How do you approach a play like David Williamson’s The Club in 2018? This scathing 1977 comedy takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to the toxic cultures lurking inside footy clubs, from puffed-up politics to misogyny and sexual assault, but that doesn’t mean it’s a cathartic or illuminating text. It’s so packed with masculinity its nearly suffocating, and while all the violence and sexism within it is clearly condemned, it’s a lot to sit with and take in, especially in a year where 66 Australian women have been killed by male violence.
Adelaide-based company isthisyours? have found a solid solution: stage The Club with a cast of women. Jude Henshall, Louisa Mignone and Ellen Steele share six roles, and their workaround for doubling is hilarious at first – they clip wigs to wires and dash to each for their designated line – though it’s wearying, and doesn’t swing back around to being funny again until well into the second act. It’s the shattering of momentum that undermines the gag during the stretch of the first act, which is a great one in theory.
But it is indicative of the spirit of the play: find the ridiculous and separate it from the harmful, and follow the two on separate, concurrent lines. For the most part, isthisyours? and director Tessa Leong keep this in sight, and it makes the play’s final, more twisted reveals still genuinely absorbing. Leong has a good eye for narrative structure and shape, and she manages to almost retro-fit The Club with a greater sense of its own capacity and capability for satire.
The cast’s glued-on mustaches and exaggerated period wigs ridicule the male rituals on display (later, following the idea to its obvious conclusion, two actors appear in full-length inflatable penis suits), but they don’t stop there. Some scenes are read with the actors wearing the commonly-accepted markers of femininity – lipstick and heels – suggesting that these issues are not exclusively male-owned and perpetrated, and that gender is a construct we’ve all decided to accept as real and binary. It’s a knotty, necessary layer that reveals the deep consideration behind all the blow-up dicks, and how consistent the production is with its own humour and choices.
Henshall near steals the show as Ted and Jock, two of the most blustery, ridiculous men you’ve ever met – both with healthy delusions about their own power – and Mignone holds the play together as its most frequent straight-man, Gerry, and its most rebellious, Geoff. Ellen Steele’s dialect work, from beleaguered coach Laurie to game-obsessed player Danny, is genuinely, subtly, dazzling.
But it is a messy, madcap production, and your patience with it will vary. There are anachronisms (a mobile phone appears) and many ambitious visual gags (an extended one tackles the somber, absurd value placed on the photos that make up the club’s hall of fame). Sometimes humour takes precedence over the story, abandoning the scene’s natural rhythm to apply their own. It’s a little anarchic, but of course it is. And of course it should be.
Still, it’s downright refreshing to see women place their own mark on a play, and a playwright, considered an influential cornerstone of the Australian theatrical tradition. And it’s exciting to see a company take a pass from the past and run with it with gusto and panache. It’ll leave you thinking, and it’s a gift to think: it means that the play’s deeper currents stick with you long after the gags have worn off.