DAVID WIL­LIAMSON

RU­PERT THE BIG­GEST CHAL­LENGE OF HIS THE­ATRI­CAL CA­REER

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - Ru­pert, at the Play­house, Arts Cen­tre, Melbourne, Au­gust 24 to Septem­ber 28.

‘ WE’RE hop­ing to turn it into a night of en­ter­tain­ment [that] raises ques­tions in the au­di­ence’s mind but doesn’t an­swer them,’’ says David Wil­liamson. ‘‘ There’s no stri­dent left-wing play­wright try­ing to dic­tate to them how they must think about Ru­pert and I’ve tried to give him all the freedom he needs to be the cen­tre of his own cabaret.’’

He’s talk­ing about Ru­pert, his new play about me­dia pro­pri­etor Ru­pert Mur­doch, which al­ready has peo­ple on both sides of pol­i­tics shak­ing their heads in be­muse­ment.

Wil­liamson is the most pop­u­lar Aus­tralian drama­tist of his gen­er­a­tion and prob­a­bly its most suc­cess­ful, both crit­i­cally and over­seas. But in writ­ing Ru­pert, due to open at the Melbourne Theatre Com­pany next month un­der the di­rec­tion of Lee Lewis, the play­wright, who has writ­ten 45 plays in­clud­ing The Re­moval­ists, Don’s Party and Emer­ald City, may have taken on the big­gest chal­lenge of his the­atri­cal ca­reer.

Dif­fi­cult to pin on the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, Wil­liamson for years has en­joyed a frac­tious re­la­tion­ship with the Left, and lived for many years in Syd­ney as an ex­ile from a hos­tile Melbourne be­fore mov­ing to Queens­land’s Sun­shine Coast. He also has an un­canny gift for con­tro­versy, is ar­gu­men­ta­tive, con­tentious, spiky, scrappy and com­bat­ive in de­fence of his ideas, and was in his day the fun­ni­est of pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als, equally likely to satirise those of the Left and the Right, to the ir­ri­ta­tion of each.

When we talk, the play­wright is sound­ing a lit­tle weary af­ter a long flight from Europe. And he is still sad­dened by the re­cent deaths of two piv­otal fig­ures in the world of Aus­tralian drama — Betty Burstall, who founded the La Mama theatre in in­ner-Melbourne’s Carl­ton where his plays were first staged, and John Sum­ner, who started the MTC. It’s where Wil­liamson had some of his great­est suc­cesses and their pass­ing has made him very con­scious of his own mor­tal­ity and that of his sub­ject too, whose com­plex story cov­ers 82 years.

‘‘ I can still, only just, re­mem­ber when I was called a promis­ing young play­wright,’’ Wil­liamson says slowly. And he pauses, then bursts out laugh­ing. Then, with a groan, he re­calls his first play, The In­de­cent Ex­po­sure of An­thony East, per­formed at the Univer­sity of Melbourne. ‘‘ Oh, it was way back in 1968 I think,’’ he says slowly. ‘‘ Jack Hib­berd’s White with Wire Wheels was also be­ing per­formed on the cam­pus some­where and some­thing else of Hib­berd’s too, called Brain-Rot.’’

He laughs again, then asks quickly, ‘‘ Is Jack still plug­ging along?’’ He re­mem­bers, not al­to­gether happily, di­rect­ing Hib­berd’s wed­ding play Dim­boola at the Pram Fac­tory, just around the cor­ner from Burstall’s La Mama, with the rau­cous, ar­gu­men­ta­tive rad­i­cal Carl­ton ac­tors. ‘‘ They were great days,’’ he says la­con­i­cally. ‘‘ No, they weren’t re­ally.’’

We were both around then and, some­times bru­tally, ex­pe­ri­enced the con­tin­u­ing high-wire act that char­ac­terised the life of any­one con­nected to the Pram scene in that tur­bu­lent time: be­tween ac­tors and writ­ers and, es­pe­cially, be­tween men and women, and those who wanted the place to stay a lit­tle shell and those who saw heroic pos­si­bil­i­ties for ex­pan­sion. The re­sult­ing ten­sions gave the rough­hewn theatre — and its gaudy, phys­i­cally ro­bust shows — its en­ergy and there was never a static phase.

At times, there was a to­tal­i­tar­ian colour- ation to much of the Pram; what seemed dar­ing and orig­i­nal be­came tire­some and fa­mil­iar; stereo­typed po­lit­i­cal as­ser­tions, en­cour­aged by their easy ac­cep­tance, re­placed in­stinc­tive in­di­vid­ual dis­sent; and the com­plex moral and metaphysical is­sues of art were some­times oblit­er­ated by a sin­gle­minded ni­hilism.

