Directed by David Williamson
78 McDougall Street, Kirribilli
Season: 29 January – 2 April
To set the scene: there is a new play at the Ensemble Theatre, directed and written by David Williamson, one of Australia’s best-known and prolific playwrights, and starring two comedians responsible for the hilarious and controversial Chasers TV series. These traits may stir up some hefty expectations for a play, allowing greater scope for disappointment, or for the impression of greatness. Hence, Williamson’s new play (both written and directed by him) Jack of Hearts, treads a precarious path. When we as audiences venture down this path, by all means we can be entertained - however we mustn’t lose grasp of our ability to observe critically and respond accordingly.
The show introduces audiences to a resoundingly average man, Jack, played by Chris Taylor, rejected by his wife and forced to reassess his life choices. His good friend, played by Craig Reucassel, is a manipulative womaniser, who serially cheats on his wife, a well-meaning archetypal wealthy woman played by Brooke Satchwell. Jack’s wife Emma, played by Paige Gardiner, is a selfish and superficial personal trainer, coaxed away from her husband by an egotistical Current Affairs presenter, played by Peter Mochrie. As I’m sure you can put together yourself – these are not likeable characters, and the audience somewhat learns to revel in their misfortune.
Williamson’s script aims to emulate the upper echelons of Sydney – debauchery, vanity and all. However he leans too heavily on clichés and rather than using stereotypes with a rather firm foundation of reality to offshoot, creating a fascinating persona, he opts for shallower characterisations. This has the effect of stunting character growth and doesn’t allow a lot of room for the actors to breathe in their roles, endeavouring to emulate a familiar figure from ‘upper Sydney society’ rather than fleshing out a nuanced character. There isn’t a lot of space for ambiguity. In spite of this, the audience at the Ensemble had a riot of a time, indulging in the show’s shameless desire to entertain. A welcome highlight of the cast is Nikki played by Isabella Tannock, who sinks her teeth into the outright vulgarity of her character with vivacious energy and consequent hilarity. Unfortunately, for some of the actors delivery of dialogue felt insincere and not in the moment, which could have possibly been affected by some of the actors being accustomed to television acting rather than acting for the stage. However some of the purely comedic sections transported the performers into the here and now, allowing the audience to go on a journey with them, especially at points of audience interaction. Chris Taylor did well to return to notable audience members and play off recurring jokes, building rapport with the unique audience of the evening. A concerning sign of the times is Williamson’s disregard for the female characters’ personal autonomy in the story, insisting on framing their lives in relation only to men. In this regard the production certainly fails to ring true to contemporary audiences, who I hope would identify the inconsistencies between women in ‘real life’ and those Williamson has decided to depict on stage. Anna Gardiner’s set design is sleek and sophisticated, instantly signalling to the audience the location of each scene. This allows for smooth transitions, enhanced by appropriate lighting, shifting with mood changes.
It may not be a work of genius as we fondly remember some of Williamson’s works, however it can be a good laugh and a warm experience for audiences. I imagine it would be difficult to maintain a certain standard of work once a legacy of your work has been established. We saw this in recent years when the late Harper Lee released a novel to an underwhelming response, years after the great To Kill a Mockingbird made waves in history. Williamson finds himself in similar territory, continuing to bring stories to the stage, decades after the publishing of his gems The Removalists, Travelling North, Don’s Party…and the list could go on. In this situation, a playwright and dramatist creates under a burden of expectation, which can be rather cumbersome, and misguiding for audiences. If we can shed this weight of expectation when we enter the theatre, anticipating an enjoyable night rather than a work of historic greatness (which is, of course, rare) I think the show would enjoy a more level response, sidestepping disappointment or inflated acclaim.