Monday June 17, 2024


By Diana Simmonds
March 15 2024

THE GREAT DIVIDE, Ensemble Theatre, 15 March-27 April 2024. Photography by Brett Boardman: above - Caitlin Burley and Emma Diaz; below - Kate Raison and Georgie Parker; below again - Raison, James Lugton and John Wood

David Williamson – beloved playwright of middle-class Australians even as he pokes them with sharp sticks – is at it again. This time his target is one with which he’s only too familiar: the ruin of coastal beauty by the rich. First Pearl Beach, then Byron and Noosa, now the lightly fictional Wallis Heads: Williamson’s seen it over and over and he doesn’t like it. In program notes, he writes that when he was a kid in the fifties, Australia was the second most egalitarian country in the developed world. Now it’s the third least. (And Justin Hemmes bought four pubs in Narooma, once an idyllic slice of Australian ordinariness.)

It bothers Williamson even as he’s conscious of being on the comfy side of what he calls The Great Divide. That bother is the heart of The Great Divide wherein shelf-stacker and single mother Penny (Emma Diaz), finds herself battling property developing richest woman in Australia, Alex (Georgie Parker).

The future of Wallis Heads is at stake: social housing for the town’s working-class renters or luxe villas for incoming wealthies. And as is demonstrated in real life, it really is a case of “either/or” because stratospheric house prices turn a home into an investment and that’s the end of humanity as we knew it.   

Caught up in the competing interests, when Alex arrives in town with long-suffering PA Grace Delahunty (Kate Raison), are the locals. Among them, is newspaper proprietor-editor Brian (James Lugton) who’s almost embarrassed at harbouring journalistic ethics and principles. An unwitting pawn is Penny’s wannabe surfing champion teenager Rachel (Caitlin Burley). And there’s Wallis Heads mayor, Alan Bridger (John Wood) of that uniquely Aussie sub-species, the Colourful Identity. And he’s never met a policy he couldn’t overturn.


The Great Divide is the dilemma of so much of Australia now. When Alex offers Rachel a scholarship that will help her achieve her dream, it's impossible not to think of netball’s Diamonds being offered $15 million to wear Gina Rinehart’s logo. What will Rachel do? Will almost bankrupt Brian be pragmatic and support development to save his paper? Will Mayor Bridger turn his back on untold rewards? (You won’t need three guesses.)

Ably directed by Mark Kilmurry, the action revolves around a MacBook Air on a set consisting of an almost elegant room with two doorways in a wall of plantation shutters. They reveal a stylised land- and seascape from dawn to dusk and back again (design: James Browne, lighting: Veronique Benett). Sound designer Daryl Wallis uses fragments of time-sensitive songs to punctuate and place the mainly short, sharp scenes, while the actors get stuck in, no holds barred.

For two hours including interval, gorgeous sweetie-pie Ensemble favourite Georgie Parker gives many audients audible conniptions as the rapacious property developer. Her energy is as hot as her character is cold as she chews the plantation shutters plus anything else within reach.

As Grace – who’s put up with Alex for “seventeen and three-quarter years” – the accomplished, gorgeous Ensemble favourite Kate Raison is the dowdy eminence behind the throne while clad in the most distractingly ugly suit ever to hang on a sale rack. An audient remarked, “She looks like a shorthand and typing teacher from the 1950s.” But there’s more to Grace than dodgy synthetics.


The soul of the play turns on remarkable scenes between Rachel and Penny. As the permanently furious teenager who’s oblivious to anything beyond herself, Caitlin Burley gives the performance of the night and is an exceptional newcomer. Similarly, Emma Diaz’s depth as the once-teenage mother with dreams of her own is heartrending. The interactions between the two range from demonic fury to deep love via endless frustration, all written with true understanding.

The outcomes for all, and Wallis Head, are neither predictable nor a surprise – oddly enough. The Great Divide is today’s unwelcome headlines with laughter and hope where you least expect them. From past experience, I hesitate to say it could do with a trim but… meanwhile, it’s as entertaining and thought-provoking as you’d expect from "a Williamson". Recommended.



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