Savages

Theatre, Drama
Recommended
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Savages
Photograph: Helen White
L-R: Actors Yure Covich, Thomas Campbell, Troy Harrison and Joseph Ber

Poetry and brutal masculinity are strange bedfellows in this cruise-ship-set play by Patricia Cornelius, inspired by the Diane Brimble case.

Within 24 hours of stepping onto a cruise liner in 2002, Dianne Brimble was drugged, sexually assaulted, and found dead in a cabin belonging to four young men. The crime served as inspiration for Patricia Cornelius’ play Savages (which premiered in 2013 at Melbourne’s Fortyfivedownstairs). It follows four men who pledge to leave their baggage behind as they board a cruise – only they can’t let go of their anger.

We meet George (Troy Harrison), Rabbit (Josef Ber), Craze (Yure Covich) and Runt (Thomas Campbell) as they board the ship and roam it like a pack, occasionally battling for alpha status, always looking for and at women. They are tired of work and their everyday lives. They’ve never been anywhere. They’ve never seen anything. They have kids, and exes, and scars. They feel, collectively, that they deserve greatness, and that they are constantly handed disappointments.

Their tiny cabin is like a slap in the face (don’t they deserve better?) and the women they meet in the ship’s nightclub won’t dance with them (don’t they know what they’re missing?) or they’re too ugly, fat, or old to be considered a viable sexual partner (don’t they know they don’t belong in the same room as these men?).

And then things get worse.

Campbell, Harrison, Ber and Covich are sharp performers who follow the play’s ebb-and-flow of aggression and melancholy with an almost terrifying ease. Covich is at risk of losing his composure from the first minute, and Campbell’s underdog Runt is finely honed – he takes up less space than his cohorts, and his contributions to the group frequently sound like an apology rather an a declaration. It’s a finely observed portrait of insecurity that seems harmless at first, but will turn into something more menacing later.

The script for Savages is essential and exciting, but this Darlinghurst Theatre Company production is bogged down by Tim Roseman’s paint-by-numbers direction. Every movement onstage feels highly choreographed (presumably by Roseman and movement director Julia Cotton), betraying the careful balance in the script of theatricality and informality. The opening scene, a montage of writhing male bodies filtered through haze, is a puzzlingly mysterious image when the play itself is so opposed to mystery: this play is an exposé, not a pageant.

Cornelius writes with barely suppressed rage and devastating confidence. The four men speak in rapid rhyme and densely lyrical imagery rooted in casual Australian vernacular, and it’s the familiarity of it all that makes the play so unsettling and so successful. Any women and most men watching this would recognise the guys on Jeremy Allen’s vaguely-nautical, no-nonsense set. This is every straight man who thinks it’s funny to stand in a woman’s way on the street, forcing her to brush past him. This is every aggressive come-on, every spiked drink, every guy who decides a yes to sex two weeks ago means yes to sex again right now, because he wants it, and his wants are more important than anything a woman says.

This play is a festering sense of unease that is denied any kind of release when the lights come up and the audience files out of the theatre. It doesn’t need careful getting-dressed sequences or shallow pageantry because on its own, this play will linger. It’s hard not to long for a production of this play with a woman as director. How would Kate Gaul or Sarah Goodes have approached this?

Despite the over-direction, this play feels like everywhere. This is Australia’s social disease: Australian women die too often by violence at the hands of men (79 women in 2015); one in five of us have experienced sexual violence; one in three have experienced physical violence. This play is ugly. And it’s home.

Savages, with its all-male cast, is never going to pass the popular but flawed Bechdel test, a methodology used a measurement for feminist content. But this play is here for Australian women by validating every one of their stories. It’s a justification for every AVO and police report and every woman who’s too scared to report. It’s a vicious indictment of the socialisation of Australian men, tracing a disturbingly real path for many from feeling mild frustration to enacting acts of violence against women.

By: Cassie Tongue

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