What a pleasure it is to see a production of David Williamson’s ‘The Removalists’, originally set in 1971, that understands the importance of staying true to the era in which it was written. ‘The Removalists’ certainly still has themes and characters that are relevant to us today but some of the language has dated the play and feels out of place to set it in contemporary times, as the 2009 problematic production of Wayne Blair’s from STC demonstrated a few years ago. Director Leland Kean has found an effective nod to the time it was written and to its audience today, finding equilibrium in Williamson’s New Wave play.
The narrative focuses on a young police recruit’s first day (Ross) with his crooked sergeant (Simmonds), two women (Kate and Fiona) seeking their assistance over a domestic dispute, Fiona’s resistant husband (Kenny Carter) and the removalist sent to clear the Carter’s household. I can’t imagine there are too many regular theatre-goers who aren’t familiar with ‘The Removalists’- it has been on the prescribed text list for more than one course in the school curriculum for over three decades so chances are you’ve encountered it at some stage in your life.
I first saw it when I was at school in 1984 and I recently directed a school production of it myself. So it’s of interest that I reflect back on it today, almost 30 years later since I first saw it, with the Rock Surfers’ production at the Bondi Pavilion. When I first saw it in 84, the play felt far more normal and now, what stands out is that all this time has passed and here is a play about domestic violence, male brutality, corruption, power and sexism and there is only a limited change in attitudes in 2013.
Let’s first deal with the sexism of the play. Kean has artfully manipulated our understanding and viewing of the treatment of the two sisters Kate and Fiona (Caroline Brazier and Sophie Hensser). Not only do the women respond to the names they’re called like ‘slut’, ‘bike’ ‘twat-flasher’ and ‘bitch’ with lines like, ‘It doesn’t worry us Sergeant. We’re used to it’ but even those men not involved in the action, like the removalist (Sam Atwell) make comment on the women in the play, ‘I think she’s a trollop too’ to Kenny (Justin Stewart Cotta), whose beating of his wife seems inconsequential to the male attitudes abound in the room. Even the sergeant’s (Laurence Coy) first instinct of hearing the domestic nature of the complaint is to farm it off to Ross (Sam O’Sullivan) before stating, ‘Never arrest a wife-basher if his missus is still warm’, said only minutes before his overt sexual claim on ‘assisting’ the women becomes obvious, especially as Coy grabs his groin and leaves us no doubt of the sergeant’s intentions. The women in this play are expected to trade sex for favours and heaven forbid if they are doing it for their own pleasure or gain, that will be used against them too, as Kenny yells to Fiona, ‘you squeal like a stuck pig for me in bed…tell the sergeant how you can’t enough of it sometimes’. The women have no power. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. For a play that deals in the acquisition and maintenance of power, the women are the most vulnerable. And wouldn’t it be nice if we could say in 2013, problem solved? That’s the power of ‘The Removalists’, that the misogyny and heightened male aggression is still so evident and universal.
Kean has achieved giving Williamson’s women more depth than I’ve ever seen in a production of this play. Brazier was outstanding as Kate, who managed to evoke sympathy from the audience which took me by surprise. Truth be known, none of these characters are truly likeable and yet we do feel for the predicament they find themselves in and Kean’s menace in the play aids in that feeling.
O’Sullivan’s portrayal of Ross as less of a victim and more of an idealistic constable, resistant to the sergeant's prying, also makes the ending even more disturbing. Kean highlights how Ross resorts to violence against an already weakened and beaten Kenny showing how these fatal actions of Ross perhaps were not out of character or so surprising, given the pressure on him to show his power as a man. Ross is proud and the verbal humiliation he gets from every other man in that play drives his ‘self-control’ out the window. Men have to hurt other men (and women) to show their worth, whether it is for power, show, defence or domestic reasons, violence is the key to status in this world.
Kean’s production also has great moments of comedy- the opening silence between Simmonds and Ross as Ross ‘bounces up and down on his bloody toes’; the removalist's cocky indifference and repetition of his only concern, money and not people, ‘I’ve got $10,000 worth of machinery ticking over out there in the drive’ is almost the equivalent of Simmonds deal with Kenny to provide him with prostitutes to keep his silence over the beatings. Everything is a deal in ‘The Removalists’ and there is a price to pay for getting what you want, although no-one gets to claim on that deal in the end.
The physical comedy of Ross and the TV set was a hilarious theatrical metaphor of Ross’ own tenuous grasp of his own destiny. And watching the men of the play sit around drinking after the false ending, securing their ‘futures’ and watching Kenny struggle to even open his bottle was an indictment of men refusing to deal with the big picture of their actions and instead comically deal with the immediate fallout. Change is fought by asserting your power through the status quo of aggression and humiliation. Kean has used the absurdity of their dilemma to make the quasi-naturalist elements even more frightening.
There is menace in this play. Cotta’s delivery as Kenny is brutish and ominous. I was frightened of him and I was safely in the second row. Seeing his physical deterioration contrasted to his escalating verbal violence was heightened in this portrayal. Other effects on the audience were audible, such as Simmonds’ own crotch grabbing and bottom slapping of the women, or his sexual leering in regards to Fiona’s bruises, evoked sounds of disgust from the darkness of the audience, especially given the age difference between characters, which adds to the cringe-factor. The shock of Kenny’s appearance, bloody and beaten was another obvious reaction from those watching.
Kean has found a plethora of contrasts to work with in this play- age and generation, powerful and powerless, authority and aggression, not to mention each character’s own journey. We see Fiona trying to reclaim power, we see Kate’s used against her, Kenny’s complete reversal of power, Simmonds lack of self-control from boss to brutalised and Ross’s idealism morphed into a frenzied and panicked murderer. It is only the removalist who remains unmoved and constant and given he is the representative of society, or us, to be clear, we come to understand that Williamson is projecting our own inability to change or aid in the wrongs or injustices of the world. Rob, the removalist, is a cowardly voyeur, to be laughed at as the world crashes around him and he sits, unmoved.
Kean has utilised the elements Williamson gives him in the script and enhanced them with technical imagery. Ally Mansell’s set of the station, as bland as a hospital ward in eucalypt green, with Simmonds ensconced behind his big desk of authority, leaves Ross exposed in the open of the centre stage. Simmonds has the power of the force to lean on whilst Ross has nothing. In the Carter’s household, the stripping away of furniture removes the trappings of domesticity and lets us witness the exposed violence of the men left on stage as they dance their ritual of aggression around the corpse of Kenny. The three doors were another nice touch, especially as they attempt to use the shafts of light to seek solace and power or run out and in, searching for an exit or enlightenment and all doors leading them back to the space they just left. Luiz Pampolha’s lights capture these moments and again, using lights to create the effect of the venetian blinds at the start of each act allows us to be the voyeurs that we accuse the removalist of being. Jed Silver’s soundtrack not only places us back in 71 but he gives each character their own sound of the 70’s, from rock to ballad and offers an insight into the workings of their minds and personalities. Choreographer Scott Witt managed to create realism to the violence that is hard to achieve for the stage.
So in 1971 this play offered us a new theatrical expression, in 1984 this play felt like pure realism, in 2009 STC gave us a production that made ‘The Removalists’ feel completely anachronistic and in my own production I wanted to heighten the absurdity and comedy, Leland Kean and the Rock Surfers found the right balance in 2013. Whether you’re studying the play or not, it is worth heading out to Bondi and watching a quality production that can still captivate the audience of today.