Do we really need another play that excuses male violence? After seeing Swansong, Carissa Lee thinks not
Watching Conor McDermottroe ‘s Swansong, I thought it was written in the 1960s, the era in which it’s set. I was surprised to discover it was written in 2009. It certainly felt to me as if it might be better suited to a 1960s audience, although to be fair it’s had sell-out seasons in Los Angeles, New York, Sydney and Melbourne. Its attitudes, particularly towards women, feel really outdated.
In Swansong we meet a disturbed and violent young Irish man, Austin “Occi” Byrne (André de Vanny). He’s feeding swans, tossing pieces of bread into the audience, which brings the odd chuckle, and introduces us to Agnes, his favourite. He yells at the other swans to leave her alone, because she’s alone, the only one without a partner: her partner was shot when he and another male swan were fighting over her.
His mother dominates his thoughts throughout the play. Occi has always wanted to make her proud. She keeps a precious jar of coins on top of their mantelpiece, saving up so Occi can move to London for a chance at a better life. However, during a shift of his after school job of delivering meat, a kid calls Occi a “bad name”. He beats the other kid severely, loses his job and then uses his savings to get drunk. His mother is devastated. As a result, she begins to drink heavily.
We find out that the “bad word” is “bastard”, and that Occi’s over-sensitivity comes from his childhood as the son of an unmarried mother, in a society when this was considered scandalous.
He talks about the pressures of upholding his reputation as a tough guy, retailing his failures: being unable to get the hang of marching while in the army, being bullied by fellow recruits. His victimhood seems to somehow justify his violent outbursts: he gets into fights, cheers himself on, and then wonders why he’s left on the ground bleeding and crying for his mother after trying to stab someone.
De Vanny’s performance of Occi makes me wish I’d seen him in a different play. He establishes a warm relationship with the audience from the first moment he walks onto the stage. His physicality is interesting; it makes me think of erratic drunk guys in pubs, out on the street, the kind of guy who would king-hit someone. He paces, he gets loud, he talks himself up as he mimes fighting.
Despite the character’s douchebaggery, de Vanny reaches the audience as if we’re mates at a bar; the performance feels like a yarn from a talkative larrikin who’s the life of the party. Until he’s not. Greg Carroll’s direction steers towards playing for laughs, which made me wish that de Vanny would honour the play’s moments of seriousness, sadness and anger. He even takes a moment to say, “You’re allowed to laugh.”
De Vanny plays to be liked, to entice the audience, which with a story like this can sometimes be offensive. When people laughed at events such as Occi’s mother injuring herself by falling down the stairs drunk, Occi beating up a woman at the welfare office, or a man hanging himself with a sheet in hospital, it felt to me like misplaced comedy. As a First Nations person, and someone who has survived domestic violence, I find these things really unfunny.
There are moments when de Vanny allows the cracks in his jovial façade to show, but the audience seemed keen for a laugh regardless. (Perhaps it was the 9pm showing? I’m not sure.) However, there are instances of stillness that this giggly audience could not ignore, such as when he strangles his friend Lynch, and a scene where Occi is waiting for his mother to die.
The production feels indulgent, as if it’s pandering to entitled men, which undercuts its commentary on the toxicity of some forms of masculinity. I particularly remember a moment when an audience member made sympathetic sounds towards Occi as he lay foetal on the floor after trying to stab someone, whining that his mother never married his dad.
This character reminded me of so many arrogant men I’ve met, and the audience responses made me think of how their gaggle of friends egg them on. Growing up in a country town I knew those men: they aspire to leave and never do, playing up to their small group of friends even though most of them just think they’re a tool.
Occi’s attitude to women is a troubling theme throughout the play. Aside from his mother, there’s Mary, a young woman he has met in a mental hospital. He contemplates killing her partner, and watches her creepily through the window of her house while hiding in the bushes. Although she’s not his partner, Mary cooks for him, organises his medication, and watches videos with him, which is what he really wants: another mother.
The story I most wanted to hear was that of Occi’s mother’s. We never get a chance to hear her point of view. It’s frustrating that Occi doesn’t seem to see that the reason for her descent into despair is his behaviour; he openly puzzles about it. I want to throw my pen at the actor, but it’s not his fault at how horrendously self-obsessed this character is.
There are better ways to talk about male toxicity. Patricia Cornelius, for instance, creates characters that we would otherwise avoid: the drug addicts in Love, the boy’s club in Savages, the budding terrorist in The Call, the lifelong victim in Slut. In Savages, we are given a compelling portrayal of grotesque men who believe that women only exist for their entertainment. The difference between Savages and Swansong is that McDermottroe’s play asks us to pity this man, because he can’t help what he is.
Perhaps I just don’t think we need another play that uncritically portrays misogyny. Do we really need more works about men suffering because women weren’t who they needed to be at the time? Does this make a bad play, or just the stories we don’t really need anymore? Maybe it’s just that I’m sick of seeing women characters only being written to further a male character’s development.
We have enough people trying to justify why white men attack and murder women, king-hit people, or carry on like the world owes them something. Do we really need more?
Swansong, written by Conor McDermottroe, directed by Greg Carroll. Performed by André de Vanny. Theatre Works. Touring regional Victoria: Traralgon, City of Casey, Bunjil Place, Burrinja Cultural Centre, Kyneton Town Hall, Cohuna Anglican Church, Kingston Arts Centre, Potato Shed Geelong, West Gippsland Arts Centre, Heyfield War Memorial Hall, Frankston Arts Centre and Mount Beauty Community Centre.