Australia’s most prolific playwright, David Williamson, is preparing for retirement.
“I’ve done my stint,” he says from his home in Noosa, Queensland. “I count myself as having been 50 years in the writing business in 2020 and I’m not going to write anymore after that.”
Followers of the playwright’s career might recall that Williamson has announced his retirement before. In 2005, dispirited by an emerging director-led theatre culture in Sydney and laid low by a heart arrhythmia condition, it seemed that his play Influence, focused on a powerful Sydney radio shock jock, would be his last.
It wasn’t and by a very long way. More than 15 plays have poured out since then, including a sequel to his classic Don’s Party (Don Parties On), a story of a cross-dressing footballer (2012’s Managing Carmen) and Rupert (2013), a portrait of media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
Barely a year has gone by without a Williamson premiere.
“Thanks to a very ingenious operation, my health came good, but now I think I’ve done enough,” Williamson says. “I want to go out while people are still coming to my plays. I don’t want to be staggering around the place at 98, wondering why there’s only a handful of people in the front stalls.
“And I’ve got five kids and 14 grandkids, so there’s plenty for me to do and I do think my last two plays are good ones.”
The first of those plays is Family Values, a black-comic drama probing the fault lines that divide contemporary Australia. It was inspired, he says, by a newspaper article that simultaneously fired the playwright’s imagination and indignation.
“I woke up one morning about three years ago and read a story that made me very angry and ashamed to be Australian,” Williamson recalls. “It was about the Tamil family from Biloela, people who had been living happily in the community for three or four years and who had raised two children there, and them being hauled out of bed at five in the morning by members of Border Force. They got 15 minutes to pack what they could. It was like the Stasi in East Germany.”
Family Values isn’t about that specific and still-unfolding case, Williamson adds, but it is inspired by the differences in opinion swirling around the issue of Australia’s treatment of asylum seeks and refugees.
In the Griffin Theatre Company production of Family Values, directed by Lee Lewis, Andrew McFarlane plays a judge of Australia’s High Court, a life-long conservative who has lived his professional life applying the black letter of the law.
His son is a born-again Christian and his daughters are cut from completely different cloth: one is a Border Force officer; the other is a left-wing activist helping an Iranian asylum seeker facing deportation after undergoing psychiatric treatment.
“It’s a play in which people who shouldn’t be in the same room together have to be in the same room together because they’re related,” Williamson says. “So drama ensues – and comedy, too. Without that, the situation would be unbearable.”
A Divided Australia
Family Values, Williamson says, is his attempt to straddle the many political, social, generational and religious fracture zones he’s observed emerging over recent years.
“It’s a big ask for any play, but I think it’s right on the fault lines of where we are now. Australia today is a deeply divided nation.”
For example, Williamson says, 30 years ago, the accepted wisdom was that religion was on the way out.
“There was the idea that secular societies were home and hosed and that religion was a quaint, old medieval superstition that was going to quietly die out. Yet nothing could have been further from the truth.
“Religion is a very strong presence now. Not as strong as America, obviously, where you can’t even hope to ever be a politician without being a Christian. I think we even had a prime minster briefly who was a confessed atheist.
“But certainly the influence of evangelism seems to be growing. When our current prime minister invites cameras into church to see him asking God for a favour … it’s troubling.”
Williamson lives in a conservative state, though in what is arguably a progressive coastal enclave. Does that affect his viewpoint?
“I think it could, certainly,” he says. “Queensland is more conservative towards some social issues than the rest of Australia. Although that may be a stereotype because it voted solidly in favour of gay marriage. It’s hard to generalise but I think the centre of progressive social attitudes is Victoria and the rest of the country is a little further behind.”
It’s hard to imagine Williamson stepping away from the theatre completely, but he insists that’s the plan. “There are a lot of new young playwrights doing very good stuff,” he says.
Might Williamson become some kind of mentor to younger writers?
“God, no,” he laughs. “The new generation don’t need mentoring and they wouldn’t want to listen to me in any case.”
But for now at least, it will feel like Williamson is as present as ever. Queensland Theatre Company is reviving his smash hit Emerald City in February. Melbourne audiences will see the production in March. A new play, Crunch Time, premieres at the Ensemble Theatre in Kirribilli, also in February.
“I couldn’t be happier than having the circle close at Griffin,” he says. “John Bell’s production of The Removalists in 1972 was on that stage – back when it was called the Nimrod Theatre – and that established me as a writer more than anything else. My career as a playwright took off from there and it’s terrifically satisfying to come back to that wonderful. I’m back where I started, but I’m terribly happy to be there.”