One of Australia’s most beloved playwrights, David Williamson continues his 50-year run of success with a return to his 1987 play, Emerald City. Directed by Sam Strong, Emerald City will open Queensland Theatre’s much-anticipated 50th Anniversary Season from Saturday 8th February to Saturday 29th February 2020 in the Playhouse, QPAC.
Heather Bloom asked Australia’s most produced playwright about what drives him and how to maintain artistic integrity in a capitalist society.
You’re one of Australia’s most prolific playwrights with over 50 years’ experience, where do you source your inspiration from after so many years?
Most of my plays come from an incident or event that I've observed or read about that made me angry, concerned or amused or all three. I've always hoped that the themes arising from these starting points would be themes that also interested my audiences.
Emerald City was written in 1987, how do the play’s themes resonate with a 2020 audience?
The surface of society might change but deep human nature doesn't. We are still, and always will be powered by the same emotions that powered Greek drama and Elizabethan drama. The quest for respect, power and status. The need to be admired and loved. The hurt of rejection. The thirst for revenge. The impulses of envy, scorn, compassion and love will always be with us. Our surface manners may have changed a little since 1987, but the human needs below those manners won't have changed a jot. Marriages still can be difficult and competitive. The desire for success and wealth is still with us. The world of 1987 is still essentially the world of now.
Emerald City looks at the struggle between artistic integrity and financial security – do you think it’s possible to be a successful artist without “selling out”?
Yes I do. You can write work that is entertaining but certainly not trivial. It's what I've tried to do all my career. Artistic integrity doesn't require one to be boring.
You’ve written for both stage and screen, is it a conscious choice when you begin a story what medium you are writing for?
Indeed it is. When I’m writing for the stage I'm aware that dialogue is my principal storytelling vehicle and I delight in that. I love the way people use and often misuse language. I love the way people use language to further their interests, to try and deceive others and to often deceive themselves. When I'm writing film I’m aware that the visual image is a powerful story telling tool. This style of writing requires less dialogue and more information conveyed visually. Both however absolutely require storytelling momentum. If you write a play that delights in the use of language but forgets to tell a story you won't have an engaged audience.
Many of your plays feature “flawed” characters – what is it that attracts you to writing about the anti-hero?
The basic storytelling structure is protagonist and antagonist, with the latter being the much more flawed characters who make life difficult for the protagonist. However, studies of literature have shown that readers generally find flawed antagonistic characters more interesting than the protagonists. "Good" characters while worthy and admired can be boring. We all have human flaws and we're ashamed of them and we sometimes delight in meeting fictional characters who have more flaws than we do, or that we think we do.
Why do you think there is such an enduring rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne?
There always has been and always will be. Sydney has always flaunted its obvious physical advantages of a stunning harbour and miles upon miles of superb surf beaches, but they're only wonderful if you are lucky enough to live near them. The Western suburbs of Sydney, in the grip of forty five degree temperatures, can be amongst the most hellish on earth.
Melbourne has always flaunted the grandeur and grace of its architecture, its parks and gardens and its gastronomic and intellectual superiority, but ruefully has to admit that the Yarra River and Port Phillip bay don't quite cut it scenically.
Both are great cities but neither is ever going to admit that the other is.
And finally, which do you prefer? Sunny Sydney or Marvellous Melbourne?
The truth is I've lived longer in Melbourne than Sydney and left both of these great cities for the pleasures of the Sunshine Coast many years ago. Melbourne has changed enormously since I left in 1979. Mostly for the better. The Southbank precinct is a great addition to the Melbourne I left and the busy inner city life of Melbourne, sustained by cafes, bars and restaurants is something Sydney has never been able to match. Nor has Sydney quite matched the fervour of theatrical activity in many many venues around Melbourne. But Sydney has its charms. It's semi tropical abundance and that sparkling harbour can still cause one's spirits to soar. In short, they're both great and interesting cities and Kristin and I could live happily in either of them if we didn't so much enjoy the tranquillity and peace of living on a beautiful coastline in Queensland.
A Queensland Theatre and Melbourne Theatre Company co-production
by David Williamson
Directed by Sam Strong
Photo – David-Kelly