Lee Lewis has captured on her stage the spirit of Sydney: the splashy, bright Ken Done portrait that dominates the set, doubling as a harbour view; the standing at the fringes of the cocktail event; the tenuous, potentially regrettable connections you make, and that moment when ambivalence turns to conviction, no matter your reservations. Lee Lewis is the director behind Griffin’s take on David Williamson’s Emerald City, and she is beyond the right person to helm this play.
First staged three decades ago, Emerald City is the story of Colin (Mitchell Butel), a filmmaker with a twist of high-art pretension, who moves with his wife Kate (Lucy Bell) from Melbourne to Sydney to further explore his career. She’s derisive of the city at the first (it’s all flash and no culture), but Colin is more hopeful, romanticising the views and the sights and the sense of untapped potential.
When Colin meets Mike (Ben Winspear) at an industry party and gets schmoozed into collaborating with him (he’s a hack with dollar signs in his eyes), all those lofty ‘Melburnian’ ideals of art over commercialisation become more flexible. Would you sell out for a harbour view? Even Kate isn’t immune to the perks that come with mainstream success amidst all her noble intentions, like to get published what she thinks is an important book by an indigenous author.
Lewis has a certain no-bullshit policy when it comes to this play: she’s getting to the bones of it by shooting straight through it. This is a not-bad play that is best in the shallow end, because it doesn’t really dig deep – just tosses out some zingers and structures a story that is solid – and Lewis manages to make sure it doesn’t feel shallow. Instead, it’s light and breezy. She lets audiences laugh with that suppressed groan of recognition of ‘Sydneysider’ behaviour, and knows not to let the hammer fall too harshly on the home team.
This perfectly okay play (enjoyable, easy to follow, lacking bite) is elevated by its actors. In particular, Mitchell Butel is a gift in the leading role of Colin; he performs with a refreshing sense of fully-realised character. Colin comes to life in Butel’s flourishes in his hands, his looks, his lines he delivers as throwaways with a hint of embarrassment or scorn, or both. Bell too comfortably inhabits her character Kate, presenting a marriage along with Butel that has its own unconscious language of physicality: certain configurations on a couch that the couple fall into, a sense of history and ease in something as simple as folding items from a laundry basket. It’s these details that you delight in and count on to make something shine.
Winspear stepped into the role of Mike at seemingly the last minute and that he inhabits the role as easily as he does is so impressive; the evolution (or disintegration) of his body language in particular is informed and clever.
Set in the eighties, because no matter how much Sydney still has an image issue and Melbourne still thinks they’re the culture capital of the country, this show is so married to its time period, the telegraphs to the period were so effective because they strove for simplicity and authenticity rather than parody. The costumes (by Sophie Fletcher) are smartly-observed and don’t feel like costumes, which is a relief. Music by Kelly Ryal was probably the most delightful nod to the time period, and the most successful at creating a sense of time and mood; the stings transitioning between scenes lifted the action to a better place.
This is how you produce a play that is not a deep rumination on anything, and doesn’t really have reams of things to say: you let it say what it does say without getting in the way of it, and you employ all the elements of theatre at your disposal to make it be the best thing it can be. If this kind of lightly entertaining, ubiquitously Williamson style of theatre is your thing, you’ll love this – it’s the best Williamson out of the year of Williamsons in Sydney – and even if it’s not your thing, you’ll still enjoy it.