The tendency of the Australian public to hold sports stars up to such levels of exaltation that the worst of human behaviours become something that can be ignored or pushed under the carpet is at the heart of this new commission by the MTC. Talented Aussie playwright (and actor) Brendan Cowell has woven a tight construct around the many, all too familiar situations that often result when footballers from both of our favourite codes step outside the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.
The Saunders brothers have had a love of football since their early childhood having played junior league before both going professional. Dean the elder, leaner in frame and more stolid in nature, veers towards AFL and becomes a household name. Liam – four years his junior – is now 21 and just starting to make a mark on the NRL. While jogging along the Yarra, Dean meets 17-year-old Amber, who’s in training to become an Olympic athlete. An invitation for her to come and watch his next game, leads to Amber and her parents meeting Dean in the dressing room afterwards and a series of fateful events that find Amber and her friend Zoe in a terrifying situation in a Thailand hotel room unfold.
The consequent incidents are reminiscent of so many shameful stories of rape and bodily harm, drug abuse and fame seeking behaviour involving football players and their girlfriends that have plastered both the front and back of newspapers across our country of recent years. What Cowell has done brilliantly here is to devise some form of insight into the minds of the participants. He doesn’t offer judgement or a manufactured twist in order to provide entertainment. He merely paints an all too familiar picture and leaves us with the knowledge that this kind of situation is rife in our society. What we choose to do with it from there is up to us.
In order to tell this tale he has the trio of Dean, Liam and Amber narrate the story in turn, weaving their lines in and around one another, so the story feels like one of a shared mind. Sam Strong’s direction follows this lead and is tightly placed, creating a thrilling energy, so that the characters bounce off each other at an almost electrified, frenetic pace, especially around the script’s most pivotal moments. Strong has encouraged his cast to engage the intimate Fairfax Studio audience directly, looking them in the eyes and high-fiving bemused viewers in the front row as the three congratulate themselves for their supposedly fantastic lives and brilliant achievements. This works marvellously to engage the crowd in the narrative, and only becomes uncomfortable when young Liam goes seeking a handshake after some pretty deplorable behaviour.
All three actors – Josh McConville as the focused AFL player Dean, Ben O’Toole as the jovial League loving Liam and Anna Samson as the excitable Amber – are 100% engaged in their storytelling and work seamlessly together, committing fully to some pretty harrowing material at times. Both O’Toole and Samson fit their characters perfectly, filling them with youthful naivety and visceral energy. As an NRL player and athlete the pair are completely convincing, and you could believe that they are both at home on the football field and running track.
McConville has clearly been working hard on his upper body to give himself a footballer’s build, and getting very lean to show off his biceps and impressive serratus muscles, which do go a long way to building the illusion that his age defies, but there is still a slightly unconvincing impression. However, the kinship between McConville and O’Toole is fully realised, and entirely persuasive, perhaps enhanced by them both having just shared the stage in the STC’s Mojo.
Dayna Morrissey has designed her set to look like a stadium, giving an MCG-like feeling and almost completing a circle with the audience seating. Sam Strong’s stage direction makes great use of the multiple levels this design, integrating the racetrack that cuts through its centre, supposedly leading to change rooms where Amber’s parents portentously betray their responsibilities to her. Danny Pettingill has likewise created stadium lighting that craftily abstracts its use to create more defined moods and enhance the coloured strip lighting built into the set that further defines scenes, particularly those set in Thailand.
It’s fantastic to see a new commission like this on the MTC stage, especially when it seems everyone on the team has pulled together with the same vision, to create a piece of art that is both enthralling and repulsive at the same time. Because when this story comes to its ultimate conclusion it is painfully clear that we have a significant problem in our sport and fame loving society and there is little being done to improve the situation.
Theatre may not be the natural home for sports fans, nor vice versa, but don’t let that stop you seeing this sharply honed production. Its subject is a blemish on both our cultural and societal landscape that just perhaps might get more attention if artistic endeavours such as this are successful.