This year marks David Williamson’s 50th anniversary as a playwright – and his retirement. Though he announced that he was retiring in 2005 due to illness, he quickly began writing for the theatre again when his health returned. But this time he is adamant that his playwriting days are over.
He is saying farewell with two final new comedies – the darkly funny Family Values for Griffin Theatre Company, and Crunch Time, which opens at the Ensemble Theatre in February.
Andrew McFarlane and Belinda Giblin. Photograph © Brett Boardman
Family Values hits the stage like a theatrical tsunami; an invigorating blast of anger from Williamson about Australia’s brutal, inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. Though he give the characters plenty of opportunity to argue back and forth about the concerns he wants addressed – with their heated debate also taking in the gradual curtailment of press and public freedom in Australia under a slew of new security laws, the impact of the Murdoch press, religion, and same-sex marriage – the characters don’t feel like mere mouthpieces as has been the case in some of his plays.
The characterisations may not be particularly deep, but there is enough detail for us to believe in each of them as real people and for genuine drama to build. In fact, this is one of Williamson’s most rewarding plays for some time.
Roger (Andrew McFarlane), a well-known, retired federal judge, is turning 70 and he and his wife Sue (Belinda Giblin) have invited their three children to a family-only birthday party. Their children (all of whom have had failed marriages) are very different from each other. Michael (Jamie Oxenbould), a nerdy Lego fanatic who has never really felt he fitted in, has joined Hillsong and become a born-again Christian. Lisa (Danielle King) is a left-wing activist, while Emily (Ella Prince) works for Border Force. What’s more, Emily’s new partner Noeline (Bishanyia Vincent) – who has a habit of ordering her around – is the captain of a Border Force ship.
The play opens in trademark Williamson fashion with some very funny, witty banter between the conservative Roger and the more progressive Sue. But complications quickly arise when Lisa arrives with a young woman she calls Daniela, who turns out to be Saba Nazari (Sabryna Walters), an Iranian asylum seeker who has been in Australia for psychiatric treatment under the Medevac Bill (repealed by the Morrison government) after attempting suicide on Nauru. Despite two psychiatric assessments saying she is at high risk of attempting suicide again if she returns to Nauru, the Minister for Home Affairs, Gary Duckett, has insisted she be sent back there. She has therefore fled community detention, and Border Force is looking for her.
Lisa is hoping her parents will give her the keys to their holiday home so they can hide there, but before she can talk her father into agreeing – or at least find the keys – Emily and Noeline arrive.
Bishanyia Vincent, Sabrina Walters and Danielle King. Photograph © Brett Boardman
The play (on which Van Badham worked as a dramaturg) is well structured. Anyone who has suffered a tense family Christmas will relate to (and perhaps shudder) at the volatile bickering between the siblings. As the arguments build, Saba sits quietly to the side for the most part. Then, just when you think the shouting matches are about to do your head in, Saba finds herself the centre of attention. Suddenly it’s quiet and the rhythm of the piece changes as she gives an impassioned, moving monologue.
How Family Values plays out from there, you’ll have to go and see. Suffice to say, despite the cynicism and self-serving political propaganda behind Australia’s appalling treatment of asylum seekers, Williamson does end the play on a hopeful note.
Astutely directed by Lee Lewis, with set and design by Sophie Fletcher, the lively production features a strong cast. Giblin and McFarlane are particularly impressive as Roger and Sue, giving a warm, convincing portrayal of a married couple with much uniting them despite their somewhat different views. Walters is also very touching as Saba.
Williamson doesn’t beat about the bush in what he wants to say. Family Values wears its heart on its sleeve but it doesn’t feel shallow or simplistic. It’s not a perfect play but it is a satisfying drama that feels urgent and important. It’s exciting to see something fuelled by so much passion, and something so much about the immediate here and now. Williamson is asking us to look at what kind of country Australia has become, and for us to start showing more empathy, compassion and humanity in our dealings with people, as well as more vision and foresight in the way our politicians approach these challenging times.