David Williamson, who gave us the warts-and-all black comedy of The Club 35 years ago, is taking another off-field peek into footy club shenanigans with Managing Carmen.
This time, though, Australia's unofficial playwright laureate is not so much walking like a fly on the wall of the club boardroom, where the latest plot to sack the coach is being hatched, but is lifting up the skirts of a secret that challenges the liniment-sniffing masculinity of football culture.
Like Monty Python's macho lumberjack, Williamson's Brownlow medallist, Brent Lyall, likes dressing up in women's clothing. Outside of Mad Monday and player revue nights, such a predilection is bound to end in tears.
Speaking by phone from his home in Noosa, where he is working on the script for his bio-play about Rupert Murdoch, Williamson says Managing Carmen satirises commercial exploitation in sport but encompasses wider themes about tolerance and love.
He's particularly excited about how the Black Swan/ Queensland Theatre Company co-production will play out in footy-mad Perth, where it heads after its current Brisbane season, which has won standing ovations and some enthusiastic reviews.
"Don't take my word for it but the standing ovation at the first preview was the first time that had ever happened to me in my career," Williamson says. "WA is in for a treat because Wesley (Enoch of QTC) is a wonderful director and he has just done a stunning production. It is just throbbing with theatrical energy from the time it starts to the time it finishes."
The premise of how an image- conscious manager goes into damage control after learning that his precious star player is a cross-dresser may well be set up for laughs. But Williamson says Managing Carmen takes on some serious issues as the AFL and other sports undertake campaigns against intolerance, whether homophobia, sexism or racism.
"Those with ears to the ground know that there are star players who have had private predilections that their managers have been desperate to hide," he says. "But the macho conventions of the game are such that it would be suicidal for it to come out.
"It is not a frivolous play or a silly idea. It is certainly connecting in terms of the humour but there is a moment when the player fronts the press and puts a case for tolerance and the audience bursts into spontaneous applause. The audience is reading it as a plea for wider tolerance, not just of a football player."
Researching the play, Williamson was surprised to discover that 85 per cent of cross-dressers are not gay (as is the case in the play). "There is some kind of display need that they don't get in their masculine persona that is catered for."
When product endorsements constitute the lion's share of their income, players' marketability extends to their love life. Elite athletes' partners are expected to look like Angelina Jolie, which means Lyall is conflicted by his strong feelings for a girl who doesn't fit the typical WAG mould.
A long-time Collingwood fan, Williamson now admits to being a "dual citizen" Swans follower, a consequence of too many years of living in Sydney and taking his sons to see the footy there.
The winner of four AFI awards and 12 AWGIE stage-writing prizes, Williamson's stage successes include Don's Party, The Club, The Department, Travelling North, Emerald City and Brilliant Lies. He also wrote the screenplays for Gallipoli, Phar Lap, The Year of Living Dangerously and Balibo.
He turned 70 in February but has been as busy as ever after a short "retirement" in the mid-2000s because of heart problems. Last year, he was in Perth to see the world premiere of When Dad Met Fury, a try-out season during which the play's many deficiencies were exposed.
After a major rewrite, it was a hit for Sydney's Ensemble Theatre earlier this year. "I have got Perth to thank for glaringly showing me its shortcomings. What appeared on the Sydney stage bore little resemblance to what Perth saw. It was a ground-up rewrite."
There is no such risk with Managing Carmen, which features Underbelly Razor stars John Batchelor and Anna McGahan and which has been through an exhaustive workshopping process and 21 drafts of the script, Williamson says.
Last year, he wrote Don Parties On, a 40th anniversary sequel to Don's Party in which the characters from Don's boozy, wife-swapping, 1969 Federal election party return to recapture or obliterate their past.
However, Managing Carmen should not be seen as a sequel or direct descendant of The Club, he says. "It is set in a football arena and it does touch on commercialisation. But The Club was set in an era when commercialisation was thought to be about paying players to play sport. Now commercialisation is to do with product endorsement."
He says sport seems to have become more about commercial success than triumph in the arena.
"It almost seems that on-field performance is important not so much to win games, but to maximise the income earned through commercial endorsements. No one would want to deny a champion their just rewards, and . . . it would be odd if sportsmen didn't chase the dollar like everyone else. But sometimes the scramble for the sports dollar borders on the grotesque."Managing Carmen is at the Heath Ledger Theatre from November 10 to December 2.
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