It’s rare to see a new Australian play remounted after its début season, but Prize Fighter, currently playing at Melbourne Festival after seasons at La Boite, Belvoir, and a regional tour, is a welcome exception. It is a transformative experience that exemplifies the social significance of live theatre, in bringing together disparate communities and voices in a single space. Northcote Town Hall itself is transformed into a boxing gym. This creates a genuine intersection of communities, as members of a local boxing club train alongside the actors as the audience enters.
But Prize Fighter is not simply a boxing story. Playwright Future D. Fidel uses the familiar narrative of an underdog fighter to lead the audience through a tightly woven story of survival. The play follows Isa (Pacharo Mzembe), a Congolese refugee pursuing a career as a professional boxer. As the action ducks and dips between past and present, it reveals a childhood marred by trauma, as Isa is orphaned by war and forced to become a child soldier.
The shifts in time and space are artfully managed. Felix Cross’s sound design (remixed by Busty Beatz) provides both a shot of energy – the hip-hop pounding in the opening moments – and a gentle underscore that supports the story through its most fragile moments – the echoes of Isa’s sister singing in the aftermath of violence. The lighting, designed by David Walters, shifts between naturalism and symbolism, the stark spotlights of the ring giving way to deep blues and reds that speak to the intensity of the memory, rather than the physical space itself.