Emily Collyer’s ‘Contest’, playing at Northcote Town Hall, is an incisive and moving portrait of five women on a netball team. They are each defined by their own struggles and their own rubbings up against the patriarchy that seeks to destroy them. The characters are diverse in background and experience, which is such a treat to see on an Australian stage, which is almost always devoid of anyone not male/white/without a disability. It makes for a unified story with many intricately spun internal worlds, which Collyer evokes with a fascinating mixture of writing styles: spooling monologues branch off into glimpses of each of the women’s private lives; poetic refrains peek at an emotional and even spiritual world; vibrant and sometimes acerbic dialogue portrays the competitive nature of modern-day life. The mash-up of writing styles mostly works, and certainly each element plays a role in the whole play, however there are some parts in the play where the styles jump a little too much to feel cohesive.
The real strength of ‘Contest’ is its physicality. So rare is it to see five women on stage together that just the site of their bodies in space attracts dramaturgical interest, but the deep and unyielding physicality of their netball warm-ups, drills, and strength training, means that the internal struggles of these characters are made external, affective, and visceral. There is something cathartic but also unsettling in seeing women’s sweat pour down their faces, and their muscles shake with effort. This, combined with Collyer’s writing, makes for a dynamic conversation between mind and body, language and motion.
Romanie Harper’s design adds another element to the piece; it literally shudders and bangs with urgency, hinting at the problematic nature of all that is unsaid between the characters. It ends up almost becoming a character of its own, almost demanding that the women pay attention to each other, wake up to what is going on, and engage with their physical environment.
The performers work brilliantly together as an ensemble – their supportive compassion towards each other as actors is palpable, and each woman brings their character forth with strength, courage and empathy.
Although there are elements of the production that will no doubt tighten up as they grow into their run, the all-female-created ‘Contest’ is a play that we need more of; we need these plays to be supported and seen (something that Collyer herself has written about for Overland Journal), so that we may inch our way towards a more interesting and vibrant theatre industry.