Wil­liamson was in­creas­ingly vis­i­ble in this mi­lieu, but of­ten un­easily so, af­ter the suc­cess of The Re­moval­ists at La Mama in 1971.

From the be­gin­nings of his long ca­reer, the su­per-sized drama­tist has been a mag­net for hos­til­ity and crit­i­cal dis­dain. Don’s Party, for ex­am­ple, was ac­cepted for pro­duc­tion at the Pram Fac­tory by the res­i­dent Aus­tralian Per­form­ing Group in late 1971, but only with some hos­til­ity. The play wasn’t ex­per­i­men­tal enough, ac­cord­ing to its crit­ics; didn’t push back the fron­tiers of drama and life; its po­lit­i­cal con­scious­ness needed rais­ing. But Don’s Party’s ac­ces­si­bil­ity for au­di­ences, caus­tic com­edy and sharp dia­logue made it a hit and its suc­cess helped define the des­tiny of the com­pany. Wil­liamson was soon ex­pelled for not at­tend­ing the re­quired num­ber of col­lec­tive meet­ings — and so was I.

Wil­liamson, cer­tainly to my sur­prise, sug­gests Ru­pert will be a piece of ‘‘ rough’’ theatre, a re­turn to the kind of work he was in­volved with in those Carl­ton days. And he’s ob­vi­ously de­lighted to have found a dra­matur­gi­cal so­lu­tion to the prob­lems of trans­lat­ing a tow­er­ing per­son­al­ity and bi­og­ra­phy for the stage.

It’s only days away from re­hearsals, the play fully cast, and Wil­liamson is happy with Lewis, the Grif­fin’s artis­tic di­rec­tor, oc­cu­py­ing the di­rec­tor’s chair. ‘‘ She’s ter­rific with stage chore­og­ra­phy and this play’s go­ing to need

quite a lot of that,’’ he says. ‘‘ Oh, and we’ve got two Ru­perts now; there’s an old Ru­pert, played by Sean O’Shea, and a young Ru­pert, Guy Ed­monds, with a small­ish cast who play thou­sands of roles.’’

The play, al­ready promis­ing a sell­out sea­son for the MTC a month be­fore its open­ing, tack­les re­cent events, in­clud­ing Mur­doch’s split from third wife Wendi Deng and con­tin­u­ing con­cerns from the 2011 phone-hack­ing scan­dal. But of course Ru­pert also touches on other key points in Mur­doch’s life, in­clud­ing his time spent at Ox­ford Univer­sity, mov­ing into news­pa­pers in the 1960s, the bit­ter Wap­ping print­ers’ dis­pute, and the pe­riod in 1990 in which he al­most lost his em­pire.

Ac­cord­ing to Wil­liamson, his new work opens in the past when, fol­low­ing his fa­ther Sir Keith’s sud­den death in 1952, Ru­pert re­turned to Aus­tralia to take over the run­ning of the fam­ily busi­ness. Al­though he had ex­pected to in­herit a con­sid­er­able for­tune he was left with a rel­a­tively mod­est in­her­i­tance — af­ter death du­ties and taxes, the main legacy was own­er­ship of Ade­laide’s The News.

‘‘ From that, as with Shake­speare’s Richard III, with a com­bi­na­tion of ab­so­lute bold­ness, guile, cun­ning and ruth­less­ness he be­comes the most pow­er­ful me­dia voice I think the world has ever seen,’’ Wil­liamson says.

He be­lieves that to tell what he calls ‘‘ the Ru­pert story’’ the dra­maturgy re­quires an epic style of pre­sen­ta­tion. ‘‘ His busi­ness life spans over 60 years, so it was a daunt­ing task to tackle, but I love the form of the story.’’ One of his favourite plays has al­ways been Richard III, the story of the man who would be king and who would stop at noth­ing to achieve his am­bi­tions. ‘‘ I love the lit­tle hunch­back there who no­body takes any no­tice of, just an off­stage char­ac­ter who by sheer cun­ning and in­tel­li­gence gets rid of all his com­peti­tors and as­cends to the throne. Ru­pert’s struck me as a sim­i­lar story in struc­ture.’’

Here Wil­liamson be­gins to laugh qui­etly once more. ‘‘ What’s in­ter­est­ing about this [play] is that I’ve had to go back to the old Pram Fac­tory days,’’ he says, a lit­tle over­come it seems, with the irony. ‘‘ All the stuff I learned then, I seem to have to use again; I used to like that style and it’s all needed again. If any­one says my Pram Fac­tory train­ing was wasted, they’ll have to think again.’’ And he guf­faws down the tele­phone line.

