Melbourne Theatre Company: Emerald City review

The noble intention of Melbourne Theatre Company’s celebration of 50 years of David Williamson plays misfires with a bland revival of 1987 hit Emerald City, a play that proves more tepid talkfest than dazzling gem.

Selected from Williamson’s extraordinary canon of work, Emerald City is an appropriately personal choice, centring upon a successful writer struggling to balance art and commerce. Screenwriter Colin and publisher wife Kate follow the Yellow Brick Road up to the Emerald City of Oz, at once seduced and repulsed by Sydney’s striking views and endless social whirl.

Williamson successfully makes the city of Sydney a character itself in the play, and the great Sydney/Melbourne rivalry still amuses. There is a prophetic vision of Australia as a thriving screen production hub for Hollywood, and the mention of the need for authentic Australian stories remains pertinent.

The insightful eye of choice director Sam Strong finds little inspiration in the self-indulgent agendas of the handful of generally unsympathetic characters. Williamson utilises the patronising device of having the characters frequently share their inner voice with the audience, a conceit which should at least create simmering subtext and yet simply slows the action and diminishes audience IQ by the minute.

An eagerly anticipated aspect in the revival of a play rooted in a particular era is the chance to revel in the forgotten fashions under the harsh glow of hindsight. No such amusement in this super slick production by designer Dale Ferguson, with the action housed in a sterile box with a few stark pieces of all-white furniture. The deliberately streamlined design allows for an uninterrupted flow of scenes and yet impedes Strong’s depiction of the various characters’ reactions to the indulgences of wealth. The characters seem to exist in a cocoon, in which the very trappings they are struggling for do not tangibly exist.

In the absence of necessary furniture, Strong uses the clever device of a stage mechanical, with assistant stage manager Vivienne Poznanski appearing on stage in vivid blue wig to deliver and remove props as required.

While the central setting is simple, Ferguson’s glittering beaded backdrop successfully evokes the sparkle of Sydney Harbour, the outline of the famous Bridge neatly captured overhead. Lighting designer David Walters gives the hanging strands of crystals a luscious shimmer of atmospheric colour.

Ferguson delivers a couple iconic costumes, a highlight being a recreation of Kylie Minogue’s noughts and crosses mini dress.  Overall, clothing and hairstyles convey virtually nothing of the excess of the 1980s. It seems a missed opportunity that no visual contrast is made of newly arrived Melbourne couple Colin and Kate’s Melbourne style compared to the Sydney glamour. Everyone basically looks the same, save for the somewhat ostentatious outfits of successful producer Elaine Ross.

Further atmosphere is provided by composer and sound designer Russell Goldsmith, who provides a fitting electronic rock soundtrack to scene transitions. Nostalgia for the period is evoked with the music of INXS playing pre-show and during interval.

Nadine Garner again proves a dynamic and charismatic stage presence, elevating the material with her ever engaging delivery. Despite being one half of the story’s central couple, Kate still comes across as a supporting character. The chief focus is on the men, and yet Garner leaves us wanting to know more of Kate.

In the lead role of writer Colin, Jason Klarwein captures the frustration of a man seeking success beyond his abilities. The role proves largely unsympathetic, leaving the stakes of the play rather flat.

Rhys Muldoon thrives as superficial script editor Mike, the gauche counterpoint to Colin. In a biting indictment of show business, Mike’s working of the entertainment industry cocktail party circuit sees his star outshine Colin despite Mike’s utter lack of writing ability.

Marg Downey is a treat as Sydney luvvie Elaine, a power broker who revels in the game. Downey brings just the right amount of humanity to the role, giving hints of the woman’s humanity in brief moments of tenderness.

Ray Chong Nee delivers the smooth, unflappable confidence of investment banker Malcolm Bennett with flair. Megan Hind gives a suitably sultry performance in the underwritten role or Helen Davey, willing trophy girlfriend of sexist pig Mike.

Emerald City plays at The Sumner, Southbank Theatre, Melbourne until 18 April 2020.

The Emerald City program can be read online.

Footnote: On opening night, David Williamson joined the cast on stage at the curtain calls. Williamson was introduced by Melbourne Theatre Company Artistic Director & CEO Brett Sheehy, who reportedly suggested the title for the play during its creation back in the mid-1980s.

Photos: Jeff Busby

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