It’s just a game

Image courtesy of Jeff Busby

Image courtesy of Jeff Busby

Play  l  The Sublime

Review by Penny Mulvey

The familiarity of the theme of The Sublime, the latest offering from the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC), creates a false comfort as playwright Brendan Cowell takes the audience on a roller coaster ride of emotions.

This play about football, sex scandals and human frailty in the testosterone-fuelled, competitive world of AFL and rugby league reminds the audience of the complex personal stories behind the sensational news headlines.

The three person, one act play is about two brothers Dean (Josh McConville) and Liam (Ben O’Toole), one a highly regarded AFL player and the other a rookie with a Sydney-based League club, and their intersection with schoolgirl athlete Amber (Anna Samson).

Performed in the intimate Fairfax Studio, the stage is bare apart from some tiered grand stand-style seating, focusing all attention on the performers.

The Sublime begins innocently enough with banter between the brothers, as they rib each other about growing up, the awe they felt for an older brother who demonstrated early talent as a league player and the competition between codes and cities.

The laughs come easily as the audience resonates with these themes, and even the arrival of the young female athlete inviting us into her story of success as a runner, told with teenage optimism in the knowledge of parental support and pride, does not cause anxiety or alarm.

However, Liam has a dark side. He is impulsive and has already been suspended from play for six months due to dangerous on field play. His brother is tasked with the job of looking out for him on a ‘Mad Monday’ post-season trip to Thailand. When 16 year old Amber and her friend Zoe end up accompanying Dean on this trip, the die is cast.

The headlines that accompany both codes relating to rape, sexual assault and cover ups are played out, but Cowell fills in the details. The sexual bile that comes out of the mouth of Liam, as he casually discusses sexual conquests and the low regard with which he holds women, is shocking.

Later when Liam tries to justify his actions, he blames the code: ‘It’s a collision sport, we crush each other….you can’t make me a beast during the day and a flower at night.’

However, this is not just a play about men behaving badly. Cowell has created full individuals, not cardboard cut-outs, and whilst a serious crime was committed, The Sublime captures the complexity of human behaviours which leads to very messy outcomes.

As the respective families, the police, the clubs, the media and social media become drawn into the ensuing scandal, Dean, Liam and Amber turn on each other, and more and more is revealed about these three individuals, further muddying the waters.

McConville, O’Toole and Samson are compelling. Dean’s brain snap in his first game of rugby league is an electrifying piece of theatre. McConville inhabits the complexity of Dean’s character fully, so tightly wound that he doesn’t know himself, gradually revealing the family secret and the private burden he carries.

This world premiere play commissioned by the MTC demonstrates the power of strong writing to enable people to engage afresh in issues and belief systems that are deeply embedded within our community. With the final tantalising words of the play, the audience leaves the theatre reflecting on the many aspects of elite football that make it so much more than just a game.

The Sublime by Brendan Cowell, Arts Centre Melbourne, 22 August – 4 October

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