October 01, 1997

Dead Reckonings

After the Ball
David Williamson

Queensland Theatre Company
Her Majesty’s

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

After the fiscal wars of Money and Friends and the gender wars of Brilliant Lies, after the media wars of Sanctuary and the culture wars of Dead White Males, after Heretic and Third World Blues. After all this comes After the Ball – and what might be called the family wars.

But David Williamson’s newest play is not about huge sundering feuds. Not your Capulet and Montague stuff, it is not even a long day’s journeys into night. Rather it is about one of those outwardly orderly, apparently placid families who are perpetually involved in attempted coups and border skirmishes which smoulder but never really flare. And, as it turns out, never really extinguish either. After the Ball x-rays all those fractures which heal crooked, those assumptions and presuppositions upon which whole lifetimes are misconstrued.

I don’t know how much of a drame a clef After the Ball is supposed to be and I don’t really want or need to know. Certainly it is said to have been triggered by the death of the playwright’s mother. But any personal -let alone autobiographical- elements are soon pushed to one side in what amounts to a thirty year cavalcade of change in Australian life, changes as seen through the eyes of the two generations of the McCrae family and particularly as they affect the post-war generation from which David Williamson himself comes – and which he has chronicled so diligently throughout his theatrical life.

I don’t know whether the scale of Williamson’s task got away with him or whether the personal intersections eventually became too difficult to negotiate but After the Ball, while promising much, delivers only a formulaic little. Taking as its subject the bourgeois family, it places itself in a narrative which begins with Ibsen and Strindberg, continues with O’Neill and Miller and, in this country, has been memorably represented by Seymour and McKenna, and most recently Nick Enright’s Good Works. But in the hands of David Williamson these questions end up being an uneasy mix of My Name’s McGooley and a cartoon history of the past quarter century.

The play opens with a death bed. Kate McCrae is in hospital. I’ll be with your father again soon, she rasps, whether he likes it or not. Her daughter Judy is there and they are waiting for brother Stephen to arrive from the airport. He now lives in France with his wife and young children. He makes films – or, as it turns out, they are mostly commercials, like the cancer stick ad he is about to make in the Philippines.

Williamson has again constructed a strong frame for his drama. Stephen and Judy reflect two views of postwar Australia – his the expatriate, hers the strongly nationalist. They also mirror the frustrations and rivalries of their parents. Ron and Kate, raising kids in the forties and fifties, are curdled with repressed hopes and resentments. Ron doesn’t like his job at the bank and fears the migrant invasion. Kate’s ambitions are covert and distort into petty wars with tennis clubs and drama groups.

Using old family photos as a cue, After the Ball is a series of flashbacks. To 1963 where Ron and Kate are having a blue. To 1965 and Kate, poisoning wells at the tennis club. To 1967 and Stephen dropping out of medicine to become a filmmaker.There are other vignettes- Stephen back from OS, bailed out by the folks. Stephen in grief at the Whitlam sacking, Stephen’s distrastrous return with his new French wife, Stephen’s arrival in 1988 for the parents’ golden wedding.

Director Robyn Nevin has opted for a broad brush for this Queensland Theatre Company production while designer Bill Haycock has come up with a tall, dull grey facade, nominally decked out as a retirement apartment, which after portentous announcement by projections indicating flashback dates, rolls back to reveal a series of vignettes at centre stage. Some, like the family scenes featuring Max Gillies as Ron, work well. Others, like the rehearsal scene from the Glen Huntley Drama Society are tired – and gratuitous-set pieces which pitch so far into farce that Kate McCrae becomes the artist’s portrait of the young Edna Everage.

This uneasy blend of retro-comedy and serious enquiry keeps falling into stalemate. From the very first scene the torrent of one-liners about retirement villages collides with any establishment dialogue between Stephen and Judy. As a result Bille Brown and Sue Jones never get far in consolidating a convincing portrayal of the brother sister relationship. Brown is suitably blustery as Stephen but, let down by the sentimentality of Wiliamson’s lines, is unconvincing at the death scene. Jones is shrill and repetitive as Judy – in part because Williamson’s perspective of the sister is shrill and repetitive.

Max Gillies fares better as Ron because, again, Williamson has given the best lines to an old Kokoda codger who may be out of step with the present but stands for Good Values all the same. Yes, he’s an isolationist old racist but he’s a dinkum Aussie all the same. Ron is Sandy Stone, Ted Bullpit and every Skippy grandad at a barbeque. Gillies, however, skilled in the presentation of the humours, captures a stock type with considerable gravity.

Carol Burns has the more difficult task of rescuing an ambivalent characterisation from caricature. Williamson is right that the Australian family dynamic has as often as not been in the hands of powerless but ambitious women. But in his enthusiastic elaboration of the problem Kate McCrae is forced to mean too many things and not enough. Despite Carol Burns’ considerable energies the role does not focus psychologically. Kate McCrae is a a cluster of types and representations, a vehicle for satire and social comment , like Barry Humphries’ Edna. But she has no reality as far as the emotional narrative is concerned. Her failures- or unwillingness- to connect to her husband and children remain unexamined or cryptic and so, when Stephen cries into his beard at the artist his mother might have been, it is almost laughable.

The performances all suffer for this lack of centre. Claire Cummings and Maureen Donahue lay it on thick as the perpetual bridesmaids but have less reality than Marge Simpson’s sisters. And Anthony Weigh is only irritating as the sulky, narcissisitic young Stephen. This is in part, of course, the playwright’s intention but it also has the effect of discrediting the causes and viewpoint Stephen espouses. Obviously, everything from Vietnam to the Whitlam sacking can now be sheeted back to feckless fathers and bitch mothers.

After the Ball is a great disappointment. In moving close-in to the mid-century Australian family as viewed forty years on David Williamson created great possibilities. But his scope is too ambitious- and looks at externals when it should have moved inward. Finally, we don’t believe this family and its photographs. They are images from advertising and demographic surveys, recycled from pop histories and satire, and self-serving fictions about the “fifties’ and “sixties”. This is the way the past is represented on TV. This, sadly, is neither the Lucky, nor the Clever, nor the Sunburnt country. This is McKingswood Country.

The Adelaide Review, No.169, October 1997 , p.35

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