Donna’s Party

(Sue Benner Theatre)


By Simon Brook, Felicity Carpenter, Daniel Evans and Michelle Miall

Profit-share production

As the title suggests, this play’s setting is a party. Is it your sort of party? If you identify with the lifestyles of Generation X and Y (or would like to) then there may be enough swearing, drinking, drug-taking, vomiting, urinating and simulated sex to enable you to believe you are watching a slice of life as lived by the affluent young. If, on the other hand, your idea of hell is spending a few hours in a room with a bunch of unpleasant people behaving badly, then Donna’s Party is probably not for you.

Which is a shame, because this play, written collaboratively by a group of young writers, has a lot going for it. The brain-child of Simon Brook, the Writer’s Foundry came together to see if a small team of writers could co-operate to produce a quality piece of work for the theatre in a very limited time-frame (in this case twelve weeks). Starting from the clever idea of updating David Williamson’s Don’s Party (1971), the group came up with a plot that also brings together a group of friends on an Election night when, for a moment, it appears that Labor has won power. As in Williamson’s play, the evening degenerates as the real political situation is revealed and the characters turn on each other in bitterness and frustration.

In this play, however, there is no political idealism or much real interest in the outcome of the election evident in the group of work colleagues who have gathered for Donna’s housewarming. For most of them the outcome of the Idol contest on another TV channel is neither more nor less relevant than the Election result – a nice metaphor for contemporary disaffection with politics.

Though mildly contemptuous of Donna, the group decides to avenge her recent peremptory dismissal by their new boss, appropriately named Hunter. Unknown to her, they invite him to join the party and plan a way to humiliate and blackmail him. Implausibly, Hunter accepts the invitation and, after some verbal sparring – including a clever rap-duel – he is trapped and tortured by the group – who cruelly exploit a dangerous nervous condition. The first half of the play ends with him seemingly at their mercy and the second half is concerned with his attempts to extricate himself and turn the tables.

On a conceptual level this is a very workable plot, but there are practical problems that the writers have not overcome. In particular, the character of Donna is a mere cipher; she spends most of the evening either fluffing around wordlessly in the kitchen, flirting wordlessly with the boss who has just fired her, or lying comatose in the bathroom – giving the actress not much to work with. When, at the end of the play, it transpires that the whole catastrophe has been supposedly brought about because two of the men (who have scarcely seemed to notice her throughout the play) lust for her, and she has slept with another, then accused him of sexual assault, audience credulity is stretched to extreme limits.

The other characters are more clearly outlined, though only in two dimensions, and their roles as siren, trouble-maker, ineffectual leader etc. serve to further the plot accordingly. At times, some of the dialogue, though apparently clever, could be distinguished only by the first few rows of the audience. The problem of projecting audibly over the necessary noise of the television commentary demands a level of skill not available to some of the actors, who relied on a fast, off-hand delivery more suited to screen than to stage. On opening night the prevalence of what has been termed ‘the copulatory verb’ seemed clearly distasteful to some in the audience, hilarious for others, and drearily repetitive for many. Accurate representation of how many people speak? Maybe. Overuse theatrically effective? Maybe not.

There are other holes to pick in the plot, apart from some of the implausibilities mentioned, and in terms of structure the first half is too long – some members of the first-night audience therefore mistaking the interval for the end. With more time for script development the nature and relationships of the characters might have been established more economically, allowing audience attention to focus more clearly on their motivation and self-interest. However, given the time-frame in which this piece was conceived, developed and delivered, the play hangs together remarkably well and the performances, though largely stereotypical, presented a credible depiction of a group of people more interested in personal success and self-gratification than loyalty and friendship. I would have preferred a less attractively reasonable, more transparently unscrupulous personification of managerial power, but it was an effective struggle that ensued between the two camps nonetheless.

Which brings me to the political dimensions of the play – for this play can be received not only as a representation of relationships between work colleagues but also, like Don’s Party, as a commentary on the Australian political scene. The disorganised group with its bitter divisions, destructive in-fighting, and ineffectual leadership is eventually and predictably no match for the unprincipled and exploitative Hunter, who, unpleasant though he is, we end up reluctantly supporting. For some this will recall the situation faced by voters in the last election, many of whom expressed the view that their choices were limited to voting for the weasel or the snake – preferring in the end the devious Howard to the venomous Latham.

In performance, however, the political undertones which could do much to enrich the play’s texture were swamped by an over-emphasis on surface realism. Nevertheless, as the play suggests, maybe it is true that most people prefer watching Australian Idol to political commentary – in which case the writers have judged their audience astutely.

Directed by Simon Brook

Playing until 21 October 2006: Wed-Sat 8pm

Running time: 2 ½ hours including interval

— Maureen Strugnell
(Performance seen: Wed 4th October 2006)