The Sublime, a searing new play by actor/writer Brendan Cowell, opened at the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) last week, tackling the intense world of elite athletes head on. Starring Josh McConville as AFL Brownlow medallist Dean, Ben O’Toole as his younger brother Liam who plays for the opposing code NRL and Anna Samson as teenage athlete Amber, The Sublime unravels on a holiday to Thailand.
Director Sam Strong, buoyed by back-to-back hits with sell-out shows Private Lives and The Speechmaker, says that Cowell uses sport as a magnifying glass held up to human behaviour in The Sublime. “Brendan’s come at this meaty topic in a way that is both surprising and complex. He takes you behind the headlines and the sensationalism, through to the people.”
Painting a rich portrait of the pressures exerted on our sporting stars, both professionally and by the expectations of fans, sponsors and the media, Strong says the behaviour of this trio of sporting stars is surprising and contradictory. “It’s very fast-moving and plot-driven, with a series of big reveals,” he says. “It deals with the rivalry between codes, and more broadly between Melbourne and Sydney, and that sometimes difficult subject of how men behave in groups.”
Strong says The Sublime grapples with complex psychology in a thrilling, frightening and at times funny way. “There’s the conflict between what we expect of footballers and athletes on the field, asking these people to be incredibly aggressive, risk-taking and volatile and rewarding that, and what we expect off the field, giving them a whole lot of money, a high-profile and media pressure then sending them out into civilian life all pumped up.”
All three actors have undergone intensive physical training for their roles, as well as tackling the intensity of their character’s emotional turbulence. “It’s not just about the physical prowess, but dexterity in acting too,” Cowell says. “Brendan’s work requires an enormous amount of focus from the cast. They need to be able to communicate the story very directly to the audience.”
The immediacy and urgency of The Sublime attracted Strong to Cowell’s play. “It’s about Australian society right now. Directors tend to bang on a lot about why Ibsen or Shakespeare is still relevant, but this is a piece that’s making very important comments about our society and how people behave in it. We have to make this as dark, uncompromising and intense as Brendan has written it. It’s bold and provocative.”
ALSO CHECK OUT:
Bruce Beresford’s 1980 film The Club, starring John Howard, Graham Kennedy, Jack Thomson and Frank Wilson remains the seminal AFL classic. Adapted from the play by David Williamson, who also penned the screenplay, it follows the turmoil both on and off the field as the teammates clash and get into a spot of bad behaviour. The original production was also staged by the MTC.
Another impressive AFL offering is the 2002 film Australian Rules. Nominated for six AFI Awards, and winner of best screenplay adapted from another source, the film tells the story of racial tensions in football.
Probably best to avoid the rather less impressive recent stab at AFL misdemeanours, Blinder. Though it ran with a sex scandal theme, it did so in a dubious, victim-blaming way.
And the Big Men Fly by Alan Hopgood also looks at the rich story potential bound up in AFL, with a team pinning all their hopes on one man who’s never played the game, Achilles Jones. First staged by the MTC, then known as the Union Theatre Repertory Company, it was adapted into a TV miniseries, with Dennis Miller jumping from his star role in the stage production to also play Achilles on the small screen as Achilles.
The Changing Room by David Storey focuses on a working class English rugby league team, their hopes, dreams, in-fights and initiation rites. Initially staged at London’s Royal Court Theatre, the successful Broadway run scored a Tony award for Best Featured Actor for John Lithgow.
Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas is a firecracker of a novel that gets under the skin of its working class protagonist Danny Kelly, who is thrust into the alien world of one of Melbourne’s top private schools where he submerges himself in the swim team. His hunger for success in the pool is bound up with his inner turmoil over notions of identity including class, nationality and sexuality.
Ticket for The Sublime range from $70-$105. Bookings: The Melbourne Theatre Company website. Duration: 80 mins (no interval). Until October 4.