RARELY are the names of playwrights Anton Chekhov and David Williamson mentioned in the same breath, but director Aarne Neeme, rehearsing his 10th production for Canberra REP, sees similarities between the play “Don Parties On” and Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”.
For those not in the know, Don and his friends are the Labor “true believers” we first saw (theatrically) on October 25, 1969, the night John Gorton defeated Gough Whitlam at the polls, in a suburban Federal election party heavily fuelled by alcohol.
Skip 41 years to August 21, 2010, when Julia Gillard won a second term in office.
Most of the same people are at Don’s house again, most are still true believers, but there’s a new generation to join in the fun, the bitterness and the booze.
The stage set, designed by Quentin Mitchell, bears an uncanny resemblance to an earlier REP production of the play “Don’s Party” on which Williamson has based his sequel.
“Now the characters are of an age when the glorious future is not so glorious,” he says.
Just as with Chekhov, he observes, when you’re directing you have to achieve a balance between the comedy and the nostalgia. Fortunately, he’s done plenty of Williamson before including, uniquely, a production of “Money and Friends” in his native Estonia.
“We thought we could change the world in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but this play is more bitter… I became quite attracted by its potential for tragicomedy,” he says.
It dismayed Neeme that earlier productions, like one in Melbourne featuring comic actors Garry McDonald and Darren Gilshenan, went for “a sort of Abbott and Costello approach” that evaded the sense of impotence, loss and regret he finds in this newer Don’s play.
He’s been aided by an all-star REP cast headed up by Peter Robinson as Don. Of the nine characters, five were at the original party, but there are also new parts, “like Don and Kath’s son Richard and his narcissistic paramour Roberta,” as Neeme puts it.
Present day history has been more or less on his side, but Neeme is mightily relieved that the show will be over before the Federal election comes. The resuscitation of Kevin Rudd was a bit of a blow, but he is nonetheless convinced of the play’s relevance – “a lot of audience members will have been through this, especially in Canberra.”
“Don Parties On”, by David Williamson, at Theatre 3, Acton, until August 17, bookings to canberrarep.org.au or 6257 1950.
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