IN THE CLUB - ADELAIDE FESTIVAL
IN THE CLUB, State Theatre Company of South Australia and Adelaide Festival at the Odeon Theatre, Norwood, 23 February-18 March 2018. Photography by Sia Duff
Geordie Brookman – artistic director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia – commissioned Patricia Cornelius to, as she puts it in her program notes, “investigate the world of football and sexual misconduct.” No one would blink an eye at the pairing of footy and bad behaviour so, for the playwright, her main concern was not, “the footy world and its intractability in addressing the too numerous accounts of sexual abuse,” but rather, “how to find a way into this world and not be predictable or state the obvious.”
Cornelius – much lauded and resolutely uncompromising – is never predictable or obvious and she doesn’t change direction here. In succession we meet Annie (Miranda Daughtry), Olivia (Rachel Burke) and finally, Ruby (Anna Steen), three young women dead set on a night on the town. Annie is the youngest and arguably most damaged of the trio, Olivia is the most obviously romantic yet also on a path to a conclusion torn from the headlines, while Ruby is the one whose sexual ambitions are a shock to the blokes and audience alike.
Each young woman introduces herself via a back story-monologue, directly addressing the audience straight into the darkness of the auditorium. All the while they’re brightly illuminated on a large stage area which is empty except for a shallow covering of water and three bentwood chairs.
Pillars and bars of white light delineate the sides and corners of the stage (design and lighting Geoff Cobham and Chris Petridis) and this cold, abstract setting and the black water and occasional reflected imagery are disconcerting and, frankly, puzzling. Why the water? Is it symbolic, in which case of what? Are the white stripes indicative of goalposts or field markings or none of the above? Apparently it’s a niterie favoured by footie players, but who knows. It would needlessly distract from the text and performances if these were not as powerful as they turn out to be.
The three women are variously joined by Angus (Rashidi Edward), Sean (Dale March) and James (Nathan O’Keefe) and as they appear one could be forgiven for expecting the worst. The actors are members of the Company’s Ensemble and the ease of the choreographed interactions suggest a physical familiarity that is both reassuring and disconcerting by turn.
These young gods are as much victims of the system as they are its beneficiaries. They are constantly referred to as “boys” and thus are absolved from the necessity of growing up and becoming adults. The ultimate result is often a walking disaster zone. Sport psychologist and former North Melbourne footie club psychologist Jacqui Louder said, some years ago, “We contribute – the media, the public. We make excuses for these guys.” But, she also said, "When the lights go out and they go home, no one cares.”
The same is also true for the young women whose intent ranges from a simple night out to making it as a WAG: they’re not let off. There’s no female equivalent of “boys will be boys”. Women are classically caught in the trap of the impossible choice: virgin/whore. And this is played out in In The Club. Cornelius incorporates verbatim reportage in her fiction and the result is transfixing.
Make no mistake, however, this is not a simplistic Us-and-Them attack on the male species. Ironically that would make a more comfortable ride for the audience because it quickly becomes clear that the real perpetrator is society – we, the people. And that’s something many are unwilling to grapple with, while the likes of Eddie Maguire and Sam Newman (different code, same gross conduct) refuse to see through their sexist myopia.
As well as alarming, disturbing and scary, the play is funny, illuminating, hopeful and – of course – thought-provoking. Cornelius is well served by the director and six actors whose performances are intelligent, nuanced and thoroughly grounded in their various characterisations. Rage is allocated to both genders, while bewilderment and injustice are also shared. Glib conclusions and rushes to judgement are impossible and that makes In The Club stay in the mind long after the lights go up.
Surfing the wave of the zeitgeist is something at which Patricia Cornelius uncannily excels but even she couldn’t have anticipated an audience seeing In The Club the same day the news was full of CCTV footage of Brisbane Broncos player Matt Lodge on a drunken, brutal rampage in New York in 2015. It makes this play more vividly of the moment than the playwright could ever have anticipated. Recommended.