Sorting Out Rachel – Lisa Chats with David Williamson (Theatre Interview)


Sorting Out Rachael is at the Ensemble Theatre from 19 January to 17 March. You can grab your tickets here.

My personal history with David Williamson’s plays have been chequered. As a young student of literature I was a passionate fan, taking great delight in his portrayal of all things Australian, grateful for his wit and wisdom in presenting white Australian culture. Later as a feminist, my enthusiasm for telling smart white men how clever they are fell to the side, and I expereinced deep fatigue with the white male perspective. Now as a theatre reviewer, my appreciation of this great Australian writer returns. David Williamson doesn’t speak for everyone (thank god) but he does speak for a lot of people. These days one of the most important things we must learn is how to hear each other without losing ourselves, and how to get along. I can’t deny being a little chuffed to include a discussion with David Williamson in my little corner of the internet. His is a ferocious examination of Australian culture and he is determined to examine, criticise and above all speak. Sorting Out Rachel is another example of his passion for examining contemporary Australian issues. Legacy and inheritance is a powerful issue on our set of islands, and no small topic.

The Ensemble has this to say about Sorting Out Rachel on their website:

When it comes to business Bruce knows what to do. You’ve got to out-bite the sharks and twist a good deal before you get screwed. But as the years go by and his legacy starts to loom, his thoughts turn to his exasperated daughter, her social climbing husband and his granddaughter, Rachel, who unfortunately takes after him. Perhaps it’s time to make amends. Can Bruce solve his family issues without giving away a long-held secret?

And so, with great respect I sent out my typically egg-headish questions to Mr David Williamson, and with great respect he answered them (in characteristically record time) and sent them back. These are a wonderfully interesting read. So take your time and work through them and know that not everyone agrees with each other, but we can all speak with appreciation and dignity and we can all agree in some place and that is the lesson for our age.



LT: In Sorting Out Rachel, you have several characters go through an intense transformation. Do your characters transform in response to political pressures manifesting power in their lives, or is it more a quest for knowledge? Why do you like to write about these changes?

DW: I do believe that people can change their attitudes and ideologies and beliefs. But it’s not an easy thing for most to do. Most people stick doggedly to their chosen belief set and ideology and actively look for confirmation of their beliefs rather than assessing the available evidence.  So in SOR it has to be some pretty big events that present themselves to the characters to cause any change.  For Bruce it’s his decision to tell the truth about his past to his daughter and reveal that she has a sister. This happens because the passionate arguments presented to him by his unacknowledged child cause him to find the rather thin reserves of decency in his nature and concede that she’s right. In the case of Rachel she is forced to change her bullying and manipulative ways because her mother finally gathers the courage to confront her with consequences if it continues.

LT: What ideologies, if any, drives your characters in Sorting Out Rachel?

DW: I don’t think political ideologies  are a force driving the characters with the exception of Tess. The main thing that has driven Bruce and Craig is accumulating or attempting to accumulate wealth.  Tess is strongly driven by her sense of unfairness at the way indigenous people have been treated by mainstream Australia and her desire that that should change.  Rachel is driven by her own narcissism which excludes consideration of others needs.  Julie is driven by guilt that Rachel’s appalling behavior must somehow be her fault.

LT: It is no secret that an Australian narrative drives you. Where does your drive to write about Australian’s come from? Is it pure nationalistic nostalgia?

DW: I think my plays have been too critical of aspects of Australian society and behavior to have been driven by nationalistic nostalgia. I appreciate the positives of our country but am certainly not about to wrap myself in an Australian flag.  The simple answer is that this is the country I know and live in, and thus stories set in a country I know will be more authentic and the idioms of my dialogue will be authentic. Flaubert said that all great art is provincial by which he meant that only writing about the country or social class you know can you get the surface detail accurate and authentic.  He felt that if you get that right the universals will take care of themselves.  After twenty five or more years in New York Peter Carey still feels he doesn’t know it well enough to set his stories there and still sets them in Australia which he does know.

LT: For you, what is meant by The Text? Is that any text that can serve as material or as a pretext for theatre? In Australia today, does The Text make theatre happen?

DW: The text is the words I write on my word processor. The production has further layers of directorial, design and actor creativity added but my text provides an intricate shape to work within.  There are exciting forms of improvisational and group devised theatre that don’t need the text of a single writer but drama would be a lot poorer if the beautifully orchestrated texts of a single coherent mind like say Chekhov, didn’t exist.

LT: Do you think theatre, like love, is attacked (or regarded with suspicion) as much on the political left as the political right? Isn’t each side claiming it for its own a form of cultural appropriation that (as we can see from our own indigenous culture) leads to cultural eradication? Should theatre be interrupting these power structures around itself?

DW: If there is such a thing as right wing theatre I certainly haven’t seen much of it.  Theatre traditionally is critical of the society in which it’s created and thus tends to have a progressive leftist view of the world.  I haven’t seen many businessmen heroes in our drama.  Theatre however does often attack the power structures of conservatism both social and economic.  Sometimes however it just explores the dynamics of interpersonal friction and interpersonal power and influence and the use of language to manipulate others and fool oneself.

LT: One of the great theatrical questions of our age (and earlier generations) is that of the passivity of the audience. The theories contradiction leads us to a fear of “imposing” meaning on the audience, leaving her to “compose her own poem with the elements of the poem before her.” You are a prolific writer, always seeking a twist on the zeitgeist. Aren’t you, in some way, wrestling with the very subjectivity of the spectator? Isn’t all theatre a fight to claim a small piece of the spectator, even if it is for a very small space of time? Shouldn’t the spectator stretch toward the play and agree to lose a piece of themselves to it? Is this really a loss and are we really in danger of losing pieces of ourselves? (Apologies if this is too many questions bundled together, but I am keen to hear what you think)

DW: Some theatre may be designed to simply reassure the audience and reinforce existing prejudice, but most requires mental effort on the part of the audience.  They are always assessing the ideological, ethical and moral choices of the fictional characters and comparing the characters choices with the choices they would have made.  The dissonance between the two can often be disturbing to an audience which is usually the playwright’s intention.