Melbourne and Sydney, art and commercialism, love and money; whether it’s the 1980s, 2014, or 2021, the battle is the same with each side deeply entrenched in their beliefs about success and happiness. In David Williamson’s 1987 play, artists butt up against producers, funding bodies, and even the audiences all for the integrity of the art. But what’s really at stake?
Screenwriter Colin (Mitchell Butel) and publisher Kate (Lucy Bell) have just moved to Sydney, the city of glitz, glamour, and hollow shiny facades, to push Colin’s career along with long-time producer Elaine (Jennifer Hagan). But amongst the brashness of Sydney artists, Colin is seduced by hack writer Mike (Ben Winspear) and he becomes caught-up in the allure of money, power, and terrible television. Trying to balance desire and greed against talent and integrity feels like an unreconcilable task when the stakes are stacked against you.
Williamson’s script dives straight into the tug-o-war between great art and the money desperately needed to support it. After years of budget cuts and a particularly devastating lack of government support for the arts during the COVID-19 pandemic, watching artists scrambling to convince backers to value their work in a play written over 30 years ago was nauseating. Despite the shoulder pads, these conversations could have been regurgitations from any arts grant application or interview from this decade. But when the bottom-line is profits, what is the solution for the funding stalemate? (Clearly, finding a new bottom-line.)
Direction from Lee Lewis of the 2014 Griffin Theatre production being streamed through Riverside Theatres Digital was punchy and emphatic, leaning into the characters’ larger-than-life personas in pitch meetings and corporate shindigs. In direct-to-audience moments, though, where the characters broke from their scenes for internal reflection, the rapid pacing felt off-kilter as though trying to squeeze those glimpses of sincerity out of frame. The design from Ken Done beautifully melded the 80s aesthetic of hair and hosiery in Sophie Fletcher’s costuming with the splashes of colour in his Sydney skyline backdrop.
The performances were clean and consistent with particular strength from veteran Hagan. While all the young ones stumbled through their early mid-life crises, Hagan’s Elaine brought an attitude of “I’ve been around the block” and a grounded surety that was comforting. On the opposite end, Winspear as the deplorable misogynist Mike offered a recognisable, but no less repulsive, film-bro villain.
While the desperation of Colin and Kate’s situation was well conveyed in Williamson’s script, Colin struggling to get his fulfilling work off the ground while Kate’s passion project receives unexpected success, the focus on money undercut an equally interesting, but perhaps unanswerable, question of artistic integrity or the ever-fluid “authenticity”. Can you make “true” art while on a pay cheque or is money always a corrupting influence? It’s the thorny and often unspoken stereotype of the starving artist that seems to rankle all discussions of art and value. But they are the defining terms of an artist’s life and work and they perhaps would have come more to the fore around less commercialised art forms than film and television.
Like the endless rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne, the art/commercialism discussion can often feel a bit like a beat up. Give the punters what they want! And, yet, when you’re staring down the barrel of another season program decimated by lockdowns, there is some truth to the matter.
Emerald City is streaming through Riverside Theatres Digital from August 28th – September 12th
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