Wil­liamson is also more than a lit­tle chuffed to be in­vited back by MTC di­rec­tor Brett Sheehy into the arms of one of the heav­ily sub­sided theatre com­pa­nies where he once ruled the box of­fice. ‘‘ He said to me, ‘ I want your tal­ent, David, but I don’t want just a Wil­liamson com­edy; I want to use your abil­ity and skill but I want some­thing big can­vas.’ And I thought what big­ger can­vas is there than the old Ru­pert.’’ Whether Sheehy’s agree­ment that Wil­liamson should ap­ply his writ­ing tal­ent to the story of the for­mi­da­ble Ru­pert Mur­doch is an in­spired de­ci­sion re­mains to be seen.

Wil­liamson loved TV’s The West Wing, and it al­ways has be­mused him that Aus­tralian writ­ers shy away from writ­ing about the high­est ech­e­lons of pol­i­tics, Keat­ing! The Mu­si­cal be­ing a rare ex­cep­tion. ‘‘ And I thought no one in­flu­ences the world more than Ru­pert Mur­doch; any­one who thinks he’s just there to make money hasn’t stud­ied him very closely.’’

The Ru­pert he has cre­ated is re­vue in style, and it’s easy to for­get (well, al­most 40 years later who would re­mem­ber?) Wil­liamson also par­tic­i­pated in re­vues in those heady days in Melbourne, when a free-form, pop­u­lar theatre with roots in vaudeville was all the go, most notably in the po­lit­i­cal sketch show So­nia’s Knee & Thigh Show, which I di­rected with Max Gil­lies in the early 70s at the Pram. The Bul­letin’s theatre critic Leonard Glick­field wrote: ‘‘ The key peo­ple who make a night out of So­nia are David Wil­liamson and the ver­bal bril­liance of his scripts, and Max Gil­lies with his tremen­dous range as an ac­tor.’’

‘‘ I was de­lighted at the time to write sketches and songs,’’ Wil­liamson says af­ter a pause as we both think about that time of postage stamp-sized stages and beer-money bud­gets. ‘‘ Peo­ple think I’m a play­wright who some­how just emerged, with none of that rough theatre back­ground. They think I just write my pieces and the ac­tors do them. But even in my or­di­nary pieces I al­ways lis­ten to the ac­tors and di­rec­tors be­fore and dur­ing re­hearsals. I was trained very early to not be a pre­cious play­wright who won’t lis­ten to any­one else.’’

It was a time, he will still re­call rue­fully, when he was re­ferred to by his en­e­mies as ‘‘ a buf­foon from en­gi­neer­ing who can throw a few jokes to­gether’’. (When he be­gan writ­ing

THE RU­PERT STORY’ RE­QUIRES AN EPIC PRE­SEN­TA­TION

plays, he was lec­tur­ing in ther­mo­dy­nam­ics at Melbourne’s Swin­burne Tech­ni­cal Col­lege.) Con­found­ing his crit­ics, he won stu­pen­dous suc­cess; it was a rule of Aus­tralian theatre for more than 30 years that ‘‘ no one loses money on a Wil­liamson’’, es­pe­cially in Syd­ney, where he moved in 1979.

He’s the only one left of his gen­er­a­tion of writ­ers for whom the theatre still has any time. A few years ago he threat­ened to re­tire but it was al­most im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine. He sim­ply re­fuses to go away, some­thing for which his loyal au­di­ence is grate­ful, though crit­ics still scorn his work, de­spite the fact he has out­lasted two gen­er­a­tions of them. Con­tent aside, his style still ran­kles them, even as his pol­i­tics con­tin­ues to in­fu­ri­ate the shock jocks and con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tors and blog­gers.

But Wil­liamson is a pop­u­lar en­ter­tainer, closer to his pub­lic, who share his eth­i­cal con­cerns and en­joy his hu­mour.

With Ru­pert he has cho­sen to go down the epic road be­cause a story as full and res­o­nant as this sim­ply can’t be told ad­e­quately as a doc­u­men­tary. ‘‘ They do it bet­ter on screen that way, maybe, but not in the theatre,’’ he says. ‘‘ There was a lot of search­ing for the right form.’’ He cites as ad­di­tional in­spi­ra­tions Barry Humphries’s satir­i­cal shows (he even chased the co­me­dian at one point about play­ing the lead role in Ru­pert) and also the works of Ro­man play­wright Plau­tus. ‘‘[ Plau­tus] per­fected the idea of speak­ing di­rectly to the au­di­ence. I’ve al­ways as­so­ci­ated the­atri­cal­ity with that kind of di­rect ad­dress, ac­tors speak­ing straight out into the theatre. And many of my plays have done that.’’

