Friday, June 10, 2022

Emerald City


Emerald City by David Williamson.  Free Rain at The Hub, Kingston, Canberra June 8 – 25, 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Opening night June 9

Director – Anne Somes; Set Designer – Cate Clelland
Costume Design – Fiona Leach supported by Cast and Creatives
Lighting Design – Chris Ward; Sound Design – Justin Mullins
Original Music – Alexander Unikowski

Colin – Isaac Reilly; Kate – Victoria Tyrell Dixon; Mike – Daniel Greiss
Elaine – Helen McFarlane; Helen – Hannah Lance; Malcolm – Patrick Collins


In 1987 I saw the original production of Emerald City at the Opera House Drama Theatre.  That was a Sydney show.  Last night, in The Hub at The Causeway in Canberra, I saw a Melbourne show.  David Williamson’s brilliant play contrasts the two cities.  Melbourne is deep and meaningful; Sydney is shallow and money-grubbing.

In my memory, after 35 years, despite the outstanding performances by John Bell as the writer Colin, Robyn Nevin as his publisher wife Kate, Max Cullen as the huckster Mike McCord, Andrea Moor as his partner Helen, Dennis Grosvenor as financier Malcolm, and Ruth Cracknell as producer Elaine, all I have left is the beautiful distant backdrop image of the huge shining emerald harbour.  Theme, characters and plot have faded from that ‘Sydney’ show.  

At The Hub, Free Rain’s ‘Melbourne’ show, small in scale, will be remembered entirely for how clearly these actors, under Anne Somes’ direction, created strength of character, took us through the complexity of Williamson’s plot, and showed how the themes “of money versus integrity – with Sydney being the supposed locus of the former and Melbourne the latter – emerged, as did possibly the most important dynamic in the play, the inevitable, often very competitive, struggle for career achievement in a marriage of two professionals.”  

These are Williamson’s words from his Home Truths – A Memoir.  In other words, Isaac Reilly’s ‘Colin’, Victoria Tyrell Dixon’s ‘Kate’, Daniel Greiss’s ‘Mike’, Hannah Lance’s ‘Helen’, Patrick Collins’ ‘Malcolm’, and Helen McFarlane’s ‘Elaine’, captured exactly what the author intended.  The trick in this play is to keep a delicate balance on the knife edge of genuine art on the ‘Melbourne’ side and entertainment on the ‘Sydney’ side. The final words of the play are “Take care!”

I thank the company for the care they have taken.  

The casting as well as the characterisations are spot on.  It was amusing to see a tall, slim-built Colin with such a tendency to expound ideas while exhibiting anxiety about criticism – so much like the real David Williamson of that time in this play he calls ‘biographical’.  You’ll need to read Page 249 of Home Truths, where Frank Moorhouse – invited by David to opening night – had told him “the Max Cullen character would have had possibilities if I’d gone into him in more depth” and had “finally dragged himself to his feet when he realised he was the only one in the audience not joining in the standing ovation.”   Maybe like Colin with Mike McCord, David says “I decided that life was too short to persevere with my attempts at friendship.”  I wonder, though, if Moorhouse would have said the same of Daniel Greiss in the role.  His Mike actually persuaded us that this awful ‘huckster’ could genuinely be in love with Helen.

The play raises problematical questions of sexism, requiring women who must be obviously physically sexually attractive to make Colin and Mike so besotted with Kate and Helen respectively; while each being at a level of maturity and ethical social capacity way above their men.  Both Victoria and Hannah created the humour in their situations equally with the seriousness of what we now understand as Me Too feminism, which we saw on March 15, 2021, when more than 100,000 Australians participated in the March4Justice rallies to protest sexual assault and harassment in politics, while calling for an end to gendered violence. [ABC TV] 

I think we can thank David Williamson for helping to create that new understanding and positive action in this 1980’s play.  While Helen McFarlane’s portrayal of Elaine, the forceful woman arts producer, forced to compromise her artistic standards to raise her mortgage repayments, also raised the question of the precariousness both of working in the arts and of financial security for older women.

An important aspect of Free Rain’s production was the success of the costume department, especially for the women as their relationships with the men shifted from time to time.

Lighting, sound – including Sydney seagulls – and an unobtrusive music accompaniment allowed the dialogue and action to have the central place, despite the amusing position taken by the pure entertainment huckster that Colin’s film script shouldn’t have any words.  This is Williamson, the word-smith, making fun of himself.  Of course in the movie Gallipoli, we saw the true quality of his film script writing.

And last I have to say how well the director and cast handled the shifting from naturalistic playing to the ‘presentational’ monologues as characters spoke directly to us about what they felt and thought about each other.  The simple device of the non-speaking character held in freeze-frame worked smoothly and effectively to keep us on that delicate balance that the play requires.

Overall, then, Emerald City is another excellent example of the new theatre Hub for local companies like Free Rain, and – for me, at least – a filling-in of my memory space, reminding me of how good is the playwright, David Williamson.

See the play, and read the book – Home Truths published by Harper Collins, 2021.

Photos by Cathy Breen

Patrick Collins and Isaac Reilly
as financier Malcolm and writer Colin
Hannah Lance as Helen
Helen McFarlane and Daniel Greiss
as Elaine and Mike

Isaac Reilly and Victoria Tyrell Dixon
as Colin and Kate