There has been much disquiet about Don Parties On – David Williamson’s sequel to Don’s Party, especially from Jason Whittaker and and Alison Croggon in their reviews. Having seen it on March 4 at the Sydney Theatre, I can see why they would have a problem with the play. It does feature a lot of clunky dialogue, cliches, repetition, too many references to the original play, flat spots and seems to have a myopic view of the world outside Mr. Williamson’s window. Their problem dovetails, though, with the reason it is popular – that is because it is play suited to a specific demographic, in much the same way as any Agatha Christie or Jodi Picoult novel is written for a particular audience. And that demographic does not include people under the age of 50. It is a play that could be taken to symbolise a lot of what is wrong with Australian theatre – that it is a museum piece for older people to frequent.
I was in a community theatre production of Don’s Party last year, playing a character that didn’t make it into the sequel, except in repeated references to the original play. That is why I was there, with a group of young actors who had given a great deal of energy, humanity and warmth to characters who maybe didn’t deserve it. It is from that perspective that I saw the sequel.
One element from the original I liked was the humanity that the characters had – it was also evident at times in this version. For this reason, I was taken with the start of the play, where we got a chance to see where Don and Kath had gone in their relationship. It was also where we saw Mal taking on the characteristics of Mac from the original – on his own, a bit warmer, more reflective, less arrogant. This was his character note throughout the play, even to the extent of being the one sitting with Don at the end, reflecting on how good things were. I am sure many younger audiences would have been bored by the opening, in that there was a little too much expositionary reference to the original play, as well as many pauses and repetitions. However, it did feel like a real party, where there was air around the words and conversations – something Williamson achieved at times in the original.
The cartoon character nature of Cooley is another element kept from the original. The arrival of Cooley, which was an explosive, shocking event in the original (because of his expletive) was also fairly explosive in this version, mainly because of Frankie J. Holden’s remarkable evocation of what Shane Warne would look like in 20+ years. Cooley’s prop of the oxygen tank also brought that element of the cartoon into the play. The conversion of him to Liberal Party mouthpiece wasn’t difficult and as a result his one liners and caricature style suited Williamson’s purpose of showing the hollow nature of the Liberal campaign.
The political conversations, though, were patchy – sometimes insightful when they were responding to the events of the night – but often regressed into broad brush statements about the idea free nature of both sides of the 2010 campaign. It was telling that Maxine McKew’s concession interview formed the cornerstone of the latter discussion – her words were more useful as commentary than the lines composed by Williamson. Perhaps that was his intention – to show how the people who follow politics are fond of broad generalisations, rather than detailed analysis. It was good, however, that this time around Kath was cast into the role of apologist for the ALP risk averse style, rather than as the housewife that doesn’t comment on politics.
The first act, however, had two major flaws for me – the age of Bella and the overly melodramatic life of Jenny. It was not a good look to have Mal and Cooley leering at a teenager still watching Twilight films. Williamson made a mistake with her age, in that an older character would have articulated political views better, have more appropriate interactions with the men. If Williamson wanted a child’s reaction to their father’s affairs, then he could have easily cast a younger sister or brother. Or even show that 20 year olds can be vulnerable as well. It was an uneasy decision he came to.
The other flaw was Jenny. The character in the original was sarcastic, sour and funny – as Jenny was in Act Two of the sequel. In Act One, though, her “revelation” and professed deep depression due to the way she was portrayed in a novel was too much like soap opera, or an attempt to have Jenny be a “symbol” of her age. It really did spoil Act One for me, when she talked of deep depression but then didn’t snap back with a sardonic, dark joke at Don’s expense. After all, that is what Don is for – a punching bag.
Act Two saw Williamson do what he achieved with Act Two of Don’s Party – tie things up, throw in some farce and have tighter action. I thought this was much more successful and funnier. The injection of the cartoonish Roberta (she of the undefinable accent) was funny – and not a bit realistic. I found the character of Richard to be the same. To me, he was a caricature 42 year old, not a real one, showing Williamson’s cluelessness about any character under the age of 50. However, the character of Richard wasn’t funny because Williamson was trying to be serious with him. He should have gone the cartoon with him as well.
In the end, it was still an interesting piece of theatre that did have some pithy moments, an exploration of the times between 1969 and today and I particularly liked what Kath brought to the play – like in the original, I believe she was the best character – she had the most emotional depth. I also liked the addition of Helen as a counterweight to Cooley’s cartoon ways and her cool representation of the Blue/Green patrician seeking to help asylum seekers. That was smart work.
As for the critics who have had their knives out – I didn’t think it was as dire as they say. The reality is that there have been many, many better plays than this and people already know there are better playwrights than Williamson. Critics who target this are shooting fish in a barrel – it’s like criticising teenagers for liking Twilight films. The audience were mostly baby boomers. They liked the jokes written especially for them about young people and politics. They liked the domestic politics, the stories of affairs, the wife swapping tales. It was a play for them, a piece of nostalgia. Therefore, Don Parties On is not a great piece of theatre that summarises the human condition, nor a play that addresses what it is to be Australian. It’s an aging man making comments to similarly aging people, about a place that neither the playwright nor audience quite understand.