The Removalists (Tamarama Rock Surfers) runs at the Bondi Pavilion from 14 May – 15 June 2013. By David Williamson, directed by Leland Kean.
If there is a canon of Australian plays, then The Removalists is certainly part of it. Set in 1971, David Williamson’s iconic meditation on police brutality and domestic violence is brought vividly to life in this revival at the Bondi Pavilion. It is sharply realised and blackly funny, making the audience deeply uncomfortable even as they laugh. And yet, given the fact that is canonical and set in the past, it is a frustrating piece of theatre. Has anything actually changed?
The story is a familiar one (certainly to the many HSC students who have been made to study the play, anyway). It is Constable Ross’s (Sam O’Sullivan) first day on the job. He is lectured about what it really means to be a policeman by his new sergeant, Sergeant Simmonds (Laurence Coy) who has apparently not made an arrest in 23 years on the job, when two women, Kate and Fiona (Caroline Brazier and Sophie Hensser respectively), come into the police station. Fiona has been battered by her husband Kenny, and when the two policeman, assisted by a removalist (Sam Atwell), come to her apartment to help her move out the furniture she has purchased, they encounter –and batter – said husband (Justin Stewart Cotta), to the point where it seems that the villain of the piece almost becomes the victim.
This is a deeply unsettling piece of theatre, and this production does not shy away from that at all. The battered wife manages to escape from her abusive husband, and for that, we should definitely be glad, but this story feels like a subplot. The primary plot is about violence between men: specifically, police and criminals. Both stories unfold as the removalist watches on. He functions as the outside world, uncaring and unchanging, as long as he gets to knock off on time. Black comedy is a troubling genre, because it can be hard to know quite what it is making fun of. In The Removalists, no one is mocked. We laugh because if we don’t, then we’ll have to cry. Beneath the jokes is a deep and horrifying story, made even less palatable by the comic treatment.
Leland Kean’s revival of David Williamson’s play has maintained the setting. This is very much 1971, with Errol Flynn movies watched on wood panelled televisions and police reports written (or not) on typewriters. In his author’s note in the program, Williamson notes that this choice highlights how little has changed between 1971 and today, especially as regards domestic violence. I agree with this point, but would also note that the setting risks creating a sort of fantastical distance between the show and the audience: painting a picture of how things were “back then” as opposed to now. (This is a matter for the individual audience member to decide: I interpreted it the former way, but deal enough with interpretations like the latter in my academic life to know that such a reading is possible when dealing with texts set in the past, even if that past is relatively recent.)
All six performers did a great job – I must especially commend Justin Stewart Cotta as Kenny, who is probably the best at acting injured I’ve ever seen – but I felt like the project of the revival could have been a little more clearly defined. The text doesn’t necessarily have to have an overt mission – Williamson’s script is a comment, not a sermon – but at times, I wasn’t exactly sure where this production was going. If it was to show how little attitudes towards women have changed, then it definitely succeeded, but what about all the differing politics of masculinity in the play? Putting Kenny in an AFL jersey was a nice touch (reminding one of Williamson’s 1974 Meanjin essay, where he talks about Kenny as “a great fucker and a great fighter”, someone who takes pride in his ability to absorb pain, as well as making a pertinent comment about the treatment of footballer’s wives today) but at times, I feel like there needed to be more nuance to the attitudes of the male characters towards the other men in the play. This is especially true of the lackadaisical Sergeant Simmonds: sure, he was trying to impress Kate with his brutalisation of Kenny, but is that all there was to it? Whence comes his strange hypocrisy, offended at Kate’s adultery at one minute, talking about the call girls he frequents the next? I feel like there could be quite a fascinating exploration of different modes of masculinity using this text, but in that respect, this production didn’t quite get there for me. (However, this might be a function of the text rather than the production: The Removalists is very much an observation, and thinking about it in terms of a “message” is a fraught practice.)
That said, this is a very, very good revival of Williamson’s classic text. While maintaining the play’s 1971 setting might have limited some avenues which could be explored, Leland Kean has directed a lean, taut production that really packs a punch (dark pun intended). It is the kind of show that makes you deeply uncomfortable watching it because some elements of it are so familiar: how often have we been the removalist, willing to ignore something horrible so it didn’t interfere with our lives?