critics. It seemed to reach a crescendo when Williamson published an article on Julia Gillard (still Prime Minister at the time of writing) criticising her for being a bad actor. As the words she uses sometimes seem to have been scripted by him he may have a point. 

Michael Connor is the editor of Quadrant Online.

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