A gutsy piece that reveals the toxicity bubbling beneath the glorified surface of some of the nation’s beloved sporting codes.
Ben O’Toole, Anna Samson, Josh McConville. Image by Jeff Busby.
Brendan Cowell’s playwriting debut for Melbourne Theatre Company is The Sublime, a bold, ballsy and brave contemporary play about the poisonous misogynistic behaviour of some professional football players and the destructive fallout from a tragic post-season trip to Thailand. With a storyline that could have been ripped straight from the headlines and easily recognisable flawed characters, Cowell has created a tense, engrossing and shocking drama.
The play begins with the throbbing rock beats of classic Aussie rockers AC/DC, the deafening roar of a crowd and dramatic flashing stadium style lighting. Brothers Dean (Josh McConville) and Liam (Ben O’Toole) bound onto the Fairfax stage whipping the crowd into a frenzy and passing a football back and forth. The brothers launch into separate monologues explaining how they developed the love of their respective games; Dean plays AFL while Liam pursues a career in rugby league. They are soon joined by teenage Olympic athlete in training Amber (Anna Samson) who delivers her own monologue highlighting her dedication to running and the hope that a sporting career will be her ticket out of a mundane life.
Through overlapping prose monologues Cowell’s characters go on to describe the circumstances surrounding the sexual abuse of Amber’s friend during a trip to Koh Samui in which the girls have tagged along with Dean and Liam. Amber’s parents are big fans of star footballer Dean and urge her to attend the trip in the hope he will act as a kind of mentor to the ambitious young woman. The remainder of The Sublime deals with the consequences of that fatal night in Thailand as the characters we thought we knew begin to unravel. No one is left unscathed and the consequences of their actions are more catastrophic than anyone could have imagined.
Cowell’s writing is engrossing; simple, masculine, biting, funny, horrifying and undeniably contemporary and realistic. As a celebrated actor in his own right, Cowell has given these performers wonderful language to work with and each cast member has the chance to shine and demonstrate their versatility. All three actors attack the material with boundless energy (they literally bounce around the stage) and create fully realized characters that are neither fully victim nor villain. In fact the whole play sits in a kind of grey murky space where the audience is never given a straightforward answer as to who is right and who is wrong.
O’Toole brings a larrikin quality to the role of Liam that quickly evolves into a powerful portrayal of masculinity, misogyny and loyalty gone haywire. It is through this character that Cowell explicitly explores the pack mentality and ingrained sexism prevalent in some sporting institutions today. Through Liam the audience also comes to understand the enormous pressure placed upon these athletes and the paradox many of these men face as they try to navigate being thrust into the public spotlight. As Liam says, ‘I’m a football player…I go out onto the field and I try to hit people. And then you ask me to be quiet?’ Samson successfully captures the energy and naivety of youth. Amber is clearly inexperienced at the beginning of the play and witnessing her transformation from wide-eyed dreamer to hardened media martyr is tragic. Josh McConville as Dean portrays all the shades of this complicated and conflicted character with astonishing skill and explosive physicality. Dean seems to be the levelheaded one of the bunch and his love and concern for his brother appears sweet before it all turns quickly sour. The tragic conclusion of the play is made all the more affective due to McConville’s searing and devastating performance. He is sensational in the role.
The Sublime is given a simple staging by director Sam Strong assisted greatly by Dayna Morrissey’s sparse semi-circular stadium style set. With the addition of Danny Pettingill’s striking lighting design and Steve Francis’ perfectly timed sound cues, the audience is successfully drawn into the story; we are on that beach for the hedonistic full-moon party and flies-on-the-wall in the hotel room where the pivotal event takes place. Strong has an uncanny ability to create compelling visuals and narrative cohesion out of the simplest theatrical techniques; dramatic backlighting for entrances and exits, a harmonic placement of bodies within the playing space. The Sublime whips through its intermission-less eighty minutes with style, ferocious energy and commanding clarity.
This play tackles some big issues that are long overdue to be dissected and discussed on the theatrical stage. There are a few plot points and lines of prose that threaten to veer into cliché but these are few and far between. Cowell, Strong and their team have created a gutsy piece that unflinchingly reveals the disturbing toxicity bubbling beneath the glorified surface of some of the nation’s beloved sporting codes and in turn have delivered the best show in Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2014 season so far. Go and see it, if you’re game.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Written by Brendan Cowell
Director: Sam Strong
Set and Costume Designer: Danya Morrissey
Lighting Desinger: Danny Pettingill
Composer and Sound Designer: Steve Francis
Dramaturg: Chris Mead
Assistant Director: Tahli Corin
Cast: John McConville, Ben O’Toole, Anna Samson
Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio, St Kilda Rd
22 August – 4 October
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