Sorting Out Rachel
by David Williamson
Directed by Nadia Tass
Photos by Heidrun Löhr
Ensemble Theatre until March 17
Reviewed by Ron Lee, CSP
When a media release announces the premiere of a new David Williamson play, I’m always in two minds. One says, “Excellent, a new Williamson play”, and at the same time, expectation is high. It’s like entering an Apple Store compared with walking into Target; you anticipate that the customer experience with be far superior and more enjoyable and satisfying in the former.
Since working in the production of Don’s Party at the Jane Street Theatre in the 1970s, I’ve seen Williamson create amazing and an unequalled number of theatrical works that project the Australian-ness of our culture and cultures. “Prolific” isn’t adequate to describe his contribution as a playwright.
So, does Sorting Out Rachel reach or exceed the high bar that has been set, or does this one fall short?
Even though the title is Sorting Out Rachel, Bruce (John Howard, not that one, the actor) is the central character. He’s a traditional, down-to-earth, old school, no-nonsense country boy who was born and raised on the Atherton Tablelands and made his sixty million dollar fortune not always through ethical endeavours.
Bruce and his wife raised the now adult Julie (Natalie Saleeba), whom you suspect was a bit spoilt, being an only child. Craig (Glenn Hazeldine) is Julie’s morally and ethically anaemic husband who is constantly looking for ways to access Bruce’s assets. Craig’s loftiest ambition is to convince Bruce to sell his three-bedroom, harbourside penthouse and move into a one-bedroom apartment so that Craig, Julie and daughter Rachel can move from Haberfield into a Bellevue Hill mansion.
Feeling lonely after his wife’s death, Bruce asks Julie if he can stay with them for a while.
Enter Rachel (Jenna Owen), Craig and Julie’s manipulative teenage daughter who has learnt that tantrums and confrontation are the most effective ways to gain whatever she wants. Craig is weak, complete with a high-pitched voice, and Julie mollycoddles Rachel, so Bruce applies some old-fashioned, tough love.
Disrupting the status quo is Bruce’s illegitimate, indigenous daughter, Tess (Chenoa Deemal), who is driven to channeling most of Bruce’s fortune into her altruistic cause, and she’ll negotiate in any way that’s necessary.
Experienced director Nadia Tass is aware that life consists of a series of individual moments, and she makes the most of the one-to-one scenes, the most powerful being the one involving Bruce and Tess in the second act. Even though the cast is exceptional, Tass manages to pull performances that are entirely authentic and credible, which is especially essential in a play of this type.
So far it sounds like everything is serious, but it’s also big on laughs. Williamson masterfully juxtaposes the intensity of the subject matter and plot lines with his signature Australian humour.
An indication of the artistic success of any theatrical production can be measured by the audience’s emotional involvement. It’s one thing to admire the acting, writing, direction and other aspects of a production and other to ride the waves of emotion with the characters. On opening night, the audience applauded individual scenes and plot progressions; I don’t remember the last time that happened.
So, with Sorting Out Rachel, has Williamson lived up to the towering expectation established by his reputation? His collaboration with Tass as director has lifted the bar even higher, so it will be interesting to see his next offering.
In the meantime, Sorting Out Rachel at the Ensemble Theatre is well worth putting on your “must see” list.