He cred­its Sheehy with sup­port­ing his at­tempts to find the right dra­matur­gi­cal ve­hi­cle for such a sprawl­ing bi­og­ra­phy and an ap­proach that avoids the pre­dictable. In the end, they de­cided to let Ru­pert tell his own story in what Wil­liamson calls ‘‘ the Ru­pert cabaret’’, with the play­wright’s own pol­i­tics on hold.

‘‘ I try and keep [the] au­tho­rial voice out of it and just let Ru­pert ex­plain why he’s been such a ben­e­fit to the world. In the play he’s given free rein as we go through his life, the cast of six, apart from the two Ru­perts, play­ing the many char­ac­ters in his life, like Mag­gie Thatcher and the other sig­nif­i­cant fe­males, us­ing rapid trans­for­ma­tions.’’

The form, Wil­liamson says, is clas­sic cabaret, with Ru­pert given the chance to show the au­di­ence what a pa­thetic lot all the left-wing pro­gres­sive aca­demic crit­ics of his life have been. ‘‘ He’s just given full can­vas to put ev­ery­one straight and show that he’s prob­a­bly been the great­est force for good in the his­tory of the world. And who am I to say he hasn’t been? The onus then is on the au­di­ence. If they dis­agree with his ver­sion of the facts, they have to come up with their own be­cause the play­wright won’t be telling them.’’ The au­di­ence should not ex­pect ‘‘ nice lit­tle counter-ar­gu­ments’’.

Af­ter all, he sug­gests, Richard III uses his own voice through­out Shake­speare’s play. ‘‘ He talks di­rectly to the au­di­ence and what he’s re­ally say­ing is, ‘ Look at what a clever fel­low I am.’ And the au­di­ence’s moral com­pass flips over.’’ He says it will all be up to the au­di­ence to make a judg­ment on the life of the man.

I men­tion re­search and he groans again. ‘‘ Oh Je­sus, don’t talk to me about it. I read noth­ing but Ru­pert Mur­doch for 18 months; it’s a mas­sively big­ger pro­ject than any­thing else I’ve done. There’s so much writ­ten about him, al­most 30 bi­ogra­phies and a mas­sive amount of good jour­nal­ism. Peo­ple asked if I was in­ter­view­ing his as­so­ciates and I said no, do you think they are go­ing to talk about the real Ru­pert?’’

He groans again dis­cussing the on­go­ing, con­stantly evolv­ing na­ture of the life he is at­tempt­ing to fix in time. ‘‘ I’d no sooner done the re­write to cope with the mar­riage break-up than Ru­pert is caught on tape pos­si­bly contradicting what he told the Leve­son in­quiry,’’ he says with a wince.

As a play­wright he’s fas­ci­nated by the way qual­ity TV has turned on its head the idea that au­di­ences want to watch only good, lik­able peo­ple with whom they can iden­tify. Break­ing Bad is his favourite piece of TV drama. ‘‘ It’s about a guy trav­el­ling from meek and mild to absolutely evil, though I’m not sug­gest­ing that Ru­pert is in any way evil. What I’m try­ing to do is set up a way for him to tell us his re­mark­able life story with a bit of singing and danc­ing, and put paid to all th­ese pa­thetic latte-sip­ping, in­ner-city elite crit­ics.’’

The sea­son is close to be­ing booked out but other com­pa­nies are wait­ing to see just what hap­pens when it opens. This week, mean­while, the MTC an­nounced Ru­pert would tour to Wash­ing­ton, DC, next year.

‘‘ It could fall flat on its face but I’m ex­cited,’’ the play­wright says. ‘‘ At the age of 70 if you’re not al­lowed to do some­thing dif­fer­ent you might as well give up.’’ Ru­pert Mur­doch would prob­a­bly agree.

The Sun

Clock­wise from top, David Wil­liamson; Ru­pert Mur­doch in 1971; Mur­doch with his fa­ther, Sir Keith, in 1936; look­ing at his Bri­tish tabloid in 1969; as a young man with his mother, Dame Elis­a­beth

Wil­liamson as a young play­wright; be­low, Guy Ed­monds (left) and Sean O’Shea are the young and old Mur­dochs

Ru­pert Mur­doch is pro­pri­etor of The Aus­tralian.

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