Invigorated, David Williamson maintains the rage

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THE publicity for David Williamson’s play “Family Values”, coming to The Playhouse soon, has given the impression that Williamson might be embarking on a Nellie Melba-like round of farewells, so frequently has it been called his “last play”.

And Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre is billing his “Crunch Time”, playing until April, as “Australian theatre heavyweight David Williamson’s final”.

But when “CityNews” caught up with Williamson by phone to his Sunshine Coast home recently, he didn’t sound like a man about to retire.

Nor was there any sign that he has given up maintaining his rage. Within the past fortnight, a post titled “The Trump Card of the Right” appeared on John Menadue’s blog “Pearls and Irritations” in which Williamson writes of his first inkling that Labor was going to lose the last election (shades of “Don’s Party”) and his observation that “we’re more fearful and much more susceptible to emotional string-pulling than rational creatures ever would be”. 

“Family Values” is pretty much a textbook illustration of that idea. Chock-full of the hilarious one-liners that have made Williamson our most popular playwright, he lays into everything – the ravages age wreaks upon left-wing values, Christian evangelism in our materialistic middle classes and the armchair idealism of bourgeois Australia. 

Andrew McFarlane as Roger in “Family Values”. Photo: Brett Boardman.

It’s vintage Williamson. Retired judge Roger (Andrew McFarlane) and his wife, Sue (Belinda Giblin) are expecting their children to help celebrate his 70th birthday. Their son’s a born-again Christian, their daughter a Border Force officer, her partner, the captain of a Border Force ship and their other daughter, a left-wing activist. What could possibly go wrong?

Yes, it’s the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” scenario, only this time the outsider is not Sidney Poitier but Saba, an Iranian asylum seeker fleeing Nauru. Sounds up-to-date to me. 

Williamson says he’s chuffed that several of his plays, including “Emerald City”, are being revived around the country and praises the director of the production we’ll see, Lee Lewis, who staged it for Griffin Theatre but has now been appointed artistic director of the Queensland Theatre.

He’s also chuffed that the old Nimrod (Stables) Theatre where this play premiered was where his career took off many years ago with John Bell‘s 1971 production of “The Removalists”.

“When John Bell did his wonderful production in Sydney, suddenly I was on the map,” he says, hastening to add that he had cut his teeth at La Mama and The Pram Factory in Melbourne.

“I’m not Nellie Melba, but I did have cardiac arrhythmia in 2005. Luckily the miracle of modern medicine was able to cure this.”

“But I do ask whether after 50 years people will still come. I don’t want to be staggering around at 98 wondering whether I’m still relevant.”

David Williamson.

There doesn’t seem to be too much danger of that. He has plenty to write about and has been asking himself of late, “What kind of country have we become, to send people fleeing persecution to Nauru?”

Issues which especially occupy his mind include the inhumanity of detaining people in conditions where they suicide, the fact that born-again Christians like the character in his play have been not been up to the forefront on the refugee question, and the treatment of the family of Tamil asylum seekers from Biloela being kept in detention on Christmas Island. Ridiculous, he says. 

“My play is based on a lot of real events. I researched Nauru as fully as I could, I looked at the makeup of the people there and the women too, and it is an attempt to depict the situation truthfully.”

His Iranian character Saba, is a woman of substance who has done two years of medical school before the mullahs in her home country decide to cut down the numbers of female students.

“I also depict a family coming apart at the seams,” he adds. 

“There are lots of blackly funny moments based on the ideological positions of the children, which differ so widely.” An incongruous mismatch, we agree.

“While the family squabbles about minor details, in the same room is a person who has a real trauma to deal with. Saba has faced far worse and that’s the contrast I’m driving.”

Williamson says that in spite of his long career, it’s still not a piece of cake to write a play. 

“I still do a lot of drafts,” he says. “I take on board suggestions from my wife and from the director and I’m always receptive to a good idea.”

He’s not sure if he’ll be able to make it to Canberra but would like to, because he describes the production as “classy with a top cast – I’d love to see it in a new context.”

David Williamson’s “Family Values”, The Playhouse, March 11-14, bookings canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700. 

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Helen Musa
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