By David Williamson
Yes, Virginia, there are people in the corporate world as slimy, back-stabbing, dishonest, amoral and positively evil as Jake in this play, and somewhere along the line you’re going to meet at least one of them, no matter what your workplace.
If only we could avoid them, if only the world of small business could manage without them, if only there were some justice so that low-lifes like Jake could get their just reward. But it seems that slippery corruption rules the corporate world, as we know only too well in Australia at the moment.
Operator is one of David Williamson’s best plays of the last few years, for he sets up the situation nicely in the first act, makes sure we are firmly on the side of the good guys and that we hate the villain, then keeps us dangling until the last five minutes with an answer to the “will he/won’t he?” question never clear-cut. I’m not going to reveal the ending, because it’s what gives the play its strength, but it’s no moral cop-out and, although there are tears before bedtime, some of them get dried, and some people manage to sleep peacefully, even if they’re not the ones you expect.
The play has had so much pre-publicity that most people already know the scenario, but for those who don’t, it’s set in a small manufacturing business that makes exercise machines of various kinds. The CEO, Douglas, is played by Chris Betts as the kind of bluff bullying bastard (I’m tempted to use capital letters because, he, like all the other characters, is an archetype, and more about that later) we love to hate. Betts has the time of his life here, and he gets this obnoxious boss down pat – always with an opinion but never willing to listen to anyone else, never following his own advice, unable to see through the slick veneer that masks the evil intentions of the new employer, Jake.
At first I wasn’t sure that Bryan Probets could overcome his own essential niceness to play the villain, but he soon warms to the task, and although personally I would have liked him to be a bit smarmier on the surface, he makes a great transformation to the damned smiling villain, almost Iago-like in his hatred of his superior. Proberts’ wild hair is always a useful stage prop, and as he begins to show his inner vileness, it stood more and more on end (lots of hair gel, he admitted later) until he looked like a Uriah Heep, if I may change the literary reference.
The play begins with Paul Bishop as Alex, amiable 2-i-c of the firm, mucking around in his plant nursery and being at once narrator and direct participant in the narrative. It’s an economic way of transmitting background information, rather like a Shakespearian Chorus (why do these classical comparisons keep springing to mind?), and if the narrator doesn’t always morph smoothly into the participant role, I personally can forgive Bishop (whom it’s great to have back in Brisbane after ten years away) almost anything because of his steady performance, which rarely goes over the top, as some of the others have a tendency to do.
I saw the show on opening night when the Great Playwright was in the audience, and whether this was an inhibiting factor, or whether there had only been two previews for the cast to get used to audience reaction, or whether it was because of the direction, there was a tendency to overplay, to teeter on the edge of caricature, to miss the subtlety that seems to be in the script. I don’t see this as a major issue because Operator is, like much of Williamson’s later work, very much a morality play, but it can become a distancing device, almost Brechtian in its effect, which sets up an uncomfortable tension between matter and manner.
The three women in the cast did more of this over-playing than the men. Liz Buchanan as Francine, PA to the CEO (don’t you love all this office-speak?), had the smallest and least interesting part, having very little input into the machinations of the plot. A pity this, because she’s such a cool actor, and given a more interesting role could have made it soar. Kerith Atkinson had nothing much to do except play Miss Negativity, which she did well until she went right over the edge in some of her outbursts. I’m not sure that we needed all the bleeding-heart rejected-lesbian sub-plot, except that it did make her seem more vulnerable and an easy victim for Jake’s machinations, but it was a step sideways into sentimentality that I don’t think the play needed.
The main female character is Melissa, fresh out of business school, idealistic, clever, full of bright ideas, but naïve to the nth degree, with no clue about office politics, which is the theme of this play. Yes, of course she gets done down, because she’s the obvious Easy Victim, but she could have pulled her performance back two or three notches rather than letting it all hang out like a neurotic teenager. The reason is her sexual obsession with one of the men, which becomes clear late in the play, but I don’t think it justifies the strength of her outbursts, and the melodramatic gesture she is required to make at the end weakens the play’s stern unsentimental view of the issues. < BR>
All that said, I liked the play very much, and designer Clare McFadden’s set of magic boxes which were office furniture and nursery garden at the same time fitted the space beautifully, easily moved about without distraction. There was a subtle soundscape from Tyrone Noonan, unobtrusive lighting from Jo Currey, and director Sean Mee had a clear vision of the play that he manifests with integrity.
This one deserves to be a winner for La Boite.
Directed by Sean Mee
Playing until 25 March: Tuesday and Wednesday at 6.30pm, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, matinee Saturday 25 March at 2pm
Duration : just over 2 hours, with a 20 minute interval