Brisbane Festival & La Boite
September 5 – 26 2015
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
These are the shows we don’t get to see… We don’t get to see these shows on the Australian stage.
Future. D. Fidel
These are the stories that are with us and amongst us.
September sees Brisbane immersed in the most incredible, inspiring and life-affirming stories, with a Brisbane Festival prelude brought to us by Brisbane Writers Festival, which I’ve enjoyed for the last three years, thanks to Cinnamon Watson Publicity (#tweetingit #xsneverstops). One of the highlights of this year’s Brisbane Writers Festival was hearing Somalian refugee, Abdi Aden, speak about his incredible journey from Mogadishu to Kenya and back to Mogadishu before escaping the horrors of his home country and travelling to Australia via Romania and Germany without family, friends, money or any knowledge of the English language. Abdi not only survived, he thrived. You can read his inspiring story in Shining The Story of a Lucky Man. Like Abdi, La Boite’s Artist-in-Residence, Future D. Fidel, has come from the most frightening of circumstances to settle in Australia and succeed in creating a new life in a safe haven.
His story is one of resilience, endurance, ambition and humble gratitude.
When you come into the theater, you have to be willing to say, “We’re all here to undergo a communion, to find out what is going on in this world.” If you’re not willing to say that, what you get is entertainment instead of art, and poor entertainment at that.
Prize Fighter is powerful beyond measure, affecting each of us differently and challenging us to consider the stories that are the newest strands of the cultural weave of our community. This is a “mythical” story tense with the knowingness of the past, and the anticipation of what might happen in the future. It’s not a call to action or a cry for sympathy, but more a long, low sigh of personal pain and regret. It’s heavily weighted with themes of ambition, redemption and forgiveness but it’s not all miserable. It’s about recognising our starting and finishing points and doing the best we can in between. It’s about the choices we make and the paths our choices put us on.
On opening night the show starts late, a little later than usual in fact (you can usually count on a 6-8 minute delay getting into the Roundhouse), but bearing in mind we’ve enjoyed drinks and canapés for the last hour in Brisbane Festival’s funky Theatre Republic precinct, everyone is relaxed and chatty on their way in. The beautiful up-cycled space (designed by Sarah Winter) has proven difficult to leave – the vibe is fresh and fun with plenty of food and drink and friends, and live music and inspiring conversations. There are other shows opening nearby tonight too because BRISBANE FESTIVAL.
The action has already started as we file in to take our seats, and for fifteen minutes we sit in awe of the intense focus and physical activity at our feet. It’s actually mesmerising. In the front row of the Roundhouse, ringside, we see the first drops of sweat start to catch the light on well-toned black backs as the company warms up with an informal circuit session supervised by trainers from Brisbane Boxing. These guys have been an integral part of the rehearsal process but when they suddenly disappear we know the show is about to start.
A talented young boxer, Isa, is preparing for the biggest fight of his career. On the line is the national title and the promise of fame and riches beyond his wildest dreams. What unfolds is a modern-day fable of a Congolese boy orphaned by war and forced to become a child soldier by the very people who killed his family. His powerful left hook offers a new life in Australia, but his greatest obstacle is not his opponent – it’s his past.
Prize Fighter is loud and bold, with video projected onto a seamless in–the-round canvas surrounding the raised boxing ring (design by Bill Haycock & video design by optikal bloc. Sound design & original compositions by Felix Cross and lighting design by David Walters). We strain to see the images from where we are but they must be at eye level for the upper rows of the Roundhouse. From the very top rows the experience might be akin to watching ancient gladiatorial combat, the original popular art/entertainment. Movement & Fight Director, Nigel Poulton, has had his work cut out for him on this production and he doesn’t disappoint. Even without being a fan of boxing the fight sequences are exhilarating.
The final match features a live HD camera feed, as well as a logo and a hashtag. Throughout the show bright white light exposes the desire to win and the dedication to training, and a much darker state employing a red wash takes us back to Africa, when our prize fighter is just ten years old, learning to kill or be killed.
The development of the text has enjoyed support from Dramaturg, Chris Kohn, as well as other stakeholders including Michael Futcher. The structure of the work allows us to gain insight into both time frames, with the fights stopping to allow flashbacks utilising the same versatile actors in multiple roles. The technical precision from the box allowing this magic to happen is impressive and without it (and Stage Manager, Heather O’Keefe) I doubt the show, in terms of its storytelling, would work as well.
But the joy and pathos of this production is ultimately in its beautifully gauged performances (the acting is strong – it’s real, raw and honest), tenderly crafted by Director, Todd Macdonald. We know Pacharo Mzembe from The Mountaintop (also directed by Macdonald), and it’s a pleasure to see him in this role, literally flexing his muscles to play a prize fighter who doesn’t necessarily feel the need to be a champion, unlike his coach, Luke. Margi Brown Ash glows with motherly/trainerly pride (there’s nothing typically male about her apart from the name), and she grimaces for only half a moment, before compassion takes over, when overwhelming fear, guilt and the grisly past gets in between her own ambition and Isa’s success in the ring.
The tough love is real and the moments of understanding between them, the nuances of the relationship, are a joy to witness.
The ensemble is a good lesson in casting with Gideon Mzembe (yes, the just-as-gorgeous and super talented brother of Pacharo), Thuso Lekwape (a standout with that rare star quality; there is such intensity and brilliant energy in his performance), and the beautiful, soulful Sophia Emberson-Bain (she sings superbly too and presents on a silver platter some of the sweetest and cheekiest comical moments of the show). They contribute enormously to the storytelling, switching between roles at a rate of knots and taking care to show us sufficient contrast between characters. Kenneth Ransom shines as an old “Aunty” particularly, offering a perfectly timed and nicely shaped momentary breath of comedy where it’s needed to break up tragic events. There are times when the actors’ words are not as clear as they should be, but the voices are so beautiful I have to forgive them their accents (talk about authentic), and stick to absorbing the story, its melody, and the impact of what, by the end of it, is left unsaid.
In Prize Fighter, we experience one man’s personal struggles and the horror of a war affecting so many, but one which we continue to hear little about. It’s a terribly tragic and shocking story, to which most of us can’t possibly relate, but that’s why it’s vital. Prize Fighter is full of heart. It’s a story that can be appreciated for its authenticity and contemporary relevance. It might even help us to welcome other prize fighters into our communities rather than shrug our shoulders and be content to do nothing at all when they have nowhere else to go. We’re not yet so desensitised that we can walk away and forget about this one. And that makes it not just interesting festival programming or great entertainment, but life-affecting art.
…in a very real way this story is now our own.
And there are plays – and books and songs and poems and dances – that are perhaps upsetting or intricate or unusual, that leave you unsure, but which you think about perhaps the next day, and perhaps for a week, and perhaps for the rest of your life.
Because they aren’t clean, they aren’t neat, but there’s something in them that comes from the heart, and, so, goes to the heart.