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This international hit gets its Sydney debut in the city’s leading pub theatre
Sydney’s Old Fitz Theatre frequently punches above its weight, producing some of the city’s most gripping drama. But to secure the Australian premiere of a play that was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama is a major coup for a tiny theatre in the basement of a pub.
Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves premiered in New York in 2016 and takes place inside an indoor soccer facility, where nine teenage girls spend their weekends ferociously competing against other teams of teenagers. The competition isn’t the main concern of the play; instead, DeLappe’s sprawling script focuses on everything else that happens to these young women trying to navigate their way through the world and their relationships with one another. The conversations range from the sometimes mundane microcosm of their world, to global politics (they mightn’t be informed, but most are curious and very sharp) and DeLappe tests their ability to deal with various trials, from very small to extremely grave.
The characters are only referred to by the numbers on the back of their jerseys: there’s 25 (Brenna Harding), the responsible and commanding captain of the team, 00 (Zoe Terakes), the anxious goalie who vomits before every game, close friends 14 (Michelle Ny) and 7 (Cece Peters), whose relationship comes under immense strain as they grow apart, and 46 (Nikita Waldron), the new girl on the team, whose living situation – she lives with her mother in a yurt (not a yogurt) – draws laughs from her teammates.
Director Jessica Arthur pulls these, and many other disparate threads together with varying degrees of success. The play is a huge undertaking for an independent theatre company and requires a certain level of precision for the overlapping and sometimes fractured dialogue to feel as naturalistic as it should. There were a few moments of awkward tonal shifts on opening night, and it took a bit of the wind out of the play’s sails.
Designer Maya Keys has smartly transformed the theatre into an indoor soccer field, with nothing but netting dividing the actors from the audience, and a floor covered with astroturf. The netting keeps the audience at a safe distance and creates the impression that we’re observers and definitely not part of the action. These are teenage girls the way they are only with one another, able to speak openly about whatever subject they choose.
It’s a play that seeks to show the integrity and humanity in the way teenage girls relate and speak to one another. Frequently millennial girls are portrayed as vapid and vain on stage – their use of the word ‘like’ is seen by most as a sign of the greatest kind of stupidity, rather than simply part of a shared language – and they’re rarely allowed this space to speak.
Arthur’s production has a few moments where it’s dangerously close to playing into the stereotypes about teenage girls the play is trying to blow open. It has its comedic moments, but that comedy should arise naturally from the girls’ insecurities. By underlining the punchlines as explicitly as some of the performers in this production, the actors seem to be commenting on their characters and reminding the audience that their desires and thoughts are “funny”.
But there are some standouts among the cast who find the right tone: Harding, Sarah Meacham and Waldron find a directness to their performances that others struggle with.
As in all team sports, the ability of a team to work together is at least as essential to success as individual skill. There’s fine work happening in different parts of this production, helmed by an all-female team. With a little better teamwork – and a more unified game plan – this could be an extraordinary night of theatre.