A refreshing look at women in football: Carissa Lee reviews Fierce at Theatre Works
Women in football usually play the roles of supportive girlfriend, wife, sister, mother or ill-fated female fan, which makes Jane E Thompson’s Fierce refreshing. Masterfully directed by Alice Darling, Fierce is the story of a talented young woman footballer, Suzie Flack (Ellen Marning), who eschews the Australian Football League Women’s (AFLW) for the men’s AFL.
Her disgruntled teammates (Nick Clark, Khisraw Jones-Shukoor, and John Shearman) are hostile to her presence in the club, and make sure she knows it. Coach Corey Anderson (Syd Brisbane) cops criticism about Suzie from all sides, but keeps her on the team because he can see her potential.
Suzie is a complex character: she is also a part-time carer for her disabled father Ray (also played by Syd Brisbane). Suzie deals with sexism from the men in her team, from the media (sassy reporter played by Rebekah Robertson), and faces the difficulties of balancing a personal life with the deamdns of a sport that she loves. But football but also gives her an outlet for an old rage that hasn’t been properly dealt with.
In her program notes, playwright Jane E Thompson recalls seeing her first AFWL game, but makes it clear that this play is not inspired by that experience. In fact, the only mention of AFWL is the play’s protagonist insisting again and again that she doesn’t want to be a part of it, choosing instead to play in the men’s league. She claims that she’s doing more for women by playing with the guys.
She seems to have bitten off more than she can chew: we witness testosterone-fuelled men physically intimidating her, or verbally asssaulting her with their sexual conquests. Later she receives anonymous rape and death threats. It’s a reminder of the things that women constantly need to negotiate in hostile male-dominated space.
The tables are turned in a fantastic scene in which Suzie decides to own her sexuality. She begins to objectify men as her colleagues objectify women, and takes control of who is allowed within her personal and emotional space. This leads to a more confident rapport with her teammates, but also adds to the aggression on the footy field.
It’s tempting to claim that this newfound confidence means Suzie has become one of the lads, but women are equally as capable as men of casual sex and assertive behaviour. It’s not a “male” trait, and Suzie Flack makes it clear that she neither cares about nor has time for giving a shit about what anyone thinks of her. The bond between Suzie and her teammates is illustrated during a riotous scene in which a little bit of Justin Bieber means that everyone lets down their guard.
Ellen Marning’s Suzie is played with a monotonal directness. She’s a no-bullshit character who reminds me of the US actor Jesse Eisenberg with her unwavering gaze, level vocal quality and blunt delivery: she has no room for niceties. She represents the consuming culture of the professional sporting world, in which athletes are defined entirely by their profession, with no room for anything else. Marning portrays this level of passion, obsession and complexity with ease.
As both her coach and father, Syd Brisbane would be a scene-stealer if he weren’t balanced by Marning’s dominant presence. Brisbane’s performance, switching between two very different characters, is faultless. His fragility as Suzie’s father is downright bloody heartbreaking, and the gradual revelation of his character makes the doubling deeply poignant. You can see in the way she relates to Corey that the footy coach is the father Suzie needed as she grew up.
John Shearman plays the gross sports jock brilliantly. I detested him from the get-go, but when he reappears as Suzie’s potential love interest he has a dorky charm that makes you really empathise with his awkwardness. The courtship scene between the two is an interesting role-reversal: Suzie is the unromantic partner in the face of his fumbling attempts at emotional connection.
However, the real tenderness emerges in Marning’s scenes with Izabella Yena. At first Yena’s character seems like a typical quirky WAG with too much time on her hands, but as a connection develops between them we have little ‘what if’ moments about their relationship, and what kind of future they could possibly have. Suzie’s encounters with the people around her show that she could be happy, but she doesn’t respond the chances for something better. As the play continues, it becomes a recurring question: now that she’s found her place within the team and has everything she wants, why is she still angry? What does she need to finally allow herself to be happy?
The only aspect I found problematic was a scene in the girls’ toilets. A drunk woman is abandoned in a cubicle, and there’s a heavy suggestion of sexual violence. There’s some gloriously funny comedy in the same scene that takes the sting out of what’s being suggested about this girl’s physical and mental state.
Fierce is a brilliant production that illustrates some of the complexities of finding our place as feminists in a male-dominated world. Can women be equal to men without leaving our sisters behind? How do we maintain a balance of being equal as individuals, while at the same time trying to remember the bigger problems that got us here in the first place?
Do we ever get to be equal, when the male gaze forever keeps us on our toes, forever trying to prove ourselves as something other than somebody’s daughter, wife, sister, potential sex object? Fierce presents us with a woman who doesn’t know when to stop fighting. Her anger leads to consequences that surpass gender, and ironically she finds equality only in the punishment she is given.
Fierce by Jane E Thompson, directed by Alice Darling. Dramaturgy by Raimondo Cortese and Richard Murphet Lighting design by Rob Sowinski, set and costume designer by Yvette Turner, sound design by Russell Goldsmith. With Ellen Marning, Syd Brisbane, Khisraw Jones-Shukoor, Rebekah Robertson, John Shearman, Izabella Yena. Until April 8. Bookings
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