Heretic by David Williamson. Sydney Theatre Company at the Canberra Theatre Centre. Directed by Wayne Harrison.Designer: John Fenczuk. Cast includes Robin Ramsay, Paul Goddard, Elizabeth Alexander, Peter Carroll, Jane Harders with Henri Szeps. Season: Wednesday June 12 - Saturday June 15, 1996.
Heretic comes to town next Wednesday June 12. This is David Williamson's newest play, about the personal and intellectual relationship between ANU's very much alive Derek Freeman and the now long dead but not forgotten doyenne of social anthropology, Margaret Mead.
Professor Freeman appears on stage both as a young man and as the older and wiser man he now is, so we will see played out the frustrations which we all experience - sometimes comic, sometimes sad - when we reflect upon our past actions. Margaret Mead created a guru response, especially in her book Coming of Age in Samoa, which became the bible of the view that human behaviour is essentially socially constructed.
In contrast to her Western society where "Adolescence was characterized as the period in which idealism flowered and rebellion against authority waxed strong, a period during which difficulties and conflicts were absolutely inevitable", she found "The Samoan background which makes growing up so easy, so simple a matter, is the general casualness of the whole society" and asks the obvious question: "What is there in Samoa which is absent in America, what is there in America which is absent in Samoa, which will account for this difference?"
Mead's description of the sexual freedoms of the Samoan adolescent girls has certainly had its effect on all of us. But was her picture of teenage promiscuity the truth? Derek Freeman fell for the guru until his own research showed Mead's study to have been at fault. Her work became the ideology against which Freeman appears to be a heretic.
Williamson plays not just with the academic issue, but with the nature of the personalities involved. Margaret Mead, according to Williamson, saw herself in a spiritual plane - perhaps she believed in herself as a guru - and her clash with Freeman, the rational man, on the one occasion they met face to face is a moment of dramatic force central to Heretic.
To deal with these characters, David Williamson has become a heretic, too. He set the tradition of the Australian middle-class naturalistic narrative play spiced with verbal wit which has kept him commercially successful for decades. But in his recent Dead White Males he allowed William Shakespeare to confront today's academics in a comic shoot-out. This, he claims, has freed his inhibitions, so we will see Derek the Younger and Derek the Elder, and also Margaret the Dead in what should be a fascinating spiritual contretemps. Williamson, in breaking the unity and thread of his own form of theatre, believes now that he can create what he has described as a greater density in the stage interactions.
So Heretic becomes a new challenge for director Wayne Harrison and designer John Fenczuk. Characters can now be represented in new exciting ways, the success of which we will be able to judge for ourselves next week. As Margaret Mead wrote about the Samoans, as she thought she knew them in 1925, "The attitude towards virginity is a curious one". We will discover what Derek Freeman found out about this, while my curiosity will be focussed as well on the birth of a new kind of play. I wonder how the older David Williamson looks at the plays of his youth. Will this be a second coming?
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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