The big man of Australian theatre was farewelled last week at the Sydney Opera House after the opening of what he says is his last play. David Williamson was rightly toasted for his slick craftsmanship, his skill at making a comedy of issues out of topical headlines, for being a storyteller to his tribe. He’s been Australia’s most successful and best known playwright for more than 30 years. Influence is about his 35th play.
Centre stage, cocooned in his own radio studio, is the shock jock, Ziggy Blasco. He’s a peddler of fear, an anxiety touchstone who tells it like it is about Lebanese crime gangs, scary Moslems and the privileges enjoyed by blacks, women, lesbians and, well, you get the idea. Ziggy (John Waters) knows his ratings depend on him keeping it up but, interestingly, he also believes what he says. Williamson never shows us how Ziggy became such a bigoted crusader. That’s not Williamson’s style, and that’s the usual disappointment. He just sets up the characters in Ziggy’s unravelling domestic and family life, and then lets it rip. Some of the characters are a little cardboardy but we laugh a lot and we think -“ a little.
But with Influence there’s a welcome new character type. Zoe Carides is outstanding as his housekeeper, Zehra, a Turkish immigrant struggling to raise her family and please Ziggy’s insufferably selfish ballet dancer of a wife. Zehra and the mutely angry chauffeur are Sydney’s working poor, real battlers keeping his harbour penthouse well serviced -“ and trying hard not to listen to the radio.
Ziggy’s problems begin when Zehra loses her servitude and publicly attacks him for his hate-mongering against Moslems. Then his once proud dad, a Croatian concreter, goes off to the media to confess a Nazi past. A manic depressive young daughter and a sniping bleeding heart sister don’t help either.
Bruce Myles’s direction eschews the usual fast paced cinematic style that most directors bring to Williamson and this play -“ almost -“ manages to fill out these thoughtful gaps. Influence dramatises the urgent topicality of talkback power and public manipulation. By introducing its victims like Zehra, Williamson also has the stuff of insightful drama. I always want him to be more like topical British playwright David Hare. But he’s not. Nor is he Chekhov.
He’s a satirist who, on the edge of emotional truth, a real debate or the unravelling of deeper character, always short-circuits it with a laugh. And that’s why Australian audiences love him.
Influence is a Sydney Theatre Company production now running at the Sydney Opera House.