‘If men are masters of their fate,’ asks the American feminist Susan Faludi, ‘what do they do about the unspoken sense that they are being mastered, in the marketplace and at home, by forces that seem to be sweeping away the soil beneath their feet?’
Perhaps they go on a cruise. That, at least, is what Runt, Craze, Rabbit, and George do. Four middle-aged men, past their prime but still willing to take on any young buck, they are about to set sail on the ‘trip of a lifetime’. It is goodbye to inadequacy, shame, and frustration; to the sense of always treading water; to a society with no place for ‘real men’ anymore. As they cross the gangplank, they jettison their miseries and declare their old selves dead: ‘The salt water spray is going to take everything away and leave me like a new born babe.’ This is a delusion, of course. The old insecurities remain. What actually happens is a loosening of the moral ties that restrain their misogynistic desire for revenge, their savage indignation.
George: Is that us in the distance?
Rabbit: It is.
George: Almost gone.
George: It is.
Rabbit: I feel let loose.
This is Savages, Patricia Cornelius’s remarkable new play, currently in its première season at Melbourne’s fortyfivedownstairs. It is an outstanding example of polemic theatre, written in a kind of bubbling, scalding, idiomatic verse that amazes even as it accuses: it is one of the best – if most unsettling – pieces of new writing for the stage going around.
It takes as its immediate inspiration the case of Dianne Brimble, the 42-year-old mother of three who died on the Pacific Sky cruise liner after being given an over-dose of gamma hydroxybutyrate, also known as the date-rape drug ‘fantasy’. Her naked, lifeless body was discovered on the floor of a cabin belonging to a group of four middle-aged men from Adelaide, later described by police investigators as ‘persons of interest’.
In Cornelius’s reshaping of this grim scenario, she focuses exclusively on her four men, from a morning spent lounging on deck discussing love and scars, to their increasingly desperate efforts to pick-up at the all-night disco. This is not a closely observed character study as in, say, Gordon Graham’s The Boys (1991), a play that explores a similar subject and theme. Cornelius draws her men as broad types, and never allows the particularities of the case to obscure her larger point about the ‘masculinity crisis’.
Yet the tone is not abstract. This is a work that bears comparison to the plays of Austrian Nobel Laureate Elfriede Jelinek. Like Jelinek, Cornelius has a gift for sculpting dramatic poetry from the rhythmic flow of ‘voice and counter-voice’. Poignant images of loneliness and abandonment emerge almost miraculously from terse, blokey banter. Touching reminiscences suddenly sour as a monologue turns into a rant and then into a cruel interrogation.
Cornelius has not always been well served by her directors. Her relentlessly combative politics sometimes inspire too much admiration, and the fluency and richness of the poetry are often wasted in earnestness. Susie Dee, however, is an ideal collaborator, someone committed to the argument but with a taste for the lurid and the grotesque, and an excellent ear for dramatic verse. Here she draws on the blustering, histrionic exuberance of the Aussie male among his mates, the cartoon camaraderie, the hoots and howls, and redirects it into a kind of demon theatre.
Designer Marg Horwell provides a magnificent stage for this infernal drama: a huge wooden deck, tilted at a crazy angle, as though the boat and all its brutish cargo were about to be upended into the audience. It is simple but grand. Up and back the men stalk, sometimes like wild dogs, their machismo transformed into an animalistic hunger, sometimes like men lost in the wilderness.
In very difficult roles – albeit ones that offer a certain charismatic opportunity – the performances are all excellent. As the runt of the group, Luke Elliot evokes an unexpected sympathy, almost like some modern Caliban advancing on his Miranda. James O’Connell, the faded Lothario, brings plenty of sneering, but also a damaged sort of hope, always dreaming of his island in the sun. Lyall Brooks is full of menace as a hot-tempered loner, while Mark Tregonning is convincing as an insane divorcé with a vaguely mythopoetic male-pride philosophy.
This play has a rare vitality, a luminous, creative rage that throws a powerful light not only on the problem of anomic male violence, but also on issues like depression, social alienation, and the breakdown of the family. For Cornelius, these are the conditions that make men savage, and they are problems for all of us, not only disappointed middle-aged men adrift on the vast Pacific of uninspired lives.
Savages by Patricia Cornelius, directed by Susie Dee. fortyfivedownstairs. Runs until 8 September. Performance attended 16 August.