Few contemporary playwrights can frame a provocation like multi-award-winning playwright Patricia Cornelius. Her latest work, Savages, debuting in August at Melbourne's fortyfivedownstairs, is a furious study in male wretchedness.
It takes for inspiration the death of Dianne Brimble on the Pacific Sky cruise liner. Brimble died from an overdose of the liquid drug fantasy, but not before she was made an object of sexual sport for a group of eight men from Adelaide.
"There's no way that you could see this play and not recognise that case," says Cornelius. "I did as much research into Dianne Brimble's death as I could."
The play is also informed by the many scandals involving sporting teams and sexual assault, especially on tour. What is at issue for Cornelius is the release of a savage sense of male entitlement.
'"These are men adrift," says Cornelius, "away from the homeland. There is a sense of being free to do whatever you want. There is a sense that the trip ‑ that life itself ‑ owes you."
A writer with a highly expressive poetic style, if also politically direct , Cornelius is not interested in naturalistic portraiture. And yet, empathy is at the heart of this project.
"How do you present people who are unloveable?" she asks.
For Cornelius, these are men who have been disappointed by the world. Men generally have been let down. There are no dreams. They have little sense of purpose. Men have been emotionally emasculated by what Cornelius calls a "really terrible" corporatised society.
"If you keep treating people shabbily, then you're not going to get nice people", she says. "You're going to get people who are unable to articulate why they're angry, people who are miserable and resentful and ugly."
Savages, then, is not so much about a primitive pack instinct as a moral weakness endemic to society.
"It's as though our country is meant to be this wealthy, privilege society, but the wealth hasn't enriched us," Cornelius says.
One of the saddest example of male decadence she points to is the muscle-bound gym junkie.
"There are so few ways for a man to use his body meaningfully in the world. So you get all these huge, waddling babies who built this tremendous strength to no purpose."
It is no surprise that the group of men implicated in ‑ though not legally guilty of ‑ the death of Dianne Brimble met in an Adelaide gymnasium.
It's a difficult story for the all male cast, and Cornelius is grateful to have found four men willing to take a risk on the material. "Lots of actors who were against the material," she says, "they thought I was anti-male, or they wanted to know about the woman. Female complicity is beside the point. It doesn't matter. It's about you and your response to that seedy opportunity."
But she admits that she and director Suzie Dee will need to nurse their egos through the process, which will become quite personal.
"It's important to make the men in the audience indentify with these characters, they need to see a father or a brother or a friend they had at school," she says, "and that engagement begins with the cast."
Savages is Cornelius's first new production since the sell-out season of Do Not Go Gentle... in 2010. Though she sometimes admits to feeling frustrated by the limited opportunities for staging new work in Australia, she refuses to compromise the forthright, heart-on-her-sleeve rhetoric of her plays.
"It's not about saying you have to believe this, you have to believe that," she insists, "But sometimes you have to feel unsettled in the theatre. You have to feel like you're reassessing things that you thought were fundamental. By the time you leave you may have gathered it all back. But I like the idea that theatre can open up some kind of doubt and anxiety."
Savages, fortyfivedownstairs, 16 Aug-8 Sep
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