Surely Malcolm Williamson represented the ultimate process of career self-destruction possible in a culture which had never experienced suicide-bombers. When he died in 2003 after decades of public alcoholism, erotic lunacy, and creative decline, thousands of obituary-readers must have been amazed that he’d survived so long. The man’s death-wish made Yukio Mishima look like Bill Clinton. Accordingly it would be tempting to assume that there was – as Gertrude Stein put it – ‘no there there,’ that the golden boy (born 1931) had been a pasteboard poseur, and that words like ‘genius’ when applied to Williamson in the 50s and 60s had been mere mass-media hype. Yet the Lyric Opera of Melbourne’s recent revival of Williamson’s Our Man in Havana demonstrates how wrong such assumptions are, and how much Williamson deserves remembrance in an Australia which no longer must endure his uncouthness.
Not that the domestic uncouthness could be controverted. Even if Private Eye lied that Williamson had pinched the Queen Mother’s bottom, enough indisputable evidence shows that Williamson graduated from the Peter the Great School of House-Training. In best or worst Lucky Jim fashion he would set fire to the bedroom, though even that underachieving boor never managed Williamson’s feats of flinging others’ plates out of windows or making protracted international calls on hosts’ telephones. Williamson’s marriage-wrecking homosexual promiscuity would have perturbed a Viagra-crazed stoat. And through it all, the booze, the booze, the booze. Shades of Brendan Behan’s creed ‘There’s no such thing as a large whiskey’. Nor did his political whims bespeak sustained acquaintanceship with adulthood. ‘Unless [Thatcher] is put in the confinement of a psychiatric hospital where she belongs,’ he intoned in ‘83, ‘it could be the last election before the end of the nation.’ Yet he drooled over that freedom-loving democrat Tito. James McAuley had told him, with atypical understatement, ‘Oh you are a naïve political animal.’
Williamson based Our Man in Havana on the eponymous novel by Graham Greene, who likewise had converted to Catholicism without any discernible idea of its moral code. If ever a man was born to adapt Greene’s work, it was Williamson. He had all the requisite qualities: the quick-wittedness, the taste for inverted glamour, the quasi-cinematic mind, the evocation of exotic atmospheres with the minimum of visible industry.
Whatever Williamson’s musical genres, he seldom doffed the greasepaint. As with Monteverdi, Rossini, Puccini, and Massenet, so with Williamson: one could have exiled him to the moon, and he would have remained an incorrigibly theatrical composer there. Those who grew up with the LP of Williamson’s one-hour opera Julius Caesar Jones (a co-educational Lord of the Flies, as it were, in its frightening depiction of ritualistic juvenile violence) cannot doubt Williamson’s mastery of drama. Little wonder that such eminent musicians as Dobbs Franks, Richard Mills, and Sir Adrian Boult revered his gifts.
What the Lyric Opera’s revival unmistakably proves is the youthful Williamson’s mercurial virtuoso panache, which never flags. Our Man in Havana must be a technical nightmare to play and sing: there are almost no audible points of repose from which climaxes can be built up. Beside Williamson even the ablest of his contemporaries tend to sound turgid and almost amateurish. In a uniformly laudable Melbourne cast, Martin Thomas Buckingham as the hapless English spy Bramble demands special commendation: he learned at less than a month’s notice a role which forces him to be on stage almost always. Conductor Pat Miller seemed undeterred by even the score’s most outrageous demands, even if the small orchestra – splendidly called ‘the Buena Vista Antisocial Club’ – audibly struggled at some points.
We who were spared the immediate consequences of Williamson’s vexatious aversions to deadlines, sobriety, marital fidelity, and the type of employment where non-performance ensures dismissal, can unabashedly rejoice in his best music’s coruscating brilliance. As Orwell said of H.G. Wells: ‘he has squandered his talents… But how much it is, after all, to have any talents to squander.’
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