Review by Lucy Lucas
After premiering at the SA State Theatre in 2018 Patricia Cornelius’s In the Club has finally come to Melbourne. The show charts the course of one night in a club frequented by AFL players, from the perspectives of three very different women.
Written with Cornelius’s signature rhythm and poetry, the play moves fluidly from monologue to duologue, from Greek chorus to song. The opening monologues give delightfully varied insights into Annie, Ruby and Olivia’s attitudes to intimacy, sex and gender. This style of writing is so ubiquitous now that it is easy to forget Cornelius is one of its pioneers. The work is never stronger than when in monologue, where Cornelius’s unique ability to present complex people without apology or artifice shines. These women are actively seeking pleasure, exhilaration and are, to varying extents, aware of the power dynamics at play.
Kitan Petkovski steps into the director role in his second 2023 collaboration with Cornelius, having assistant directed the recent run of My Sister Jill at MTC. Whilst I outline a few issues I had with two core directorial choices below there were many smaller ones that delighted me: the use of the existing spatial features (especially the doors), the intersecting tracks of actors to create new spaces, the attention to ensuring the actors were not lost in the expansive playing space and the incorporation of live film. Even acknowledging the few elements that gave me pause, it is clear the Petkovski has singular and powerful vision and is a director from whom brilliant work will continue to emanate.
Brigid Gallacher (Olivia) shines as the plays’ emotional epicentre. She has the instinct and timing of a seasoned comedian, and her arch reminds us that vulnerability is not a weakness. Michelle Perera (Ruby) is, as always, extremely funny and easy to watch though I do hope to see her branch out from her signature louche persona, as it is beginning to read as one-note. Ras-Samuel, Darcy Kent and Damien Harrison aquit themselves admirably as the trio of typical footballers, steering well clear of caricature. It is hard to avoid Kent on Melbourne stages these days, but this is nothing to be sorry about – he never misses the mark. His Angus is perfectly loveable, epitomising the danger of charming ‘boys will be boys’ thinking that sees so many wanting to forgive perpetrators even in the face of heinous realities of their crimes.
Eva Seymour (Annie) is a beautiful and technically gifted actor but her casting as the imperfect victim who challenges the system is a major sticking point in my connection to the story. Seymour sounds like she is impersonating the idea of a ‘rough-as-guts true blue sheila’, straining her speaking voice into an uncomfortably low register and never quite at ease in her square shouldered, open-legged bro-ey stance. I may be wrong about what she is going for here, but it felt as if she was aiming for a Scout Finch type ball of energy who evolves into an unapologetic, in your face woman: someone tough, brazen and, importantly, working class. I hesitate to criticise Seymour’s inability to settle into the physicality of this role as I feel the responsibility falls more to the director and casting team. Seymour’s character’s experience is clearly supposed to evoke the infamous St Kilda Schoolgirl case – the essential plot points are the same and the footballer in question even has similar initials. The girl at the centre of that case was never a perfect victim, too volatile and brash for the Australian public and media landscape of the time to pigeonhole and unsurprisingly she became a pariah. Annie is a stand-in for many women who have been labelled difficult, trouble, messy, asking for it, attention seeking etc. The sort of woman Patricia Cornelius has made a career giving voice to. This makes Annie an incredible challenge for an actor. She is someone who isn’t easily likeable, who we relate to but equally fear. Someone who should make the final reality of the play, that she was a child let down by adults who should have protected and supported her, challenge the audience more than it did.
There are two options here. The first is to cast Seymour, and develop Annie in collaboration with her, to ensure truthfulness. This option may mean she does not come across as tomboyish or rough as Petkovski/Cornelius may have imagined but would have allowed us to connect with her humanity more. This option trusts that the sport loving unstoppable kid written into the script could grow up to be any woman. The second option is to cast an actor who has more innate coarseness or can seamlessly realise it. Neither of these options is wrong, both ensure truthfulness and depth. It is in attempting to have it both ways that does both Seymour and the writing a disservice. There is too much to be written on actors and the performance of class (as in social and economic) to cover adequately here but as with all issues of representation it comes back to believability and truth. If an actor reads as playing class the story gets stuck on the surface and runs the risk of stereotyping and caricature. It is a particularly delicate dilemma when we consider who is attending increasingly expensive local theatre – I find it deeply unsettling when I watch a story about someone who I feel is not in, or able to access, the space. In order to do justice to working class stories and characters we need to continually challenge ourselves to reduce barriers to actors from all backgrounds and cast in line with lived experience where possible and appropriate.
The scenes are intercut with songs written by Jaguar Jonze, an activist and music maker, and powerfully sung by Seymour. The tone and style of the music was perfect and whilst I really appreciate the cross-collaboration and particularly the power of including real survivor’s voices’ my theatrical experience of these scenes was not invigorating. The lyrics were too far removed from the specifics of the play, and I felt the time spent on them detracted from the development of Annie’s story. The choreography and styling of them leaned too far into pop-star imagery, taking the beautiful, unique sexual journeys expressed in the opening monologues and forcing them into a cookie-cutter, hetero-normative versions of feminine sexuality.
The visual design was the perfect combination of sexy and seedy, seamlessly supporting both wider themes and specific storytelling. I appreciated Bethany J Fellows’s choice not to shy away from the (often challenging) scale of the Theatreworks space, particularly through the use of epic projection. Live filming incorporated a birds-eye-view dimension that spoke to the objectification and self-surveillance induced by the male gaze. It put the audience in the role of the voyeur, uncomfortably evoking the many stories of victim survivors being filmed without consent.
Overall, In the Club is a phenomenal script and this production remains an energetic, sexy and captivating take on consent, desire and violence.