Photo: Jeff Busby
Last year a friend told me how she counts the lights when bored during a theatre production. It turns out this is a more common practice than I'd expected, and I've since come across several people who do the same thing. I wasn't exactly counting the lights during the first half of Don Parties On, but I did find myself doing something not dissimilar. While I was watching, a part of my mind idly began listing the productions I saw last year which genuinely surprised me.
The list grew pretty long. It began with moments that honestly moved me, from the body-slamming ecstasy in Grit Theatre's Us to Terry Yeboah's wracking sobs in Acts of Deceit to the stirring final sequence of MWT's Yet to Ascertain the Nature of the Crime. I was also thinking about the authentic shock of Thyestes' more outrageous sequences, the physical fear I felt during And Then Something Fell On My Head, the uncontrollable laughter induced by both The Pajama Men and Asher Treleaven, the simple fact that I could watch the Four Larks band for hours regardless of the plays they accompany, the giddy insanity of an Imperial Ice Stars show (which inevitably leave me whacking the arm of my plus one screaming LOOK AT WHAT THEY ARE DOING THERE!). There were lots of instances where an otherwise flawed production had a sudden point that bolted me to my seat; and, of course, there were shows that seemed to me so ill-conceived or badly produced that my response was equally passionate, in a negative sense. When I got home I had a quick flick through the catalogue of whatevers I saw in 2010 and soon had around 85 that provoked an immediate memory of something impactful that I took away from the experience.
The thing about Don Parties On is that I didn't find myself having any particular response at all. Which is fine. That happens all the time. The play's not really aimed at me, I suppose, and Williamson's style isn't my favourite kind of theatre. I liked Let the Sunshine more than most critics, but it wasn't on that little mental list of mine.
I don't begrudge Williamson his success, either. I think anyone who makes a living from writing plays deserves a nod. And while there's some validity to the argument that his prominence in main stage programming prevents new voices from occupying that space, it's also true that the financial success of plays such as Don Parties On allow companies to program “riskier” work from lesser known artists. This year's Lawler season is a direct result of the earnings of The Drowsy Chaperone. I sincerely hope that DPO's profits in some way assist smaller productions in MTC's calendar, which this year includes work by Robert Reid and Lally Katz, for egs.
Williamson has penned some duds, as he admits. So have Reid and Katz. So have Rayson and Murray-Smith and Romeril and Wright and any other Australian playwright who springs to mind. That's cool, too. I've written plenty of shit. I might be doing the same thing right now.
Look at this! I'm totally defending Williamson. There's more: even though I don't personally dig his plotting, characterisation, dialogue, handling of themes or choices of subject matter, I'm happy that there's a sizeable audience who do. I might sit there utterly bewildered by their laughter, even worrying that it's almost dangerously conservative, but that's not a strong argument against their right to laugh.
What really got to me about Don Parties On was the fact that so many people I know were eager to get along to the thing. People who only go to the theatre perhaps once a year wanted a ticket to opening night. The play is being treated as Event Theatre. Don Parties On isn't Event Theatre. It's a play that achieves its success by providing what its audience expects and wants. Again, that's not a bad thing. But to me it felt as if half of Melbourne was lining up to be the first to check out a new Starbucks, or catch the premiere episode of the new season of Packed to the Rafters, or snap up a Michael Buble album the second it hit the shelves.
Williamson is a franchise, and like many successful franchises he pleases a lot of people by sticking to a general formula and not serving up something completely unexpected. Obviously he tinkers with the recipe, but there's a certain safety his core audience can feel buying a ticket to one of his plays. The same can be said of all kinds of artists, including those that aim to offend or confuse. The shock of the new is itself an expectation some people bring to the theatre, but novelty isn't necessarily a more worthy goal than mildly predictable entertainment.
I'm not reviewing Don Parties On properly here, but rather the response it's produced. Before it had premiered, it had created the buzz of an major event, and since it opened it has been subjected to critical scrutiny from all corners. I've probably read a dozen long reviews, countless blog comments, responses from Williamson himself, even a two-part (!) essay in The Age by Julian Meyrick. I am bewildered. I can't think of another local play, great or rubbish, to provoke so many words from commentators, or to be given so much space in the public sphere. That a kind of average, middle-of-the-road play has managed such a feat is the one way in which Don Parties On moves me at all.
I left the play at interval. I knew that the piece itself would be granted plenty of attention by other reviewers and take up a lot of premium newspaper real estate that could otherwise be given to more interesting work that's less often discussed publicly. It didn't need my own shoulder-shrugging response, the very existence of which would only add to the sense that the play is something eventful. I didn't want to contribute to the wealth of words which have been dedicated to this play. And I just did.