Prize Fighter (La Boite Theatre Company & Brisbane Festival)
La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre
September 5 – 26
Perhaps never has there been a show more suitable for La Boite’s unique theatre in the round staging than “Prizefighter”, a new Australian work which sees the Roundhouse Theatre transformed into authentic boxing ring, complete with Vegas razzle dazzle spectacle of ushers acting as ring card girls, holding over-heard oversized cards bearing the seating bank numbers, an assortment of training routines happening before the audience’s eyes and a pumping pre-show soundtrack to set the scene and invigorate the crowd.
Far from the MGM Grand, however, the setting is the mythical Luke’s Gym in West End. After four years of training at the gym, rising star and refugee Isa, a talented young Congolese boxer is preparing for the most important fight of his life. Undefeated with 15 fights and 12 knockouts, he has fists of iron but haunting demons, explored through between-round flashbacks to the violence of his early life in The Democratic Republic of Congo where he was orphaned by war and forced to become a child soldier.
While not linear in chronology, the story is not a challenge to follow as it transcends time and location, thanks to its cleverly crafted script (and debut work) by former Congolese refugee Future D. Fidel, with arcs and revisits to notions of killing and victory tempered by the universal humour of uneasy flirtation and brotherly banter. Indeed, despite its weighty themes, this is an accessible production thanks to its use of boxing (authentically choreographed down to the finest of details thanks to Movement and Fight Director Nigel Poulton) as a metaphor for Isla’s journey through trauma.
The story is brought to provocative life by a versatile all-Brisbane cast who portray all range of character role with nuanced commitment. As Isa, Pacharo Mzembe brings sensitivity to the text, always remaining on the right side of the empathy/sympathy tightrope. While the ever-feisty Margi Brown-Ash is a little like Burgess Meredith’s Mickey Goldmill in the “Rocky” movies (the extent of my boxing knowledge), intense in demeanour and faith in Isa as she urges him to get his head right and focus on his dream.
This is a show that pack a lot of punch (#punintended) into its hour long running time. As characters become casualties of the brutality of the volatile Congolese war, it is, at times, a highly charged emotional experience, with many emerging from the theatre wrenched by the extremities that only human tragedy can invoke. Music and David Walters’ lighting choices are central in establishing the mood and the pace of the journey, taking the audience through ebbs and flows of a narrative that requires both vibrant sounds capes and silences to speak volumes. And optikal bloc’s exciting projected imagery is essential in the audience immersement into the hype of a prize fight event.
As recent events have shown, it is far easier to condemn groups of people when they are given no human face. And while only inspired by the playwright’s own story of fleeing the war torn country, “Prize Fighter” presents Australian audiences with a confronting story that is clearly grounded in a experience that is achingly true for so many. As such, “Prize Fighter” is an important piece of theatre, worthy of inclusion as one of the headliners of the Brisbane Festival as part of its Congo Connection series. To bring stories such as this from the margins into the mainstream is one of theatre’s great privileges and while it may not exactly be a show to ‘enjoy’ as much as appreciate, its profoundness means it is definitely one to be seen.