We’ve managed to find ways to get our cinematic fix from home, but what about theatre? In the normal run of things, we’d be out two or three times a week watching shows, but these are extraordinary times. Thank goodness then for Digital Theatre, which, for a modest £9.99 per month, gives us access to a whole range of top-level productions. A quick glance through their offerings reveals that there’s plenty of Shakespeare on there, musical theatre and a lot more – but tonight we’re in the mood for something completely new to us, so we opt for the Australian National Theatre’s production of Emerald City by David Williamson.
Set in the 1980s, it’s the story of Colin (Mitchell Butell), a critically acclaimed screenwriter, recently moved from arty Melbourne to money-obsessed Sydney, where all the big Australian film deals happen (think Australia’s Hollywood). Colin and his wife, Kate (Lucy Bell), who works in publishing, move into a modest apartment with their children (whom we never see nor have any real sense of) and Colin sets about writing a long cherished project, based on his Uncle’s wartime experiences. His hard-bitten agent, Elaine (Jennifer Hagen), isn’t keen on the premise, which she feels just isn’t commercial enough.
At a party, Collin encounters Mike (Ben Winspear), a wannabe screenwriter with more ambition than his slender talents can support – but he does have a bullish approach that seems to get results. The two men team up on Colin’s project, though Mike is clearly more keen to work on his own idea, a kind of Australian Miami Vice. Colin soon finds himself unhealthily fixated on Mike’s girlfriend, Helen (Kelly Paterniti), and she is clearly interested in him. As the two men’s lives become increasingly entangled, Colin’s professional integrity – and Kate’s – come up against some unexpected challenges.
At first, I’m not at all sure about this production. The garish and unconventional stage set is rather unsettling, with the actors moving out into the audience, along a kind of V-shaped thrust design. Characters keep breaking off from conversations with each other to confide their innermost thoughts to the audience which again, takes a little time to get used to. But, once into the rhythms of Williamson’s approach, the piece embeds itself and starts to pay dividends.
This is a dry and witty play that constantly points up how difficult it is to have integrity in a world that is so fixated on financial results. The eternal conflict between art and commerce provides the real meat of this story. Winspear offers a bruising depiction of toxic masculinity and Hagen somehow manages to be the personification of every literary agent I’ve ever met. Some of the developments are wildly funny – I love the idea of a publisher flying first class to the Booker Prize ceremony when the author of the nominated book has decided not to go because she disagrees with the very idea of it!
I have thus far had no knowledge of Australian theatre but Emerald City proves to be a rewarding first dip into its unknown waters.