‘I realised I was shocked to hear women in roles this big, ugly and bombastic – they have so rarely been afforded this kind of space’: Jane Howard on an anarchic three-woman production of David Williamson’s The Club
It’s Australia in the late 1970s, and we’re in a baby-blue cinderblock boardroom with lacquered wood and vinyl chairs. The photographs of football greats from the history of the club line the walls; an old trophy, battered and dulled, shares its shelf with a new bottle of whiskey.
After the introduction of new player Geoff (Louise Mignone), a star-recruit who has been losing games, coach Laurie (Ellen Steele) has submitted a letter of resignation to the club. Administrator Gerry (Mignone, again), is trying to get him to stay. Club president, Ted (Nadia Rossi), who funded Geoff’s move, argues with Jock (also Rossi), the club’s former star, about what direction the club needs to move going forward. Meanwhile, team captain Danny (Steele, of course) threatens to go on strike. If Geoff goes, we go, he says.
It’s David Williamson’s The Club – but not as we know it.
Reimagined by independent theatre company isthisyours? (consisting of the cast, plus director Tessa Leong and Jude Henshall, who played Ted and Jock in the production’s Sydney debut last year), this production takes the Australian classic and milks it for all it is worth. You want a satire, they ask? We’ll give you a satire.
This production of The Club has a lineage unique to the State Theatre Company of South Australia. Originally programmed as part of Belvoir’s independent theatre season 25A, where shows are required to have a maximum budget of $1500, the STCSA announced the work’s inclusion as a full-scale production in their 2019 season months before the Belvoir premiere.
For Adelaide, the company have beefed up the work – particularly its design elements – while maintaining a strong sense of DIY shit-theatre aesthetics. Operating since 2006, isthisyours? creates original theatre, high in broad comedy and the personalities of its creators and constantly highlighting of the creation of theatre with a sense of play between the theatre as an artform, the theatre as a physical space and the audiences who share that space.
The Club is the first time the club has worked with an existing script: and what an ambitious script to choose. Williamson has been a mainstay of the Australian theatre since his career began almost 50 years ago. While this represents his first staging at the STCSA since 2005, he is still frequently produced in the eastern states.
While his later work has largely been critically derided – if remaining commercially popular – his early work is still revered for the eye he cast over his generation of young people. Bruce Beresford’s contemporaneous film adaptation of The Club (staring a strapping John Howard) remains an incredible time capsule of the ugliness of machismo and the reverence Australian culture pays to sports.
What does it mean to return to that conversation now?
Williamson’s play is a satire on Australian masculinity, in particular on how it’s performed among men in the absence of women. By placing women on stage, Leong highlights this casual sexism – in particular, the way the men talk about violence against women only when it can be used as a pawn in their games to take down other men. This ugliness takes on a new sheen when spoken by visibly female characters, when women make themselves the punch-lines.
While Leong works to highlight the darkness of Williamson’s text, she also finds great joy. The first act is a relatively straight reading of the text – at least, as straight as a play featuring women in bad drag, running around the stage to swap out wigs for difference characters, could be.
There is never any attempt to hide the constructs of the theatre: breasts aren’t bound down; moustaches become skew-wiff. There is no hiding the strings: the cast grab magnets that are lowered down from the flies and attach them to their wigs, while another magnet hidden under glossy synthetic hair permits the actors to swap wigs and play another character. These wigs are suspended in mid-air like floating drowned rats, so the the actors can be in conversation with themselves: one character fully embodied, another character represented by their hair.
In the second act, Leong and isthisyours? ramps up the volume. Renate Henschke’s realistic set is swapped for a paper banner; the actors appear in inflatable penis costumes, then as women, then as giant cardboard heads, in an amalgamation of male football commentators. Sound designer and composer Catherine Oates and lighting designer Susan Grey-Gardner lean into the text, creating dream sequences out of simple retellings. Boundaries shear and constructs break: are these women playing women, or women playing men? Is this the ‘70s or today? What even is theatre, and why are we here?
The work gets increasingly messier and more pointed: the female football coach talks about her male colleagues, at a time when none of the AFLW teams are even coached by women; Leong plays audio of news stories about Tayla Harris; football commentators wear big white ribbons on their chest as they joke about women.
Unfortunately, at this point the tempo of the production doesn’t match the tangle of ideas. Leong strives towards a frenzied energy, but pulls it back to a zone where it feels safe and fathomable, and the play begins to wear. With too much time to examine what is occurring, our brains start to analyse the work too much – and the deeper analysis doesn’t pay off in the face of the broad comedy. If she were to create more speed in the second act, perhaps Leong could push the work further into a fantastical unfathomability.
But even when the production doesn’t quite gel, it’s daring. The actors highlight the sexism in the text, but also the historical sexism of theatre. At one point, I realised I was shocked to hear women in roles this big, ugly and bombastic – they have so rarely been afforded this kind of space. And claim this space they do. The characters are loud in volume and personality, and the three women run with with everything they have. Steel struts around the stage like a rooster; Rossi punctuates every word with stiff hands slicing into the air. It feels impossible that Mignone’s performance could get any louder – and then it does.
It would be justifiable to stage Williamson’s play as a straight period piece. He is one of Australia’s most important historical playwrights, and the ‘70s is the decade which defined his career and his place in the theatrical canon. The conversation about masculinity is becoming more publicly nuanced every year, and so it is fascinating to consider how men were critiquing a very Australian masculinity 40 years ago.
By creating the “all female, three actor version”, Leong not only creates a work with a lot of fun and wit; she also gives Australian audiences a new chance to understand our theatrical heritage. While European classics have often been re-adapted for Australian stages, becoming newly relevant to today’s audiences, the same hasn’t been true for Australian classics, which are more likely to be staged as period pieces.
Leong maintains all of Williamson’s text – a contract stipulation – and uses a directorial framework to reconsider his work and show it anew. It becomes freshly funny and biting when women ask what this story means today. And what a joy to see a group of women take an idea and run with it as far as they can, inflatable penis costumes and all.
The Club by David Williamson, directed by Tessa Leong. Design by Renate Henschke, lighting design by Susan Grey-Gardner, composition and and sound design by Catherine Oates. Performed by Louisa Mignone, Nadia Rossi and Ellen Steele. State Theatre Company of South Australia at the Space Theatre. Until April 20. Bookings