Nothing Personal | Ensemble Theatre

“He just gets better and better! And he’s getting taller, too; I’m sure he’s grown.” If I eavesdropped correctly, that’s what Henri Szeps said to some fellow actors. Henri is known for being wry, so perhaps he was being ironic, while working the room. I’d have to assume so, for, with each new and passing play, David Williamson seems to confirm his best work is well behind him. And brilliant work it is, too. I still regard Don’s Party, for example, as the best nail-on-the-head sociopolitical commentary of its day, with penetrating insights into the mores and flaws of Australian society.

Nothing Personal isn’t without it’s pithy, smartarse one liners, which say a lot in the space of but a few words: Davo is still capable of sharply turning a phrase, like a thumbscrew. He’s still got it, it seems. Just, he can’t seem to find anything to write about.

The same old themes keep rearing their tedious heads. Aging, loneliness and death now being principal among them. But there’s family breakdown. Extramarital affairs. Naked ambition. Success and failure. Corruption. All good stuff for a playwright to deploy. But rather than use these to pry into the locker room, or living room, DW takes us to the world of publishing, to tell us things we already know. Publishers, whether illiterate or highly literate, don’t really know what they’re doing. Sometimes, their guesswork is educated. Sometimes, not. Sometimes, they might even deign to read the manuscripts that hit their desks. Sometimes not. One can well understand the bitter and twistedness of the writer. It’s appropriate and commensurate.

My companion speculated after that perhaps this play is, just quietly, Williamson’s unannounced swansong which, despite its inconsequence, would nonetheless give it a certain personal poignancy, elegance and dignity (class, God forbid), given that it’s about ‘generational change’, with the old giving way to the new. This also brings with it a certain sadness: one can’t help but feel for the man, not least since there but for the grace of God go I. Or you. So there’s sympathy, rather than schadenfreude.

The play itself has, on paper, a stunning cast, as well as highly capable and accomplished director in Mark Kilmurry, co-artistic director of Ensemble. Despite all of it, the acting manages to be forced, as hammy as Christmas, awkward and self-conscious, with many a stumble.

Of all of them, Greta Scacchi manages to be a thoroughly unmodern Millie or, rather, Bea, CEO and saviour of a major publisher. But her messianic star is receding, a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical phenomenon on which the equally cut-throat Naomi (Emma Jackson) is do-or-die determined to capitalise. Though the characters are fleshed-out in professional and personal detail, they tend to be rather cliched. Bea has chosen her career over her daughter and struggles to ‘spakfill’ the cracks in that relationship, not to mention with her tattooed, anti-intellectual son-in-law, so as to form a deep and meaningful relationship with her grand-daughter.

Naomi is forced to admit her more easygoing architect partner doesn’t cut the ambition-mustard with which she wants to mix and, against her manifesto, succumbs to an easier road up the ladder with the handsome chairman-of-the-board (Andrew McFarlane, as Kelvin). McFarlane is OK; Rachael Coopes (as Bea’s daughter, Lucy) and Matthew Moore (as Naomi’s partner, Simon) passable; but, surprisingly, Jeanie Drynan (as Naomi’s cancer-riddled mum, Carla) and Julie Hudspeth (as Bea’s loyal, long-suffering assistant, Roxanne) are almost embarrassing.

But the problem isn’t the actors, it’s the script, which clamours and fails to find pathos, just as you or I might clutch at straws.

Designer Steven Butler has made everything transparent and fragile: bookshelves, chairs, phones; you name it. It’s a novel approach which underscores the fragility of these characters, and of us all. But also, ironically, of the script, the theatrical equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes. Come to think of it, old clothes, from the Williamson op shop.

I don’t want to have to say it. Neither do my fellow critics, I suspect. We really crave to be able to celebrate a new Willo. C’mon Dave, haven’t you got one more rabbit in your very tall hat?

The details: Nothing Personal plays the Ensemble Theatre until January 28. Tickets on the venue website.