Audiences love to describe Emerald City as a play where two cities are pitted against each other but director Sam Strong says this contemporary classic is first and foremost a relationship drama.
Strong’s affinity with David Williamson’s writing started in high school, when at 16-years-old he performed in a rendition of The Removalists. The following year he directed The Club and discovered there was a joy greater than acting. Part of this thrill sprung from his ability to choose plays that allowed his peers to drink, smoke and swear on stage, he remembers. But more earnestly, Strong recalls connecting deeply to Williamson’s language and the pace with which his dialogue unfurled on stage.
During Strong’s term as Associate Artistic Director at Melbourne Theatre Company, he helped develop the dramaturgy behind Williamson’s play Rupert – an unconventional, revue-style exposition of the life and times of Rupert Murdoch. Williamson and Strong’s writer/director relationship deepened when they opened Queensland Theatre’s new Billie Brown theatre in 2018 with Nearer the Gods. This biographical script about Isaac Newton was an instant critical and commercial success, cementing Strong and Williamson’s connection as artistic collaborators.
‘It doesn’t matter that he’s been doing this at the highest level for five decades … when you get into a rehearsal room or a creative development room with David, he always acts as if it’s his first time. He’s as excited as you’d expect him to be as if it was his very first play.’
‘He fundamentally understands what works for an audience,’ Strong says. ‘It doesn’t matter that he’s been doing this at the highest level for five decades … when you get into a rehearsal room or a creative development room with David, he always acts as if it’s his first time. He’s as excited as you’d expect him to be as if it was his very first play.’ It’s this openness and generosity that keeps Strong signing up for more. ‘It’s energising,’ he says.
One of the greatest challenges of making as much work as someone like David Williamson, Strong believes, is remembering what a privilege that is and how many people would kill for the same opportunity. ‘It’s important to remember how beautiful and exclusive the gift of getting to make work is,’ he acknowledges.
Williamson across the decades
Having premiered over 20 productions at MTC in his 50-year career, it’s clear Williamson understands the science behind unfolding a plot, building suspense, breaking hearts and simultaneously cracking a joke in a room full of people. As a director, Strong is interested in not only executing the playwright’s vision, but applying his own theatrical stamp on a work. With Emerald City, he was determined to elicit contemporary themes in the classic ‘80s Australian drama.
‘We wanted to celebrate David’s five decades of work and we thought there was no better way to do that than with a revival of one of his finest plays. However, I also wanted the challenge of turning the production into something that audiences wanted to see in 2020. The language allows this play to speak effortlessly across time. It’s cross-generational.’
To build his 2020 vision of this contemporary classic, Strong assembled a creative team who he describes as ‘carry-over champions,’ to borrow a phrase from another icon of the 1980s, Sale of the Century. ‘I put together a team of people I knew were really going to love it. Which was a really deliberate choice for this production… actors and designers that I’ve worked with on shows before, so we've got a shorthand and an established dynamic.’
Having grown up between both Melbourne and Sydney in what Strong describes as a ‘bi-urban childhood’, he was also interested in the play’s portrait painted of the country’s two cultural capitals, and the never-ending competition that divides them. This divide, however, is suggestive of a much bigger argument surrounding the struggle to maintain your artistic integrity, he says, which can happen anywhere, at any stage of your career.
At its core, however, he thinks Emerald City is a story about a relationship and the delicate balancing act of two creative careers within that relationship. ‘It's an eminently recognisable partnership,’ he says. ‘And an eminently recognisable challenge in terms of increasing professional opportunities.’ These themes are particularly pertinent for Strong. MTC and QT’s co-production of Emerald City coincides with his first job as a freelance director, having left his role as Artistic Director at Queensland Theatre last year to support his wife’s professional creative ambitions.
‘It’s important to stage contemporary classics alongside the plays that will become classics … And also you can’t have classics unless they’re alive. So if we’re going to have a canon at all we need to revisit these works.’
Strong is known, at MTC and beyond, for his talent in restaging classic works. His repertoire includes Private Lives, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, The Crucible, The Floating World and Speaking in Tongues to name a few. This, he believes, is part of fostering a healthy new writing culture in Australia. ‘It’s important to stage contemporary classics alongside the plays that will become classics,’ he says. ‘If we only look back further into our dramatic repertoire; into Shakespeare or Chekov, we’re missing out on our recent dramatic history and the chance to properly interrogate that history. And also you can’t have classics unless they’re alive. So if we’re going to have a canon at all we need to revisit these works.’
Emerald City in 2020 will deliver the unexpected, Strong says. Dale Ferguson’s set and costume design, whilst honouring the period the drama is set within, will help re-contextualise the story for modern audiences. After all, our clothing choices, haircuts and taste in music may have altered, but our communication skills or ability to resolve high-stake conflicts may not be all that different.
See Emerald City at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner from 6 March to 18 April.
Published on 19 February 2020