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Photo by Helen White

Darlinghurst Theatre Company presents SAVAGES, by Patricia Cornelius, at the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst, 1 April – 1 May.

SAVAGES, is a play by Patricia Cornelius, that premiered in Melbourne in 2013, and now, finally, reaches a Sydney audience at the Eternity Playhouse. Ms Cornelius is a multi-award winning author and her work is rarely seen in this city. The last time, professionally, was a production of THE CALL, on the SBW Stables stage, for the Griffin Theatre Company. (SLUT, was seen as part of the Sydney Fringe, last year.)

Macquarie Dictionary: savage  1. wild or rugged. 2. uncivilized; barbarous. 3. rude, boorish; 4. fierce, ferocious, or crude; untamed. 5. enraged or furiously angry, as a person. 6. an uncivilized human being. 7. a fierce, brutal or cruel person. 8. to assail violently; maul.

Four men board a ship for a cruise: “the holiday of a lifetime.” On boarding, they promise to leave their ’emotional baggage’ behind: disintegrating (disintegrated) family relationships, and collapsing job circumstances – a life of disadvantage and overwhelming, ‘drowning’, disillusion. Four men starting off again, on a ship, full of excitement with the hopeful expectation of creating a new life, even for a short time, where all their dreams will be renewed and fulfilled. To love and be loved, at least, as they know it.

It does not begin well when they find their cabin cramped and claustrophobic below the water-line, deep in the bowels of the ship. Their sense of the promise of the cruise into a life that would be more – richer, rewarding – soon shifts into a spiral of a feeling of being cheated, as nothing meets their wants, needs. (They get what they can afford, for sure.) Fuelled with alcohol, drugs and a growing anger, encouraged by being in the safety of numbers – a pack – and empowered with their gratifying practised hierarchy of power and group-disparagement, they transpose from the civil human into the wild animal – wild ‘dogs’. This is a play about that kind of masculinity that mutates into most of its dangerous traits: rage, violence, misogyny and an unconscious but lacerating self-loathing.

With all the scandals of footballers’ group sex exposes and the memory of the horror of a highly publicized tragic event on a cruise ship ticking away, one can approach this play with some trepidation. I did. And truly, it moves into a very uncomfortable experience, but it is one that does not just expose (or condemn) some of the behaviours of men but makes some attempt to help us to understand them. Ms Cornelius’ body of work has focused on the world of the Working Class and the ‘frustrations’ of the limitations that society may burden, handicap, that class with.

In SAVAGES each of her men, Runt (Thomas Campbell), George (Troy Harrison), Rabbit (Josef Ber) and Craze (Yure Covich), reveal insights into their life experiences and inner life, we learn something of the motivation – the why – that their tribal mentality, given certain circumstances, can escalate into ‘wild’, ‘barbarous’, ‘boorish’, ‘ferocious’, ‘enraged’, ‘uncivilized’, ‘brutal’ behaviour. And although, there is an opportunity to smile, even laugh, at the naivety of these men’s dreams during the early part of the play, a visceral insidious feeling of mounting fear and growing disgust registers deeply within the ‘pit’ of our clenching stomachs. Class and gender is thematically, fiercely, under the microscope.

The play is written in a stylised but simple poetic form, and in this heightened manner permits us an entry to the performance of the work in a relatively detached position that the powerful ‘melodramatic’ realism of Gordon Graham’s THE BOYS does not permit, and one is grateful that SAVAGES finishes on the edge of the potential of the pressure explosion into savagery, rather than taking us into it.

For, although the play may call to mind the transgressive sex tragedies of recent times, it is not a recreation of those particular people or events. This play is not a mirror of that. Inevitably, I think, our memory may take us there, but that is not the real interest of Ms Cornelius, for this play sits solidly within the context of the ‘body’ of her work which is, largely, an examination of the world of the ‘cheated’ of our society, which began with her contributions to the famous: WHO’S AFRAID OF THE WORKING CLASS? (1998) and her ‘mission’ is to have us take note of the consequences of neglect or ignorance of our fellow citizens. She invites us to not judge these men, but to begin to understand them, and, certainly, not to excuse or forgive them. SAVAGES is a play that reminds me of Maxim Gorky’s THE LOWER DEPTHS! – savage, indeed.

There is great will and commitment from this tight ensemble of actors, although the interrogation of the need to speak the text with a more heightened style has not been sufficiently investigated by the Director, Tim Roseman, with these actors – i.e. a technical and imaginative ownership of the carefully crafted language, a word by word clarity, within the musicality of the form structure, and one that is personalised and not so generalised – whose neglect seems to have been compensated  by him with an over vigorous, dense, physical expression, where the ‘actions’/choreography sometimes appears to be a kind of substitute for the lack of language ‘accuracies’ that would have been more than enough to communicate the play to us. (Julia Cotton, Movement Director.)

The Set Design by Jeremy Allen, is a metaphoric intimation to a cruise ship and has a Lighting Design by Sian James-Holland that creates the atmospheres of the journey of the men, accompanied by a detailed, supportive Sound Design and Composition by Nate Edmondson.

SAVAGES is a confronting work and worth experiencing for its theatricality. But most of all for Ms Cornelius’ skill in the writing. And one wishes that Mr Roseman had helped us more to appreciate, the truth of what he notes in the program (as contentious as that may be):

There’s no one in Australia who can use language like Patricia Cornelius, with such deceptive simplicity masking a landscape of intricacies and wonders.

The action suiting the word, not the word obfuscated by the action.