THE CLUB, Is This Yours? at 25A Downstairs Belvoir, 7-21 December 2018. Photography by Marnya Rothe: above - Jude Henshall and Ellen Steele; below - Louisa Mignone, Jude Henshall and Ellen Steele; below again - Ellen Steele and Louisa Mignone
Although written in the mid-70s and first staged in 1977, David Williamson’s sharply satirical play The Club could easily be about a footy club now – give or take a mullet hair-do, Zapata moustache or kipper tie. As it would have 40 years ago, this production reeks of liniment, baccy and Brut and although – or perhaps because – it’s performed by three women in place of a mob of blokes, the testosterone, beer, ambition, greed, and power and ego are almost tangible. It’s a startling, unnerving sight.
That we are in the land of parody-upon-lampoon is telegraphed in the opening seconds in a flurry of stick-on moustaches, dreadful wigs and even worse clothes and crotch-grabbing swaggers. (The mobile phone is a pointless anachronism. however.) Nevertheless, the club is in dire straits: haven’t won a premiership in 19 years and the natives are restless. There’s a beleaguered coach, an embattled president, an unctuous administrator, a disgruntled member of the committee and a star player who’s off his feed and under-performing.
All are portrayed, in turn, by Jude Henshall, Louisa Mignone and Ellen Steele with the aid of on-stage wig and jacket changes and speedily choreographed, comical quick changes and responses. Director Tessa Leong maintains order and forward momentum and the actors maintain an admirable recollection of who they’re meant to be at any given moment.
It’s an interesting and droll trick to pull on the venerable comedy and while the novelty of the wigs lasts (they are suspended on wires attached to alligator clips, pulled on and whipped off stocking-covered heads) it’s diverting and entertaining. Too diverting, eventually, as the frenetic double takes, mad dashing about and dangling wigs take their toll on the play’s meaning. It becomes increasingly difficult to remember where and why we are, and laughter subsides into quiet puzzlement after a while.
The play still has much to offer, however, as in many ways it gives an up-to-the-minute insight into the largely unchanged culture of a football club. There are those who want change, those who fear it; those who poo-poo tradition and those who venerate it; there is racism, homophobia, sexism, casual domestic violence and that curious mateship thing where loyalty between blokes trumps all else.
As devised by the indie company Is This Yours?, this production of The Club is a bold experiment of the kind that should be applauded and encouraged: without this kind of imaginative approach we might as well just stay home and watch footie on the modular. But when someone has a bright idea there has to be someone else who says, “That’s terrific, I like the idea. But then what?”
And it’s essential to figure out the answer to that question before you go further – to see whether the idea has the legs to carry it through a full two hours; to see whether it can maintain credibility and interest (even more so when the play is comedy edging to farce in the first place). As it stands, in this production, it seems the question was either not asked or not clearly answered, because the tricks - of suspended wigs and three women in place of a full cast – do not support the weight of the play and the interest of the audience.
Ironically, there’s actually much to be savoured in The Club in this age of #metoo and growing disdain for the old white male hegemony in sport. Rather than caricature, the casting of females could be shockingly acidic as it parallels the determined and successful incursion of women into previous bloke bastions of sport. The international women’s cricket and soccer teams are proof of the enormous change (way more successful than the men) and the same may soon be true of AFL in terms of public interest and participation.
In a way, this version of The Club is a toe-dip in waters way more immense than initially envisioned. It probably could and should go much, much further and deserves a lot more thought, development and resources. A rethink of team strategy and alligator clips, plus a couple of extra players and it could be a contender. Many in the (partisan) opening night audience laughed a lot at first and also gave rousing applause at the final whistle. However, it scores more behinds than three-pointers and needs to go back to the whiteboard.