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Jan 14, 2011

Who’s aspirational now? Williamson’s Party as vapid as the times

David Williamson got to his feet at the premiere of Don Parties On to be applauded, a polite if halfhearted acknowledgement. He smiled contentedly. Williamson is nothing but content. Blithely, indolently content, writes Jason Whittaker.

MTC_DON PARTIES ON©Jeff Busby_233

Barry Humphries skipped out quickly after curtains, perhaps avoiding an awkward conversation with the playwright after. In fact, ushers misdirected the usual crowd of Melbourne B-listers and the post-show party fizzled. The stench still wafted from the theatre. This was grim viewing, possums.

Our most celebrated stage scribe got to his feet post-show to be applauded, a polite if halfhearted acknowledgement. He smiled contentedly. David Williamson is nothing but content. Blithely, indolently content.

Half-a-dozen years ago now, Williamson went on a cruise. Nose in the air, uncomfortable over our Howard-era comfortableness, he delivered a withering critique of aspirational Australia:

“I finished the cruise thinking that the ‘elites’ have an absolute right to avow that the things that mean the most to them are the works of art and intellect that our greatest creative minds and thinkers have produced, that intelligence and intellectual curiosity are not some kind of abhorrent anti-Australian behaviour, and that thinking seriously about the long-term future of our country and our planet is not some kind of cultural betrayal.”

Just who was he standing up for? Williamson hasn’t demonstrated intelligence or intellectual curiosity for years. And what better description of the languid liberal than “aspirational”? Williamson’s writing is as fat, lazy and stupid as any of those cruise-goers, a man who seeks nothing more challenging or substantial than recognition and legacy.

Don’s Party, for its bawdy faults, captured a time, a place, a mood. The sequel — which nobody really wanted, but Williamson premiered at the Playhouse last night anyway — perhaps achieves the same level of success: it’s certainly as vapid as the current domestic political landscape; as bereft of ideas as Don’s beloved Labor cause.

A cruise of Titanic disaster.

Grumpy old Don, after literary misadventure, is restless; hairless (and looks more like Garry McDonald). Kath remains by his side, for reasons that aren’t apparent. Cooley has mellowed into a sickly arch-conservative; Mal a lonely lawyer now divorced from Jenny, who rose through the Labor ranks with a burning grudge . They reunite for the 2010 federal election and moan about the listless campaign and mourn for Whitlam and Keating and the long-lost ideas men of politics.

From his comfortable sea-change retreat in Noosa, Williamson not-so-quietly seethes. He writes in the show program:

“These days, what have we got? What are the great questions being asked by our political leadership? — Will we build a new detention centre on Nauru or East Timor? Who can do the least and say the least about the great challenge of our day, climate change? Whether or not we should upset the mining companies by taxing their excessive profits? Surely, it cannot merely be the souring perception of someone in late middle-age that Australia seems less optimistic, less idealistic, less likely to take a stand on principle than it was …”

And that’s exactly what we get: wistfully bitter perception. Labor is controlled by machine men, driven by polls not policy; the fear-mongering Liberals are tied to slogans not solutions; nobody treats asylum seekers fairly; no one is committed to acting on climate change.

You’ve heard it all before. And you’ve heard it said much better. With greater insight. With sharper wit. From writers not battling an aging irrelevance.

The election wasn’t that long ago. But watching Williamson’s take, listening to Kerry O’Brien, firmly ensconced in retirement, call the card, with commentary from Williamson’s boomer brood this tired and predictable, it feels almost as nostalgic as the original film.

Don Parties On amounts to a series of disjointed and desultory sketches, poorly plotted, embarrassingly overacted, neither witty nor wise. It’s badly produced theatre; the Melbourne Theatre Company should be condemned for allowing “mainstream” theatregoers — and many will be attracted to Williamson and nothing else — to believe the artform isn’t any better than this.

But the real tragedy here is Williamson. The sheer laziness of Don Parties On embarrasses. Elites should exorcise him at once — Williamson now fails his own standards.

*For more thoughts on Don Parties On, see the full review on Crikey‘s theatre blog Curtain Call

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66 comments

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66 thoughts on “Who’s aspirational now? Williamson’s Party as vapid as the times

  1. kumbali

    this is just a nasty rant and doesn’t contribute to debate.

  2. Bogdanovist

    What a nonsense ‘review’. When you (almost) open by saying:

    “Williamson’s writing is as fat, lazy and stupid as any of those cruise-goers, a man who seeks nothing more challenging or substantial than recognition and legacy.”

    then it’s pretty clear we can stop reading at that point, because the ‘reviewer’ clearly isn’t going to offer any interesting insight into the play.

    Terrible review and banal prose.

  3. Nathan

    Fantastic review. When I first heard about this show I thought it was a joke. When I received pamplets in the mail from STC I couldn’t stop laughing. This is exactly what I wanted to read about it.
    Some of Williamsons’ older plays are great, and like you said, a snapshot of a specific time, and I think they hold some relevance. But Williamson has a weird sort of arrogance over the contemporary theatre scene that feels as if everyone is just too polite to tell him he’s spilled something awful down his shirt and not noticed.
    Maybe the two comments above me are from Williamson fans. Who knows. But I notice they haven’t said that the play is any good.

  4. Benny Rogers

    This review is inhumane, nasty and personal. Readers deserve more. The reason the play hasn’t been discussed in the first two comments is that the absolute bile in the review takes over completely. This is less about Williamson and his play and more about the reviewer, his personal feelings and need for attention. And yes, the reviewer is only human too…but he needs to assess the impact of his own writing. An attack this vicious makes my stomach turn. People are involved. It’s unnecessary.
    Crikey can do better.

  5. Takius

    I am not a huge Williamson fan, having only seen the original Don’s Party, but as someone who was considering seeing this play I have to say that I was disapointed that this review seems to be more a vitriolic vendetta against Williamson than an actual review.

    I am unsure what Jason Whittaker has against Williamson, but I’d prefer if he would focus on the actual play rather than the playwright.

  6. john2066

    Nathan, have you actually seen it?

  7. sean

    The irony of this surprisingly contentless and mediocre offering is that its guilty of the same kind of toneless angst that the author accusses Williamson of. I haven’t seen the play but this rant isn’t about the play, its more an adhominen attack on Williamson, presumably because his views on modern australia dont accord with Jason’s.

    The references to ‘ageing irrelevance’, the general nastiness and the lack of any insight is hopefully not an indication of where the editorial direction of Crikey is going in the future.. I’d advise Jason, now that he’s covered his shirt with dribble, to get back to his administrative work.

  8. Bogdanovist

    I haven’t seen the play, and don’t have a great view on Williamson one way or the other (the shows of his I have seen are all older ones which I found mildy entertaining, though not particularly profound). This review just tells me the reviewer hates the playwright, but doesn’t do so in an interesting way or say anything interesting about much at all.

  9. kumbali

    I will add that I have only recently returned to reading articles on Crikey, having turned away because of increasing lack of substance and too many vitriolic rants that are not backed up by facts. This article is the last I will be reading which is really sad as Crikey was not always like this.

  10. Hannie W

    The first two respondents may well be right, but I take it they weren’t there last night. They might think otherwise if they had been. The whole thing is, well, it’s amazing. The laziness the reviewer describes – in staging, in acting, in writing – is stupefying. I didn’t pay for my ticket, so I feel bad being negative, but I love theatre and I hate seeing it trashed. Particularly by its own practitioners.

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