A fine-looking suburban boxing gym has been installed in the North Melbourne Town Hall. It's not quite the full-kit immersion it was in its Sydney season, downstairs at Belvoir, but it's still an impressive recreation. As you enter the space, LL Cool J blaring from a boom box, clippings and fight-night promotional posters on the walls, the five performers are already working through their stations, building up a healthy sweat. To my untrained eye, they show good boxing technique, too, landing crisp punches and dancing nimbly. Immediately you feel the weight of lived research behind the show.
This is documentary theatre, an examination of the motivations and aspirations of the fighting man, based on many years of interviews with boxers past and present by director Roslyn Oades. We meet Wale 'Lucky Boy' Omotoso a Nigerian-born boxer now based in Melbourne, and Gus Mercurio, a wheezy old American, for many years a commentator and referee, full of insights into the sport he's given his life to. There's also Jeff Fenech, one of Australia's best-known boxing personalities, still full boasts and bravado, and trainer Tony Mundine, father of Anthony, reflecting on how the sport has changed since his time in the ring. An English amateur named CJ turns up, trying to explain, not quite convincingly, what it is that makes other men so aggressive towards him. Wally Carr, another veteran, looks back at some of life's missed opportunities.
But at the heart of the show is Billy "The Kid" Dib, who was until earlier this year the world IBF Featherweight titleholder. We see him as he was in 2011, preparing for his first shot at the title. It makes for a fascinating introduction into the world of arena boxing. Ego, bluff and determination stack up with talent, physical advantage and dedicated training as the champ rises to his shot at glory.
To present all this, to bring these characters to life, director Oades uses something she calls headphone-verbatim theatre. Recordings of her interviews, cleverly edited and strung together, provide the script. She wants the performers to capture with as much accuracy as possible all the verbal nuances of her interviewees, replicating not only their words, their tone and accent and rhythms of speech, but all their inarticulacy, too, the disfluencies, the stammering and coughing, all the stuff of everyday human speech not normally heard in the theatre. To achieve this, the actors all wear headphones which feed them the edited audio recordings of the interviews, which they follow as they're performing.
It's not clear ‑ at least to this reviewer ‑ where the advantage of Oades' headphone technique really lies. Why not give the performers a transcript of the interviews to learn their lines from, including all the ums and ahs, then use the audio recordings in rehearsal to secure the authentic vocal realism? Why the headphones during the show?
Given that this show has been touring since October 2012, how closely, now, are the performers really listening to the recordings in the headphones? Aren't the performers ‑ despite what Oades claims ‑ still just reciting memorised lines, whether they realise it or not? Haven't they have already fallen into established patterns of replication and presentation, patterns which must inevitably differ ‑ albeit subtly ‑ what is on the tape? By this stage in the process, aren't the headphones more like prompters, like the earpiece that Angela Lansbury wore to stay on cue in her Tony Award-winning role in Blithe Spirit?
And does Oades' technique really eliminate the possibility of parody, as claimed in the program? Frankly, it seems to make parody more likely. Parody begins in imitation; representation begins in understanding. We see this especially in the way accents are treated ‑ the Thai challenger and his manager for instance. You can't always read a lot into an audience reaction, but it's telling that the audience found many of the performances extremely funny.
Finally, it's worth questioning what Oades might mean when she describes her technique as "hyper realism". It's an accurate description in as much as what we get is not realism but something detached from realism, something that exceeds verisimilitude. The headphones establish a decisive barrier against the audience and even between each performer. A more suggestive description might be "autistic realism". These characters are closed off from their stage environment. With the headphones on they can't "read" the audience: part of their attention is always directed inward, toward the voice in the machine. Their performances are somehow stilted, disconnected. There is, essentially, despite the realistic details, a kind of blankness to their verbal performances, one which is only occasionally overcome, and always through the body, in their physical interpretation of the lines.
None of this is to say that I'm Your Man doesn't work as theatre. It absolutely does. The characters we meet in this Arts House gymnasium are remarkable creations. And there is indeed something curious, even fascinating, about the isolation which Oades technique effects. For all that they seem like figures cut out from a boxing magazine, they are still able to involve us in the sport, and to suggest their heart and ambition and pride. Michael Mohammed Ahmed in particular, in the central role of Billy Dib, offers a remarkable portrait of a motivated young athlete for whom the world is not enough. But having seen the real Dib talking, I think there's no doubt that what Ahmed presents ‑ exacerbating the bluster, pushing him ever so slightly toward absurdity ‑ is still an artistic interpretation, not objective reportage. Ahmed accentuates the fragility of Dib's ego, and brings out his sensitivity to great poignant effect.
I'm Your Man puts us face to face with a unique kind of desperation ‑ a mixed sort of yearning for absolute dominance and fear of being embarrassed, or "made to look bad" as Gus Mercurio puts it. When asked to consider the possibility of losing, Dib seems genuinely baffled: he would never let that happen; he would rather die; he would probably do something really terrible before he let that happen. And yet in March of this year, when Dib was defending his IBF title against the challenger Evegeny Gradovich, he did lose, and in rather unspectacular fashion. He didn't go out with a bang, there was no lucky punch or controversial decision. Gradovich was just the hungrier fighter on the night. Dib, for all his heart and desire, was unable to keep up.
And that's how it goes. They all lose in the end. And reputation doesn't last. "Oblivion is not to be hired: The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been." But this is not a melancholy show. It's a highly energetic and very positive depiction of the athlete in society, the warmth of the suburban gym and the hard work of the boxers and coaches striving for their moment at the top.