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Retired, maybe, but David Williamson admits he sometimes can't stop himself

Culture

For decades he has been the man who has held a mirror up to Australian society, and even after his retirement David Williamson just can’t help himself, writes Nance Haxton.

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Thankfully for David Williamson fans, reports of the end of the Australian theatrical legend’s writing career have been greatly exaggerated.

The Noosa-based playwright is revelling in Queensland Theatre’s restaging of one of his more recent creations – Family Values – as the grand opening to its 2023 season, with the playwright’s renowned acerbic wit finally getting its moment in the Queensland sun after Covid suspended the play’s first run.

The warmth shown by audiences so far for Williamson’s biting and often hilarious insights into Australian quirks, has reinvigorated his desire to keep the pen handy, with the news sure to come as a great relief to many after reports that Williamson had retired.

“I have a lot of creative energy still up there that I was surprised by, so hopefully I’ll be around for a little while longer,” Williamson said.

“I have been writing I have to admit Nance. I’d been happily relaxed for a while, I had some ideas and I said `this is stupid’.

“I’ve been dabbling since I announced my retirement, but I guess that’s what happens. You’re quite reconciled and happy until a good idea comes along and a writer just can’t help themselves and says, `oh, that’s too good to let pass.’

He’s thrilled with this production of Family Values, directed by long-time collaborator and Queensland Theatre Artistic Director Lee Lewis.

“I trust Lee,” Williamson said. “Lee did this (Family Values) with Griffin Theatre Company some years back and did a terrific production and so I’m so glad I was able to bring it here too, which was terrific.”

Set over the course of an evening, Family Values shows the hilarious, but very real conflict that arises from differing beliefs and opinions coming together under one roof.

As Roger, a retired judge, played by Peter Kowitz (The Floating World, Death of a Salesman) and his wife Sue, played by Andrea Moor (Let The Sunshine, Switzerland) gather their family for his birthday celebration, they want nothing more than a pleasant evening with loved ones. But when their three grown children show up with unexpected guests and emotional baggage in tow, the night becomes anything but peaceful.

“This is a play that brings people who would otherwise avoid each other together, purely because they’re related. What ensues is dramatic, but also funny – without that the situation would be unbearable,” he said.

“The family is in a sense the seat of some of the most intense drama that we as humans experience. There is drama everywhere.

“There’s drama because relationships are so strong and so intense, it’s no wonder. And the majority of the greatest plays in Greek drama history have centred around family and their beliefs.

“So having five kids and 14 grandkids for family has been very important in my life dynamics as the family are all around.”

The political conversations in Family Values are rich fodder for Williamson’s skills, where he deftly shows the humour in charged conversations, capturing the irony in the heat of the moment.

“This play was sparked by our rather brutal treatment of refugees, genuine refugees. And it was sort of epitomised by the Biloela family who were forced to lead a life in limbo,” he said.

“It was all ridiculous and it was all for cheap political points.

“And I wondered what would happen in a normal Australian family – one that tended to be a little on the conservative side, particularly the father of the family who was a federal court judge, just retired, who upheld the law all his life, what would happen if he was confronted with his activist daughter demanding the keys to his holiday house. So the daughter who’s an activist could hide a refugee on the run from border force.

“And what if this happened right on the 70th birthday where the family were gathered.

“There is a lot of black humour when reason goes out the window and ideology takes over it. It’s sad, but it also can be very blackly funny and in this family there’s a lot of laughter although it’s dealing with serious family risks and serious social issues, is it’s essentially the study of a family in motion – a very creaky motion.”

The admiration Williamson has for Lewis’s work is shared, with Lee Lewis amazed at how pertinent the play’s themes are post-pandemic.

“Oh, look, David will always be in the sun for me,” Lewis said. “It’s a real privilege for me to actually get to work with him.

“It’s actually wonderful to get to make it again. I think because there’s a whole new group of actors coming to the story with a whole new fresh perspective.

“Some things obviously are still very, very current and some tensions in families will never change. The comedy is still absolutely firing.

“I’m learning so much and I’m learning a lot more about David’s writing, actually. How robust it is.”

She said the joy of Williamson’s writing is shared between the actors and the audience, as it drives the audience to question their own opinions and beliefs with humour and grace.

“One of his strengths, is that any actor can take it and make it alive and their own. The language that he gives to actors allows them to bend it to their new character,” she said.

“It is actually a great way to start the year. And it’s been real really funny how many people have been saying, “Oh, the David Williamson, when’s that starting?” He’s just such a light for audiences.

“It’s a really surprising play. If you’re an eldest, if you’re a middle child, if you’re the youngest, you’re going to find a voice in this play.

“This play packs a really good punch… I think people will be really surprised at how powerful David can be when he’s en pointe.”

Following successful runs in Sydney and Canberra, Family Values plays at Queensland Theatre’s Bille Brown Theatre until Saturday February 18.

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