We all thought we’d seen the last of Williamson a few years ago but like any good supervillian he just keeps on coming back. I was doubly worried since his new play, Scarlett O’Hara at the Crimson Parrot, was clearly one of those team-up cross-over dealies where he enlists the help of another superpower to wreak menace on unsuspecting aesthetic sensibilities – in this case Simon Phillips. Phillips isn’t a supervillain, of course, but more one of those wild cards who sometimes uses his powers for good, sometimes for evil, and sometimes for Priscilla which was good but also kind of evil.It’s with great pleasure and a certain amount of relief, then, that I stand here before you today to proclaim Scarlett O’Hara an unqualified success, rich with meaning and utterly contemporary in every way. It’s a credit to its makers, and a challenge to my preconceptions as to what dynamic, timely Australian theatre can really be.
No it’s not! It’s fucking awful! I was just playing a trick on you! When theatre is ghettoised as dull, pointless drivel for people whose cultural shoulder-chip prevents them from enjoying Big Brother, I point the finger at Williamson.
The MTC has had a rollercoaster few years of great and terrible plays, with only a couple occupying the middle-ground. Love Song, Season at Sarsaparilla, Holding the Man – all good shows I thoroughly enjoyed. On the other hand, some see last year’s season finale The Madwoman of Chaillot as a nadir in the MTC’s recent history. I’ll confess that after suffering a couple of hours of Williamson’s unfunny satire, tin ear, one-dimensional characterisation and narrative narcolepsy I was getting all nostalgic and misty-eyed for the big sets and bright colours of Madwoman. Gone is the frou-frou flouncing of an over-acting Magda assuming a steely rictus in the face of overacting bit-players ousted from a Yoplait commercial. There, I thought, was a show that was so dumb as to be enjoyable.
Scarlett concerns a 36-year-old waitress who is one of life’s losers. Unlucky in love and burdened with an annoying mother who attempts to dominate her life, she turns to classic Hollywood love stories as a refuge, and pretty soon we realise that she sees everything in her life reflected through these films. We know this because the play tells us so every forty seconds. When the 800th bit of golden oldie footage is projected behind the players to comment subtly on the goings-on going on, we’ve seen enough. Especially when the goings on are something like “a person is going somewhere” and we’re forced to watch a bit of Hollywood celluloid depicting someone going somewhere, except on a horse or something. There’s a pretty fine line between “multimedia suggesting the fantasy-inflected interior life of our protagonist” and “padding required to stretch a fifteen minute scenario into a full-length play”.
The scenario? Tuck in, children. Scarlett is unlucky in love (I know I’ve said that already, but this play treads water for so long that everything gets presented to us at least twice). She decides that the owner of the restaurant in which she works, The Crimson Parrot, might be a bit alright and so promptly falls in love with him in that dizzy, head-over-heels way that that always seems so crazy and romantic and bewildering to friends (and, in this case, the audience). He’s what romantic comedies dub the Wrong Partner, though, since her real true love is the shy guy who keeps turning up to the restaurant alone and soiling his grundies whenever she speaks to him. Wrong Partners are necessary as they keep the audience guessing as to who the heroine will end up with. They’re usually of a higher status than both the lead and the Right Partner, but less sympathetic and rounded. This is the formula behind even the best rom-coms, from It Happened One Night to Bridget Jones' Diary. It’s how you play with the familiar concoction that counts.
In this case, Williamson doesn’t really play with it at all. Occasionally we shift into first gear but most of the time it coasts along in neutral with nothing done to alter the initial setting. Scarlett pines after the head chef while her dorky beau keeps returning and making gaga faces at her. You can only imagine the romantic complications that ensue. I mean that literally, since Williamson decides not to clue us in on them. There’s some vague drama surrounding the potential closing of the restaurant which might make the odd sous-chef clench his fists at the injustices of the fickle dining industry, but I just grimaced like I’d just been served a dodgy curry.
Thing is, I’ve seen Scarlett before. From Emma Bovary to Nurse Betty, she’s just another stinky incarnation of that offensive image of the woman who over-invests in romantic fantasies and loses the ability to see things as they are. She’s daffy and wacky and cute but she’s so caught up in the love myth that she can’t see it staring her straight in the face! For upwards of two hours with nothing resembling a subplot or complication! Excuse me for wondering out loud why there are so few representations of men who can’t tell the difference between images and reality. Oh wait, there’s that whole tradition since Don Quixote. Difference being that the female version is always mixed up about love, but I guess that’s because girls are into love stories and boys are into fightin’ and stuff. Good to see Mr Williamson establishing his place in a long literary lineage, I suppose.
But even Jane Austen satirised the whole notion of the woman who is really, really into stories and fudges up the distinction between fantasy and reality (Northanger Abbey). And I know, I know, Scarlett O’Hara is just a light comedy satirising, like all of Williamson’s work, the “Anglo-Celtic middle class” (that’s a quote from the program). But this is, according to the same program, an “urban, ambitious, literate tribe”. I think that this tribe is only allowed to think of itself in such a way because writers like Williamson present to itself that distorted image. I’d be surprised if the clumsy language, outdated pop-culture references and cringe-worthy slapstick of Scarlett O’Hara didn’t give your average urban, ambitious and/or literate tribesperson the kind of scowly face you get when an inept waitress spills your drink all over you (this situation marks the height of the play’s comedy, too).
I won’t even start on the constant gagging on the “edgy” talk that goes on in professional kitchens, too – Williamson’s Greek guy and his penchant for underage girls; the air-headed waitress nearly assaulted by a pack of footy players; the older gay man whose job I never even understood but whose main reason for existing seemed to involve pouting, camping about and being told to “shut up, you old poof”. Oh Williamson, you irascible devil. Don’t be so un-PC!
If I seem unfairly disposed towards SOATCP, it’s simply because vast sums of money are thrown towards the writing and production of plays that would barely receive a passing grade in a remedial scriptwriting class. Slap DW’s name on it and it’ll have people punching the air and slapping their thighs till they bleed. There are plenty of great writers in Australia today, whatever anyone tells you, and I’d never really gotten the whole Gangland argument in a visceral way until tonight. When I spent two hours clenching my fists like a sous-chef. Check!