Company Eleven: Third World Blues

David Williamson’s writing, produced on stage and screen, as well as being on school curricula, for over 40 years has brought him the honour of being one of Australia’s Living National Treasures. His Third World Blues is the first production for new theatre company, Company Eleven.

Third World Blues. Rehearsal photo by 3 Fates Media
Rehearsal photo by 3 Fates Media

Williamson’s plays focus on human relationships and communication, or lack of it. Third World Blues is his 1996 revamp of a play called Jugglers Three, originally written in 1972, when he was 30. He decided the play would benefit from 25 years of experience and insight about the effects of the war in Vietnam, in the 1960s and 70s, in Australia.

Soldiers who had witnessed horrors during the fighting often returned home to domestic traumas and had difficulties readapting to everyday life. Graham (Nelson Gardner) is eager to meet his wife again, but instead finds himself confronted with Neville (Evan Lever), who has not only become his wife’s lover but also has a conflicting attitude to the war. Intimidation and contempt for Neville results in a powerful performance of  understated anger. “War does tend to be tense because people want to kill you!”, Graham tells Neville as he has him by the throat.

This new theatre company, Company Eleven, was founded by graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts Bachelor of Music Theatre, many of whom were trained there by the play’s director Margot Fenley, who has every right to be proud of them. None of the cast let her down.

To have the opportunity to perform in a Williamson play would be considered a gift by most actors because of the skill needed to deliver his satirical wit and clever manipulation of Shakespearean quotes, as well as the demanding mood changes and vocal tremulations.

For Australians not directly associated with wars, current or past and far removed from this country, it can often be a case of “out of sight, out of mind”, especially for those already a generation removed.

For this reason the two leading women, Hannah Fredericksen (Elizabeth, Neville’s wife ) and Alana Tranter (Keren, Graham’s wife) showed great initiative in approaching Fenley with the play. The history may have been taught but, almost half a century ago, there was little counselling available for soldiers returning from war and the level of understanding of their characters by these two women was a credit to them.

Reading about Australian life and its vicissitudes just doesn’t do it the way Williamson does. His words are brought to life by the actors, and it’s the poignancy of Graham’s unburdening to the unfaithful and recalcitrant Keren that delivers the final punch.

The plot surprises kept coming and the pace never wavered. This was supported by designer Marc McIntyre’s incorporation of a ping pong table into a living room setting to give the characters a chance resolve their differences. All resulted in a highly successful production about the futility of war and the dangerous similarity of situations that can arise from a lack of understanding, commitment and resolution on our own home fronts.

I hope Williamson will write yet another play in this vein, pertinent to today’s constant wars, that will keep that awareness of the repercussions alive, especially for such talented young people to perform.

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