The subject of masculinity and what it means to be a man in today’s Australia are skillfully explored in Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s production of Savages, written by Patricia Cornelius.
Opening with a blast of light and sound, we meet four thirty-something Aussie men, about to embark on the ‘trip of a lifetime’ aboard a cruise ship. While we never know what bonds these men together, they are instantly recognisable as a pack, growing more animalistic as the play goes on.
This is a production that fully utilises all the elements of theatre – sound, lighting, set, script, and physical performance. What’s more, they work together smartly to create a cohesive, slick production where nothing is redundant.
Production Designer, Jeremy Allen, has captured the feeling of being on a cruise ship brilliantly without giving us anything too literal. The portholes that run the length of the back wall imply the nautical theme, as does the wooden decking used to cover the stage. But the set really works because, just like passengers on a ship, the actors are confined to a finite space – in this case, a platform which is only one third of what is available on the Eternity Theatre’s stage. They are ‘imprisoned’ for the duration of the play – pacing like caged animals staring at the space beyond.
Complementing the set is Sian James-Holland’s lighting design. Full of bold colour, the lighting guides us as we traverse the ship from morning to night and night club. The strongest element of the design is the use of the portholes to disguise directional spotlights aimed into the auditorium. Through this device, the audience becomes a participant in the production. Targeted by blinding lights, the stage disappears from our view. We are caught in the spotlight – as if to say, yes, you too are a part of this. You’re also to blame. As a woman, this lighting state had the added, chilling effect of making me feel as though I was the prey currently being stalked, even though the actors’ faces were hidden. Unsettling yes, but a poignant dramatic choice.
Cornelius’ script is written in a kind of free verse, which takes a little getting used to. It’s a bit like watching Shakespeare for the first time in a while, where the initial dialogue jars and confuses the ear, until you settle into the rhythm and rhyme. There is an interesting juxtaposition between the lyrical style of the script and the vocal cadence adopted by the actors. These are blokey, Aussie men, who generally speak in monosyllabic sentences, dotted with profanity. Cornelius has managed to capture this characterisation while still giving us a melodious script. It shouldn’t work, but it really does.
Helping to bring these two contrasting script elements together is the cast – Yure Covich (Craze), Josef Ber (Rabbit), Troy Harrison (George) and Thomas Campbell (Runt). Their rehearsal clearly shows in the frequent unison moments and pacey, inter-connected dialogue. Similarly, their movement has been choreographed superbly by Julia Cotton (Movement Director) to take into account the limited space, and the progression towards an animal state. Pushed too far, this stylised movement would be laughable and distracting, but thankfully Director, Tim Roseman, has brought a subtly to the performances of his cast.
There are no standouts here, but this is not a criticism; this is in every way an ensemble piece and all four actors bring their A-game. We see their individual characters emerge only occasionally, reverting quickly back to the safety of the fraternity.
Savages defies classification – it is funny, poetic, and political. The boys’ cheeky banter draws many laughs, but there is also something menacing unfolding here. An underlying threat that you just can’t shake. The comedy brings us back from the brink a number of times, but the jokes can only hold out so long…
At the heart of the production is the question of what leads men to behave in the way they do. How much influence do mates have over one another? What does it mean to be a man? What role have women played in emasculating the so-called stronger sex? While not ever really answering these questions, Cornelius’ script and its excellent treatment in the hands of Darlinghurst Theatre Company certainly gives us food for thought, particularly against the backdrop of lock-out laws, one-punch murders and rising domestic violence. This is an insightful portrayal of men trying to come to terms with their perceived captivity.
Savages is playing at the Eternity Playhouse, 39 Burton St, Darlinghurst until 1 May 2016. For more information and tickets, visit http://www.darlinghursttheatre.com/whats-on/savages
The reviewer attended the performance on Wednesday 6 April.