How could I refuse an invitation to the opening night of a new play by Australia’s most prolific playwright David Williamson? Last year it appears I was the only onliner who did not attend, nor comment on Don Parties On – and the raging around that production was largely dramaturgical… (See here Diana Simmonds’ response) There’s a great history/context lesson in James Waites’ recent post (click here) about Australian playwrights being household names. Well, Williamson certainly is that… and as he should be – he’s has his plays produced for over 40 years and his bio reads like an HSC English reading list… it’s no wonder he’s been named one of Australia’s Living National Treasures.

The play focuses on questions around Australia’s current health care system, the right to treatment especially in the context of an aging population. Co-written with Mohamed Khadra, Professor of Surgery at the University of Sydney, At Any Cost is a portrait of family conflict over lifestyle, quality of life and economics. Directed by Sandra Bates, the cast comprises of some of Australia’s best actors – Tyler Coppin, Tracy Mann, Daniel Mitchell, Kate Raison, Martin Vaughan and the team behind this production is fantastic.

However, this feels very much like a patchwork play – and perhaps that’s because it has two authors – and those authors have two very distinct and segregated voices, styles and functions in the overall presentation of the work. This isn’t necessarily a bad way for a surgeon and a living treasure to collaborate , but certain could do with some dramaturgical rigour. What we are left with is a very basic play, with much repetition of ideas and observations, cliched characters accompanied by some razor sharp one-liners. The opinion of the playwrights on the subject of continuing to treat patients who rely on hospital treatment to stay alive (ie if they turn off the machine or are not treated, they will pass away) is blazingly clear and leaves little or no discovery or independent discovery for an audience.

As such the post-show discussion in the foyer post show was a little more lively and invigorating than the staged production. I had been asked how I found the play. I personally felt that this play was not written for nor was addressing me… – and no sooner had I said that, then there was a forceful personal accedote offered to me by way of a request to reconsider the relevance of this subject to me. Unfortunately I didn’t quite get the chance to explain myself and I didn’t want to cause a scene. So here I am hoping to clarify what I mean by that. And I know that as a young woman amongst the more experienced punters at The Ensemble, I would have appeared to be a part of generation Y (or the Me generation’s) self-obsessed “ain’t got nuffin’ to do with me why should I care?” reputation. But what I wanted to say was this – That I felt the play didn’t speak to me, or was written for me because I have already made up my mind about the right to refuse treatment. I also found nothing particularly surprising or confronting about the characters, their ideology, their perspectives. The writing contained no room for subtext or intrigue, I wasn’t challenged or surprised. I felt like I had nothing in common with any of the characters, who seems to have very little internal dialogue (can you tell that I AM a person who has much internal dialogue) and for those reasons, I declare that this play wasn’t written for me. But I didn’t get to say that, instead, I decided to gently call it a night.

But this is a subject that will speak very firmly and loudly to the Ensemble subscribers – it is a terrifying message for the elderly and the unwell. The arguments against turning off machines and letting nature run it’s course are emotional, and the arguments for turning off the machines are logical – and yet this conflict erred on the side of the logical and left us listening to a chatty family debate.

However, Williamson has a knack for producing some keen observations about Australian vocabulary, has no qualms in getting work up and out there in order for foyer conversation to get lively. And in that he certainly succeeded. Certainly.

I do wish that a dramaturg would have the guts to work with him and wrestle with him over his work. But I understand it could be impossibly intimidating – afterall the few Dramaturgs I know are younger than Williamson’s total career. Perhaps, then this is the suggestion, and yes I know it may seem a little strange, but perhaps a good once over with PlayWriting Australia might help sharpen up the script, conjure up a little more than cliches and allow the actors a bit more room to live in the characters?