‘Ruthless’: David Williamson’s new play puts showbiz under the microscope

The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 January 2019

If playwright David Williamson wasn’t in show business, he says he would be an experimental social psychologist.

“I’ve been less interested in breaking the formal barriers of theatre than investigating the social animal,” he says of his 49-year career.

“I am intensely interested in social behaviour: the way people influence each other, the way they use language to further their own ends and establish their place in the social world.”

This fascination inspired The Big Time, Williamson’s latest play about the lengths people go to succeed in show biz. “It’s apparent the only place to be if you’re in this profession is the big time, at the top,” he says. “Otherwise your life is miserable.”

Williamson has become intimately familiar with this misery over years, with his sons Felix and Rory being NIDA acting graduates and his wife Kristin a journalist and theatre critic.

“I think this will be my 54th play,” he says.”Personally I’ve had an exciting life – I’ve been privileged, I’ve been lucky – but I know so many writers who haven’t. I have two sons who are actors who haven’t.”

“My oldest son [Felix] came to us about 15 years ago and said, ‘it’s all over, I can’t endure it any longer, it’s wrecking my relationship’,” he said.

It was the same with his youngest, Rory: “He said look Dad… I’ve got a family now and I’ve got to get out. It was ruining his relationships too, with his kids and his wife.

“It’s the feeling of worthlessness, depression. When you’re judged all the time and found wanting, you have to feel like a lesser human being, you have to feel shriveled inside.”

The careers of Williamson and those around him have informed the play he describes as a satire steeped in reality. Temptation is dangled in front of several characters, forcing them to choose between long-awaited success and and
betraying the person they love.

“That’s how ruthless it can get – I’ve seen it happen,” he says. “Nothing in this play is something I haven’t seen happen before
my eyes.

“You’re offered the big chance of a life time, but it involves betraying someone close to you. A lot of people will go that
way.”

Williamson regards social life as juggling three balls: self-interest, a desire to be liked by people and desire not to hurt
people. This intricate balancing act is examined in The Big Time, and it’s what Williamson says he would have investigated as a psychologist.

But his concerns aren’t restricted to the realm of performing arts.

“It’s a highly competitive arena that puts enormous psychological pressure on a lot of people,” he says. But more than that, “it’s a reflection on the way our general society is going, where nobody has real job security anymore.”

It is this that seems to disturb Williamson most of all. “Since Thatcher and Reagan decided neoliberalism was the way to go, the world has become a nastier, more competitive, more ruthless place,” he says.

“There’s no perfect society, but I don’t think it needs to be as brutal as it is now.”