Don's Party revisited

julian_thumbDr Julian Meyrick


This opinion piece first appeared in the National Times on 7 February 2011.

THE Roman legion comprised three lines of infantry. At the front were the hastati, young bloods, eager if unproven. Behind were the older principes, who did more of the fighting. And behind them stood the veterans, the triari, the most experienced troops. The success of the legion depended not only on the quality of individual soldiers but the degree of co-operation between them.

Scan any MTC opening night and you find these three generations present. At David Williamson's Don Parties On, they were on stage as well. Demographic division is basic to the play's action, with friction between grandparents, parents and children providing the ironic fugue on the original Don's Party four decades before.

DPO attracted the usual Williamson critical barrage. The play was thumped for lacking life, imagination, wit and challenge. The ''shock of recognition'' that wowed audiences in 1971 has become a weary wave of dismissal. But this reaction is neither true nor fair. DPO is a cogent, if flawed, piece of craft.

In reviving his unholy priapic triumvirate - Don, Mal and Cooley - Williamson transposes them into a convincing 21st century register. The women are still skin-thin, but there is enough to keep the piece ticking over and slate its message home.

''The world is divided between those who believe something terrible is happening to our planet,'' Don lectures Mal, ''and those who are determined to party on.''

At the end of their lives there isn't much the triari can do but shake their heads, wax lyrical about lost youth and thank God for rising house prices. Yet they do so with irrepressible tumescence and a refreshing absence of self-pity.

Comedy of manners is a brittle form. Apparently driven by punchline dialogue, it relies on an unspoken contract of audience sympathy to make its characters accessible. Without this, it dissolves into component parts: one-liners, roll-on/roll-off cameos, the odd moral comment.

Switches in allegiance are as ineffable as they are devastating. One day we wake to discover times have changed. The drama we used to love, we love no longer. Feeling not just an absolute loss but that somehow these plays should still be good, we double-up the rhetoric of disappointment. The title Paul McGillick bestowed on Williamson, ''storyteller to his tribe'', is taken back amid catcalls and derision.

Thus we miss what DPO means historically. True, the play is skewed. Don's son Richard and his ''other woman'' Roberta are whiny Gen X-ers, his granddaughter Belle a plastic projection of all his friends once hoped they stood for. Despite this, the play is a signing-off more complete than any media pronouncement. An age of Australian drama that started in the late 1960s is drawing to a close and an urgent question raises its head: what will happen next? With Williamson booed off the stage, who will lead the drama of the next half-century?

Such is the numbing pace of modern life, it comes as a shock to realise we will soon face a stark choice: do we want large-scale repertory theatre in our lives or not? If we do, we need to remind ourselves of what it has to offer and of our responsibilities. Understanding the role of a playwright like Williamson is a good example. At the end of the day, it's not just about taste but about trust. Major arts organisations rely on regular infusions of trust from people who may not like, or even see their work, yet believe it provides a benefit. How is this so?

Australian repertory theatre is a variant of Edwardian iconoclast George Bernard Shaw's Royal Court experiment 100 years ago. This was a feisty challenge to London's commercial theatre in a country lacking a tradition of significant court patronage. Key to its success was subscription selling. Patrons bought tickets ahead of time, allowing risks to be taken: shorter seasons, ensemble casts, local plays, a more diverse program.

Its successors are companies such as the Bristol Old Vic and the Royal National Theatre. Under Nick Hytner, the RNT has made significant efforts to broaden its appeal, not as an exercise in ''branding'' but as a way of extending its civic reach - of making the company part of the communal imagination.

MTC is nearly 60 years old. As our oldest professional repertory, it has been part of the landscape for as long as anyone cares to remember. Can we picture life without it? Should we even try?

Once before, MTC faced the challenge of extreme makeover. In 1987, John Sumner, its founding director, stepped down after 34 years. Roger Hodgman, who took over, was faced with a new building, an ageing subscriber base and an industry that viewed everything he did with suspicion. He responded with a string of co-productions with smaller theatres and a reform of its departments. He laid the foundations for what Simon Phillips has brilliantly brought to fruit these past 12 years. And a major driver of this was extending subscription to a new-age cohort of theatre patrons.

''Your generation is the greediest, most materialistic, most environmentally destructive in the history of the world,'' Belle flings at Don. Maybe. Say what you will about baby boomers, but they do buy theatre tickets.

Julian Meyrick was Associate Director at MTC, 2002-07. A La Trobe Research Fellow, he is currently a Visiting Professor at the University at Buffalo.