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Ben Winspear and Kelly Paterniti. All images: Brett Boardman.

THEATRE: 18 NOVEMBER 2014

By JOHN ROZENTALS

Emerald City, by David Williamson | Directed by Lee Lewis

Griffin Theatre Company | Stables Theatre, Darlinghurst, Sydney | Until 6 December, then plays Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, 10-13 December

There are just six actors in David Williamson’s 1987 masterpiece Emerald City but in this production there’s a seventh character looming as large as any of them, at least for the first half of the performance — the grandeur of Sydney Harbour as seen through the paint box of renowned artist Ken Done.

It was indeed a stroke of genius by Griffin to use Done as principal set designer. Who better to depict the seductive power of Sydney Harbour than a man who has made its charm, beauty and commercial potential his living?

The character of Sydney — the very style of the emerald city — is central to this classic piece of Australian theatre.

It’s a brash, hard place that can eat the unwary and gnaw on their bones, a place in which some really make it and rise rapidly up the ladder of harbour views, while others are left surviving on the park bench.

Colin (Mitchell Butel), a highly regarded but financially marginal screenwriter, has just moved from Melbourne to Sydney with his wife Kate (Lucy Bell), a book editor determined to improve the lot of the downtrodden, even if she has enrolled her kids in the best of private schools.

It isn’t long before Colin is hunted down by Mike (Ben Winspear), an unscrupulous hack writer looking for the necessary cred to make it big time, and finds himself in that biggest of binds — maintaining artistic integrity against coveting that elusive harbourside dwelling.

It also isn’t long before he falls head over heels in lust with Mike’s girlfriend, the supple, very leggy and obviously sexy Helen (Kelly Paterniti).

Meanwhile, Kate, too, is in a conundrum, with the chance of one of her solidly down-to-earth writers winning the Booker Prize and gaining her access to the multi-million-dollar film contracts such success might bring.

All four principal actors deliver outstanding performances, especially Winspear, who is just so, so sleazy and exploitive, yet disarmingly naive, as Mike McCord.

They’re wonderfully supported by Jennifer Hagen as Colin’s agent Elaine, and Gareth Yuen as financier Malcolm.

Williamson not only has an innate ability to get under the skin of the Australian psyche, but also to do it in a way that doesn’t date. This is tense satirical drama with lashings of very funny lines, from a mature writer at the height of his powers.

While some of Williamson’s earlier works have been accused of lacking substance in their provision of strong, complex roles for women, that weakness is nowhere apparent here.

Many of Australia’s greatest stars of theatre and film have been associated with Emerald City — Ruth Cracknell, Robyn Nevin, Nicole Kidman, Chris Haywood, John Hargreaves among them.

Stellar they may be, but it’s also difficult to see the performances of the troupe assembled by director Lee Lewis being topped, and congratulations, too, to costume designer Sophie Fletcher, who has gathered a stunning wardrobe for all concerned.

PS: And a hint about parking, which can be almost impossible around The Stables. Try McElhone Street, just a tad down William Street on the Woolloomooloo side. The walk isn't too bad and you can always have an ale or a chardy on the way back at the Old Fitzroy Hotel, one of Sydney's most charming corner pubs.

Lucy Bell and Mitchell Butel.

Jennifer Hagen.

Gareth Yuen.