Stream a theatre classic into your home to reflect on the role of the writer, and big city rivalry

Merchant Banker Malcolm, played by Gareth Yuen in David Williamson’s Emerald City. Photo: Brett Boardman/supplied.

Review: David Williamson’s Emerald City – On Demand, Riverside Theatres Digital. Reviewed by editor-at-large Gary Nunn.

★★★★

It’s been a while since any theatre lover has been able to see an actual play in Sydney. 

Live streams are the next best thing we have in lockdown. And, while in no way comparable, this was a real treat: an Australian classic beamed into my lounge room.

Riverside Theatres has teamed up with The Griffin to bring us this lockdown gem, filmed in 2014 – a revival of David Williamson’s 1987 play.

Colin (Mitchell Butel) is a screenwriter who has enjoyed enough success to give him the curse of many successful writers: a trifle of arrogance, neurosis and existential angst, knowing his glory days are possibly behind him.

He and his wife Kate (Lucy Bell), a book editor, move from Melbourne to Sydney. She’s trying to get Black Rage published – a book by an Aboriginal writer. Told “blacks don’t sell books,” she’s determined to get it across the line, even if only a few thousand people read it and it pricks their consciousness about racial inequality in Australia. Getting the important book into the world is, to Lucy, more important than whether a mass audience reads it. That is, until commercial success comes calling, and every value she has cherished comes under threat.

Lucy Bell (Kate), and Mitchell Butel (Colin), in David Williamson’s Emerald City. Photo: Brett Boardman/supplied.

Colin, knowing the chips are down, reluctantly teams up with Mike (Ben Winspear), a brash hack who networks like a demon but writes like a fool. Mike reluctantly agrees to work with Colin on a story so dull, nobody wants to make it: Coastwatches of World War II. After it, predictably, flops, they begin working together on more commercial stories, far less august than the output Colin previously prided himself on.

Through insightful monologues, quickfire dialogue and witty observations, the story asks questions about the writing industry and art. Why do artists create? Is the act of creation as important as the platform and audience who’ll consume it? Does expression trump viewership? Does writing for a bigger audience inevitably involve dumbing down? Does the pursuit of fame and fortune undermine artistic merit? Is it a writer’s job to reflect the world honestly no matter what the ratings, or to tailor their content into a more digestible form so it’s more likely to be read and watched?

These are the questions Colin and Kate ask themselves and each other in spirited, heated and borderline hostile exchanges; theirs is not blissful marriage. Both find themselves making such compromises, often contradicting their former ‘militant’ stances as ‘serious’ artists and publishers. Meanwhile, the throes of middle age push them both into parallel personal crises, the temptations of infidelity leading each character to make surprising choices. 

The stereotypes of Melbourne vs Sydney are also amusing: Melbourne characterised as neurotic, pretentious and arty; Sydney as vacuously money and harbour-view obsessed. Such exchanges give birth to Sydney’s nickname, the Emerald City. 

Melbourne vs Sydney stereotypes are explored to amusing effect in David Williamson’s Emerald City. Photo: supplied.

The handsomely debonair Mitchell Butel’s Colin is delivered with humour, flair and complexity: he’s both ethical and unethical, greedy and giving, superior and doubt-ridden, successful and on the skids. You don’t particularly like him yet somehow root for him – something only the union of an excellent writer and superlative actor can pull off. 

Similarly, Lucy Bell’s choices to deliver Kate’s hypocrisies and contradictions in a way that make her look flawed and human, rather than deluded and despicable, gives depth to the garrulous plot which charges at full-throttled pace. 

As Melbourne comes to personify highbrow at any cost, and Sydney the glittering seductions of laying down with dogs to produce something more ‘mainstream,’ those familiar with the quirks of either city will be tickled and triggered appropriately. 

What’s fascinating is to reflect on how little has changed since 1987.

David Williamson’s Emerald City – On Demand is available to stream until 10pm this Sunday, 12 September. For tickets ($12.50 to $15) and further information, visit https://riversideparramatta.com.au/show/emeraldcity-ondemand/.

Gary Nunn is the editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. He can be followed on Twitter at @GaryNunn1.