Friday, 29 August 2014

The Sublime, Aug 28, 2014 ***1/2

Written by Brendan Cowell, Melbourne Theatre Company
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, Aug 28 to Oct 4, 2014
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Full review also published in Herald Sun online, Fri Aug 29. It will then be in print on Sunday Aug 31. KH
 MTC The Sublime: Josh McConville (Dean), Ben O’Toole (Liam), Anna Samson (Amber) Pic JEFF BUSBY

What happens in Thailand stays in Thailand – or so the rowdy footy players believe when they go on their alcohol-fuelled, post-season trip in Brendan Cowell’s play, The Sublime.

AFL star player and all-round-nice-guy, Dean (Josh McConville), accompanies this Rugby League team trip to keep an eye on his boisterous, rugby-playing, younger brother, Liam (Ben O’Toole).

When Dean foolishly agrees to take ambitious, teenage athlete, Amber (Anna Samson), and her friend on the trip, he unwittingly triggers a disastrous series of events, the repercussions of which are far-reaching.

At the centre of the plot is an alarming, sexist culture that permeates the football codes and this is most evident in the unrestrained, sexual debauchery and explicit language that may offend some patrons.

What is even more ominous is the pattern of behaviour that not only covers up sexual assault and violence, but also tolerates it as boyish high spirits or, even worse, encourages it as a team-bonding activity.

The Sublime is a disturbing story that is made more distressing because it begins in a light, playful and comic style that contrasts starkly with its grim and disquieting later scenes.

The rivalry between footy codes – AFL versus League – and the accompanying competition between Sydney and Melbourne, generate plenty of gags about incomprehensible footy rules, idiotic rugby scrums and the mathematical complexity of AFL scoring.

Sam Strong’s direction is taut, fast-paced and dynamic, conjuring a sense of the danger, muscularity and excitement of the footy field without actually trying to reproduce the game, and portraying the sexual antics in an abstract, stylised manner.

The performers have sharp comic timing and delivery, inhabit their flawed characters with total commitment and create a compelling sense of complicity with the audience by addressing us directly.

Dean is the sensible, prudent brother and McConville makes him the one sympathetic character, allowing us to witness the slow, inevitable erosion of this serious, young sportsman as the consequences of his and his brother’s actions overtake him.

O’Toole is like a gambolling puppy as Liam, playing him truthfully without judging his reckless, ignorant behaviour or his outrageously vulgar, misogynistic and self-serving attitudes.

Amber reminds one of the St. Kilda schoolgirl fiasco that plagued the AFL and dominated the Melbourne media in 2011.

Samson balances Amber’s girlish hopes of athletic success and landing a famous footballing boyfriend with her manipulative, juvenile and greedy behaviour. 

The play runs off the rails a little in the latter half when a series of calamities and surprising decisions by the characters make the unfolding narrative seem unbelievable.

The Sublime demonstrates the way sports can elevate their stars to untouchable, celebrity status and condone appalling behaviour, but it also disconcertingly reveals that those without conscience survive and thrive while the sensitive few suffer guilt and despair.

What is most unsettling and perhaps most interesting in this play is the moral ambiguity of the story that makes it is difficult to discern who is the real victim.

By Kate Herbert

Josh McConville (Dean), Ben O’Toole (Liam), Anna Samson (Amber)

Director Sam Strong; 

Set and Costume Designer; Dayna Morrissey; 
Lighting Designer Danny Pettingill; 
Composer & Sound Designer Steve Francis; 
Assistant Director Tahli Corin

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