Poetry and brutal masculinity may make strange bedfellows, but aren't mutually exclusive propositions under the pen of a great playwright. And Patricia Cornelius is certainly one of our best. Her new play follows four mates as they embark on ‘the trip of a lifetime’ aboard an unnamed cruise liner, and it doesn't take a lot of time for the audience to realise that we’re not on the Love Boat.
In fact, it doesn't take any. The opening moments, as the men climb over the back railing of the ramped deck and stalk the stage like ravenous wolves, is simply terrifying. All the menace and machismo that informs the rest of the play is evidenced in that opening dumbshow. A bone-rattling sonic boom (which will cleverly become the ship’s horn moments later) reaches fever pitch, and one of the men snarls the others off the stage and stands in animalistic triumph. As a lesson in setting tone, it’s hard to beat.
The play proper begins with a funny and telling meeting as the men prepare to board. In the script, Cornelius gives us an extended repetition of the greeting ‘Hey!’ Director Susie Dee has evinced a poetry of the inarticulate from her cast around this single, meaningless word, and the tone of jocular insincerity sets like concrete around us.
Before the mates are allowed to board, Craze [Mark Tregonning] insists they nominate something they intend to leave behind, a niggling discontentment in their lives that may prevent them from taking full advantage of the freedoms inherent in ocean travel. The dramatic irony at play here is the knowledge that whatever they nominate, they are incapable of abandoning their own natures. Any darkness they have is coming on board with them.
But while the brutality at the heart of men is the primal theme in Savages, the cast and the playwright manage to squeeze a lot of humour out of the scenario. One scene has the men setting up deckchairs and relaxing in the sun before the need to compare scars takes over them. Another finds great levity in the lack of room in the cabin. Conversely, the awful karaoke rendition of 'When a Man Loves a Woman' didn't work for me, not least because bad Karaoke is excruciating even when it’s intentional, but also because it breaks tension precisely when it needs ratcheting up. The bad dancing in the ship’s nightclub works much better, and isn't comic in the least.
In general, tone is expertly handled. Rough-housing that could turn nasty; misogyny that seethes under the surface; and cruel, sarcastic taunting that threatens to morph into outright violence all add to the palpable sense of unease. Cornelius cuts into this mood with almost elegiac monologues of regret and reflection. Runt [Luke Elliot] describes a first date with a girl he meets online with heartbreaking longing. And George [Lyall Brooks] chillingly plays out a fantasy of drowning the girl who has betrayed him.
The performances are all strong. The cast is rounded out by James O’Connell as the sexually compromised Rabbit (how good are these names?), and no one delivers less than a compelling portrait of fatally flawed masculinity at sea. Elliott in particular elevates his role to tragic heights, and doesn’t put a foot wrong.
The set by Marg Horwell is simple but highly effective, and the sound and lighting design are first rate. Susie Dee has directed with commendable energy and really brings the play to life. It surges along like a ship headed for choppy waters, and grows in stature as it moves toward the chilling conclusion.
I did get serious echoes of Gordon Graham’s The Boys, and I don’t know if the association is helpful to Savages. That play was based on the Anita Cobby murder, and it’s clear Cornelius was likewise inspired by the death of Dianne Brimble on a cruise in 2002. Both plays have extremely similar endings. In this case, I think the play would have benefitted from a coda of some kind, a scene of the men leaving the ship utterly compromised or totally indifferent. As it stands, the end feels rather evasive.
Despite this, the production hits home, and leaves us with some hard questions. Are the oscillating pressures of pride and shame damaging our men irrevocably? And how close is the average bloke to serious violence?
Read Time Out's interview with playwright Patricia Cornelius here