Making right out of wrongs

The Sublime (No Interval Actors Theatre Co)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

August 30 – September 2

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Brendan Cowell’s “The Sublime” is a very Australian play, unfortunately not in a good way. This, however, is a reflection of what is wrong in our contemporary culture rather than comment on the controversial work itself, which is a sad, shocking and formidable theatre experience that crams much into its unrelenting and absorbing 70 minute running time.

25 year-old Dean (Tom Yaxley) is a Brownlow-bound AFL star, seemingly single-minded in his devotion to his sporting career because there will be plenty of time for life and a wife after his time at the top. His more happy-go-lucky brother Liam (Bradley Watt) is a league player of some controversy, trying to come back after a suspension, but easily led-astray by his new captain and NRL superstar, Nick. Despite their differences, the two brothers are united in emotion towards their respective games, because ‘footy’ is the name for whatever code you follow.

As the more responsible older brother, Dean not only obliges their mother’s request for him to watch over the laddish Liam, but seems like a sensible mentor for 17-year-old Olympics-bound athletics star Amber (Ellen Bailey) so much so that her parents suggest that he takes her and friend Zoe along on the boys’ rowdy end-of-year footy trip to Thailand. Although Dean’s intentions towards Amber are apparently innocent (he’s attracted to her athletic ability and determination), she is not looking for him to be a mentor. As an audience, we recognise the concern oblivious to Amber’s footy-fan parents and sure enough frivolity soon turns to a rip and tear tale of good times gone bad. Yet, the story takes still further turns as, after Liam rapes the ‘up for it’ teenage Zoe, the complicated fallout threatens to destroy all of their futures.

The play is well cast and the three performers are all superb in their comic timing and compelling commitment to flawed characters. Bailey is engaging as the chameleon-like Amber, juvenilely-naïve, but not-so, initially a victim but later instigator in the complicated media game. And Yaxley, is memorable as the seemingly-sensible but ultimately-troubled Dean. It is their skilled performances, in particular, that succeed in shifting audience sympathies throughout the show.

The simplest of staging makes the play even more unsettling as the story is told as three intertwining monologues from Amber and the brothers, each seated at a spot-lit table and chair. The writing is excellent. The anecdotal nature of the early dialogue delivery, for example, allows for a natural humour to engage the audience. It is initially light and playful banter about footy code rivalry, Sydney vs Melbourne preferences and the complexity of AFL scoring. But this is all in belie of its disturbing later scenes. When it does go there, there it is with contrasting offensive language and confronting imagery that fits the intensity of its narrative.

“The Sublime” is a powerful piece of storytelling that offers audiences much to think about around hypocrisy, moral corruption, the media, sporting hero worship and rape culture. It is far from thematically simple, leaving audiences conflicted by grapple with questions about the extent to which circumstance can create victims and anger about the complicity of all of its players. Yet it is this moral ambiguity that makes it so worthwhile. Indeed, if theatre is valued by its incite of audience reaction, then “The Sublime” is theatre done right.