The Sublime (Melbourne Theatre Company, 2014)
Oh the controversy! I had no idea that Brendan Cowell’s The Sublime had provoked such conflicting reactions until I trawled the internet after seeing it yesterday. The MTC has even published a statement in response to criticism of its decision to stage such a play.
Following on from various AFL and NRL sex scandals in Australia, The Sublime involves three interwoven monologues by elite AFL player, Dean (Josh McConville), his NRL-playing younger brother, Liam (Ben O’Toole), and teenage athlete, Amber (Anna Samson). During a post-season trip to Thailand, all three are involved in a rape.
The Sublime is a fascinating exploration of footy sex scandals – with particular insights into the anger within some (no, not all) men involved in sports, unhealthy hero worshipping of sports stars, a footy culture that perpetuates mistreatment of women, the abhorrent ways in which incidents are often handled by the club/league (the cover-up, the pay-off), and the surrounding media frenzy. In one powerful piece of dialogue, Liam speaks of the immense contradiction in expecting (and encouraging) rugby players to show aggression on the field, but not off it. As an AFL supporter (Go Swans) I struggle with the acceptance of aggression in sport – you king hit a guy on the street, you can serve jail time. But you do it on the field, all you get is a fine and a few weeks on the sidelines. I also find the blind loyalty of supporters to alleged rapists in their teams incredibly problematic. “Innocent until proven guilty” they claim – while at the same time calling for the death penalty for other alleged rapists who don’t have celebrity status. Even when there is clear-cut evidence – such as in the recent NFL case of American football player Ray Rice being caught on CCTV footage punching his wife in an elevator – the fans continue to support their sporting hero, instead, in this case, placing the blame on his wife, as is all too common in cases of domestic violence. While the AFL (and I assume NRL, as well as other codes in other countries) runs compulsory workshops for players regarding respect towards women, not enough is being done to stamp out sexism within the footy culture. Clubs continue to hide or manipulate the truth in an effort to save players’ reputations, and I call bullshit.
Some commentators have been outraged over this play, saying that it endorses rape culture, that it blames the victim, and that it excuses the men’s behaviour. I did not view it this way at all. Some have criticised The Sublime for merely “holding up a mirror to society”, instead of offering alternatives. They are angered by the fact that –SPOILER ALERT—the rapist does, for the most part, get away with it. Well I was angered by that too – but I wasn’t angry at the play. I was angry about the issue. Does a play need an idealistic ending to be acceptable? That makes no sense to me. Holding a mirror up to society is incredibly powerful, and if there is anyone who genuinely sees this and excuses the men’s behaviour then I am shocked. These nay-sayers seem to be greatly underestimating the intelligence of the theatre-going audience. In Byron Bache’s article Not so Sublime: Rape culture on stage, he writes that “rape is perpetrated by individuals, not cultures or institutions. Autonomous, sentient, human beings with the choice to act as they please.” While I agree that the act of rape is of course perpetrated by individuals (and that not all individuals within a particular culture can be painted with the same brush), there is no question that certain institutions do need to be held accountable for the endorsement of a rape culture. I do not think for one second that The Sublime suggests that rapists should not be held accountable for their own choices, rather it shines a light on the dangerous culture that they are a part of, which may have some effect on their actions.
Returning to the production, the performances by all three actors were, in a word, sublime. They threw themselves into their roles with gusto, demanding their presence be felt. The use of three interwoven monologues – the three narrate, more so than act out, events – may not be to everyone’s tastes, but after the initial shock to the system it proved surprisingly effective. It was also a clever use of finances, as it meant additional actors weren’t required to play the other characters. Some may have a problem with the lack of a certain character’s presence – I didn’t. The set was bare and the actors all made great use of the space. On first entering the venue I thought it must be one of the smaller MTC productions for the year, but on leaving I concluded it had definitely been the best (of the four I’ve seen). This is hard-hitting theatre which shines a light, and that in itself is worthwhile.
The Sublime is playing at the Fairfax Theatre, Arts Centre until 4th October