A Conversation
Stir Theatre @ UniSA City West (HH5-08)
12:00pm, Wed 15 Mar 2006
Utilising the concept of restorative justice, David Williamson's A Conversation explores the complex and prickly emotions surrounding violent crime. The restorative justice angle allows Williamson to tackle issues on both sides of the criminal/victim fence; the end result, whilst not the most polished gem, is certainly engaging and thought-provoking.
The lecture theatre venue creates an odd feel as the characters arrive for their meeting; Derek and Barbara, the parents of a girl brutally raped and murdered by a young man currently up for parole review. The man's mother, uncle, and siblings appeal to the girls parents for compassion, offering up their own grief to counter that of the victims. Facilitating the meeting is Williamson's anti-hero Jack Manning (under-played by a Ledger-esque Tristan Hudson), whose most aggressive act is bullying lawyer Gail into staying for the meeting too.
The initial interactions play out as you'd expect - Derek, the grief-stricken holier-than-thou father, surrounds his pain with hard facts, his confrontational nature making the meeting seem pointless. The family of the perpetrator trot out the "we know he's a bad egg, but he's family" line. The accusations seem to repeat themselves ad infinitum. But then subtle changes occur, as evidenced by the targets of blame. The boy, the girl, the lawyer, the suburb, the government, society in general - all are brought to bear by Williamson, and none are allowed to remain white or black. Choice versus opportunity (or lack thereof) is another theme that seems to permeate the script that didn't feel afraid to point fingers everywhere and offer no real solutions.
The cast is patchy - there's some delightful character work (witness the tense coffee-making ceremony of Bob and Coral), but also some dead weight (Mick and Lorin, the criminal's very different siblings, are each annoying in their own unique ways). As previously mentioned, the central character of Jack is perhaps too soft; but the pivotal roles of Derek and Barbara (Patrick Frost and Helen Geoffreys, respectively) were utterly convincing - recalling Derek roar "he's not part of my world" still brings chills.
As I write this, I'm struck by the similarities this piece has to 12 Angry Men, and that's not necessarily a bad thing… both presented a seemingly cut-and-dried scenario, then twisted it into a compassionate pretzel. At 2 hours, A Conversation is perhaps a touch over-long, and the constantly circling script (loops of blame, guilt, responsibility abound) and repeated phrases treat the audience with all the subtlety that one expects from the classic Australian playwright. But sometimes the sledgehammer approach is the best way to make your point; A Conversation certainly demonstrates this by frequently smacking us soundly with the premise, and letting us draw our own conclusions. Satisfying stuff, indeed.