A woman turns to the police for assistance when her husband assaults her. The police take the opportunity to puff their chests and wield their power. David Williamson’s the Removalists is exemplary of the playwright’s successes and shortcomings in a brutal, violent exploration of power and toxic masculinity.
When police officers Simmonds (Laurence Coy) and Ross (Lloyd Allison-Young) receive a complaint of domestic violence from Fiona (Eliza Nicholls), they’re inclined to milk the situation; overstepping boundaries, making lewd advance on Fiona and her sister Kate (Shannon Ryan), and using the protection of their uniform to physically abuse Kenny (Alfie Gledhill). The trick of Williamson’s script is how he’s able to sway audience sympathy towards the wife-beater Kenny as the police continue to beat him and abuse their power over the course of the evening. That is, of course, if you’re ready and willing to sacrifice the safety of the play’s women, who continue to receive abuse from all sides.
Robyn Arthur’s set design stretched across the grey, quiet police station and the small living room of Fiona and Kenny’s flat. Impressively, the set design included a solid brick wall that also delineated the kitchen and back rooms. The lighting design by Mehran Mortezaei created a claustrophobic feeling with a flickering television screen and an ominous shadow that fell across the stage as the action grew increasingly violent.
The performances, across the board, were phenomenal. From the excellent comic relief of Allison-Young and Xavier Coy moving furniture through the tense living room scenes to the skin-crawling lechery of Coy’s Officer Simmonds, the cast were exceptionally committed and compelling. In particular, Allison-Young’s portrayal of Officer Ross was complex and developed, despite the rather out-dated “uncontrollable” violence. Especially with the high energy of Gledhill’s Kenny, the two had a palpably volatile dynamic on stage which intensified the overall atmosphere of the production.
In this contemporary take on a classic Australian script, the domestic abuser’s casting as a non-white actor injected a more explicit examination of race. Director Johann Walraven was clearly attempting to draw a connection between Williamson’s violent police and the police brutality currently under the global spotlight of the Black Lives Matter movement. When Ross began to beat Kenny to death, the fatal blow was a prolonged suffocation, a heartbreaking and gruesome act to witness, which was compounded by the opening night performance coinciding with the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. At the same time, during the excruciating strangulation, the First Nation song that opened the production evoked the echoes of David Dungay’s death by suffocation at the hands of Australian prison guards in 2015. While Walraven’s attempts to drag the Removalists into the 21st century was highly emotive, the conflation of these two deaths and the tokenising of Aboriginal music felt more homogenising and generic than intended. The additional implication of characterising a Bla(c)k man as a drunk domestic abuser with no interrogation was troubling. The overall impact of attempting to add racial commentary to a Williamson script in surface appearance only was that it muddled the politics and left a bad taste in the mouth.
At face value, this is a difficult and engaging rendering of Williamson’s script but closer examination of some directorial choices yields a lot of questions.
The Removalists is running at New Theatre from April 20th – May 22nd
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