In A Conversation David Williamson unleashes a cocktail of powerful emotions pain, shame, hate, grief and anger and he also makes us laugh occasionally. The publicity blurb and program give little away about the plot and I intend to do likewise. It’s enough to say that the play is built around community conferencing. Jack (Peter Feeney) is a facilitator who brings together the parents of a murder and rape victim; the mother, uncle, sister and brother of her killer; and the psychiatrist most familiar with the case eight people for the eight pink chairs that greet us on a stark and alienating stage. br>
The drama occurs against the backdrop that is every parent’s worst nightmare the violent, senseless death of a child. It happens in real time and for an hour and 35 minutes you are immersed and totally absorbed in the play. Be prepared to shed a tear or two because red eyes and sniffles are part and parcel of a very moving and enthralling experience. This is theatre at its most relevant, tackling tough issues in a robust and creative way. A Conversation is harrowing, but surprisingly not depressing. It touches a wellspring of emotion, through a cast of amazingly real people. They are our aunts, cousins and workmates. They are vulnerable, volatile and confused as we would be in their place.
The cast is quite superb. Sally McKenzie, playing Barbara Milsom, the mother of the murdered girl, is brilliant in the role and absolutely convincing. Carol Burns as Coral Williams, the mother of our killer is brilliant in her role and absolutely convincing. Kevin Hides, playing Derek Milsom, the father of the murdered girl, is brilliant and so it goes through the entire cast (the others are Carita Farrer, Marc Richards, Rebecca Murphy, Michael Forde and Peter Feeney).
Director Jean-Marc Russ has given us a minimalist set, as befits a conferencing room. An interesting feature is an opaque window that blurs the passing traffic. It helps create a strong contrast between the tensions and starkly lit personal dramas within the room and an outside, out-of-focus world that little concerns itself with our players’ grief, further extenuating their isolation. The set changes subtly as the play unfolds, increasing the sense of intimacy. The lighting too is masterful. Managed by a deft hand, you hardly notice its mood swings.
Good as our cast is, the real star of this production is off-stage though not far from the limelight. It is David Williamson. This is his play. He is pictured on the front cover of the program. The play is promoted under has name. David Williamson is a bankable commodity, author as celebrity. For more than three decades Williamson has been a standard bearer for Australian theatre, a living treasure who delights in revealing Australians to Australians. In A Conversation he has tackled a difficult subject. He lays bare the plight of those people most intimately touched by tragedy, and gives fresh insights to the “nature or nurture” debate about the development of criminals. Is our killer “born bad”? Is it “in the blood”? or is it more complex than that? Coral Williams instinctively understands. “There was another side to my boy,” she says.
Williamson uses humour to inject some relief and toning into a heavy, serious subject. It eases the tension. We laugh on cue, perhaps a little too loudly, because we need to laugh, we yearn to laugh. David Williamson gives the players meaty roles and fine words. At the end of the day though, it’s the troops in the footlights who have to deliver the lines, interact with each other and create a rapport with the audience. There are eight seats but nine people in this community conference. Though you don’t have a line to speak or a cue to make, you’re as integral to the play as any member of the cast.
This is reality.
It is obvious that I’m quite taken with the production, so much so, that if you have the chance for only one theatrical experience this year, see A Conversation. You won’t be disappointed.