More than 25 years after “Don’s Party,” David Williamson’s celebrated examination of the Australian Labor Party’s thwarted 1969 attempt to gain office , the scribe returns to politics with “The Great Man,” delivering a stinging attack on the apparent failures of both the left and right.
Williamson’s 25th play depicts five colleagues of the recently deceased Jack Barclay, a (fictional) minister in the 1972-’75 Oz Labor government of Gough Whitlam, who gather to bicker with Barclay’s second wife Fleur (Genevieve Picot) over the speeches they will deliver at the funeral. Weighing in against Fleur’s attempts to airbrush the memory of the womanizing Barclay are his idealistic and angst-ridden teenage son Adam (Toby Schmitz); Barclay’s opportunistic former adviser turned parliamentarian Rhys (Gary Day); Tegan (Vivenne Walshe), an ambitious journalist who is later labeled a “feminist shark”; Eileen, his hilariously embittered and cynical first wife, played with scene-stealing gusto by Shirley Cameron; and Terry (Max Cullen), a talentless painter who is determined to expose the group’s embarrassing social excesses of the 1970s.
Under the gaze of Terry’s awful portrait of Barclay, the characters demolish each other and the deceased’s memory as political agendas are pursued and old scores settled. The revelations deriving from each party’s competing agendas provide a lively platform to examine the misty nostalgia for the 1970s, which the play implies is a collective construct of a society now trapped in the amoral embrace of globalism. Play laments society’s increasing competitiveness and individualism and loss of community and shared ideals.
Helmer Robyn Nevin directs at a crackling pace, keeping tension high, with skilled actors delivering crisp one-liners in a mostly successful attempt to paper over play’s lack of engaging or substantive character development. There’s no denying that Williamson’s brutally unapologetic cynicism is funny, but piece lacks finesse and depth. The characters feel like simple caricatures designed purely to prove a point, while outcomes are somewhat predictable and not entirely convincing.
That said, with some deft revisions, piece could travel to Europe, where one suspects the subject matter might click on a continent where socialist ideals are increasingly under pressure from the brave new world of globalization. In the ultimate endorsement, the real-life Whitlam has said the play “should be compulsory viewing for all politicians.”