News Store
Important notice to all NewStore users. The NewsStore service is now free! Please click here for more information. Help

The Age

Dons party revisited

Author: Joyce Morgan
Date: 31/12/2010
Words: 1098
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: A2
Page: 13
David Williamson and Garry McDonald talk to Joyce Morgan about politics,

mateship and the sequel to the play that defined their generation.

TO HIS mates from his undergraduate years, playwright David Williamson is still known by the moniker he acquired as a young mechanical engineering student: Lofty. He even signs his emails to them that way.

Actor Garry McDonald knows too how the past lives on. More than three decades after his comic creation Norman Gunston stood shiny-suited on the steps of Parliament House on the day Gough Whitlam was dismissed, McDonald's satirical stunt still provokes strong reactions. At a friend's book launch recently, a man approached McDonald, bilious with rage.

"He said to me, 'How could you have done that in 1975? How could you have made fun of Gough Whitlam when he was sacked?"' says McDonald.

Williamson and McDonald are seated on a battered rehearsal room sofa. Nearby, a table is littered with empty wine bottles. These are stage props rather than the aftermath of a big night. McDonald is about to star in Don Parties On, a sequel to Don's Party, the play that helped launch Williamson's career. The original was set on election night 1969 as a youthful Don, his mates and long-suffering women watched as their hopes for an anticipated Gough Whitlam Labor victory were dashed and a Liberal government returned.

Don Parties On sees Don (Garry McDonald) and his old friends  now well past their prime  reunited at his place for another election party, on the evening of August 21, 2010.

Williamson began writing the play long before the political events of that night provided the cliff-hanger ending.

"I had been thinking how different the political and social landscape was this election from 1969," says Williamson. "Since 1969 a whole new elephant has grown and grown and grown in the room. It's called resource depletion and the environment . . . But no political party except the Greens wants a bar of it because they will lose votes in the western suburbs if electricity prices go up. It is not just Australia, the whole world has found it too hot to handle."

As Williamson gets on a roll about the environment  citing figures about rising temperatures, holding forth on the failure of Copenhagen and Cancun  McDonald interjects.

"It sounds like a good comedy," McDonald says. "It's actually very funny."

Don Parties On is vintage Williamson. The playwright taps the national psyche, especially middle-class anxiety, and blends broader political concerns with fractious social interaction.

"I love writing these ongoing social laboratory plays where you put the people on stage, they have to co-exist socially with each other for a couple of hours  like The Club, The Department and Don's Party. It is a form of writing I love because it does plug into that abiding interest of mine in social manipulation," says Williamson.

In his new play, co-produced by Melbourne Theatre Company and Rachel Healy & Associates, the state of the environment is intertwined with the state of male friendship.

"I wanted to explore the real ambivalence in male friendship. Males in particular are status obsessed, they're always comparing their status in life with other males," says Williamson.

Any change there since 1969? Both men laugh uneasily.

The Australia so memorably portrayed in Don's Party was as conservative as it was crude. The play's language so shocked one purse-lipped British critic that he declared "Australia need take no further steps to reduce immigration, since no decent person could possibly want to live there".

Much has changed since  male competitiveness aside  not least the lives of women. When Don's Party was revived a few years ago, McDonald suspects it was not the language that shocked.

"I think the young actresses playing all those roles found it difficult to believe it was like that, that women were treated that way," says McDonald.

But most obviously what has changed is that when Don's Party was first produced at Melbourne's Pram Factory 40 years ago this year, the baby-boomers had their lives and dreams ahead of them. It was written long before Williamson became Australia's most successful playwright or McDonald created Gunston.

"We were all thinking how will our life turn out? Will our dreams be realised? Will we become what we hope we will," says Williamson. "I have always been fascinated by the Michael Apted series of 7 Up. I love to see what happens to people as the years go on. The fascination of Don Parties On is that they all know how they turned out and a lot of it isn't pretty."

So what has happened to Don and his mates? Without giving too much away, Don is now a retired school counsellor and unsuccessful novelist still married to Kath and living in the same Melbourne house. As the mates gather  the loudmouthed Cooley included  some have changed partners and voting habits. And 40 years on, a younger generation  in the shape of Don's Generation Y granddaughter Belle  blames the baby boomers for the planet's mess.

"The play is lovely about ageing, about how men still fool themselves," says McDonald. "There's some unresolved (romantic) businesses as far as Don is concerned. Everyone except Don has moved on."

McDonald has had a long association with Williamson's plays, appearing in After the Ball, Amigos, Emerald City and Don's Party (he played Mal in a 1984 production).

So too has actress Diane Craig, McDonald's wife, who will also appear in Don Parties On. Indeed the production has the makings of its own reunion party. It is directed by Robyn Nevin, who has directed many of his plays, including After the Ball, Corporate Vibes and The Great Man, and is designed by Dale Ferguson, who has updated his set design from the 2007 production of Don's Party for the Melbourne Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company production  but only to the 1980s: by 2010, Don's lifestyle is as dated as his outlook.

If Williamson's gift is to take the nation's temperature, McDonald's is his impeccable timing. Just as he happened to be in Canberra on the day of Whitlam's dismissal, he was performing in Taree when the town's newly elected federal MP, Rob Oakeshott, rattled on for 17 minutes before revealing he would go with Labor. McDonald was acutely aware that many in the electorate and the audience that night wanted Oakeshott to back the Coalition.

It may yet happen, says Williamson. The playwright is convinced the independents have yet to play their full hand.

"They'll wait until Labor stuffs something up 18 months down the track and they'll suddenly switch and change the government," says Williamson. "They'll switch and they'll be heroes in their electorate and get re-elected."

Stay tuned for election night, the sequel.

Don Parties On is at The Arts Centre, Playhouse, Melbourne, from January 8.

 
Back  Back to Search Results
 

Advertise with Us | Fairfax Digital Privacy Policy | Conditions of Use | Member Agreement
© 2014 Fairfax Digital Australia & New Zealand Ltd.