First performed at the MTC in 1977 and on countless school reading lists, David Williamson’s The Club holds a particular notoriety in AFL-loving Australia as it gives a plausible imagining of the off-field tensions in a famous club at the time.
It’s a time when traditions were confronted by the pragmatic need to make money and there’s conflict between those claiming to revere tradition and a new president looking to impose corporate practices in the quest for a premiership. While I found the main interest of the play was as a chronicle of its time, there is still comment relevant to today’s professional sport.
This is the story of Jock Riley (John Wood), past club champion, coach and recently deposed president. His replacement, Ted Parker (Geoff Kelso), runs a pie company and hasn’t played a single game. Ted sees footy as a business with success meaning sponsorship and members, and has started discarding club traditions. He’s appointed an administrator Gerry Cooper (Ezra Bix) and pushes to buy promising youngster Geoff Hayward (Kade Greenland). He also thinks he can tell current club coach and legendary player Laurie Holden (Peter Finlay) how to do his job. It’s an unhappy group, and the players lead by current champ Danny Rowe (Luke McKenzie), antagonised by the highly-paid recruit Geoff and wanting to support Laurie, are threatening a strike.
The success of the production is in the quality of its characterisations. As events unfold, we see the natural divide between the club’s old guard and the reforming new and as everyone’s agenda is revealed, loyalties shift with believable results.
Wood convincingly inhabits the club elder looking to maintain his prestige, even if it means making concessions to modern times. He also gets the best laughs of the night in physical comedy in a scene with under-performing recruit Geoff. Finlay as the man in the middle is a laconic Aussie with an uncompromising passion for his club who, while quick to read the play as a player, is slower to read the boardroom. Bix recalls Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes Minister in his study in subterfuge as he tries to play a professional role amongst amateurs, which allows the audience to judge proceedings for themselves.
As president, Kelso manifests the zealotry of the long-time supporter unable to play but keen to contribute. The events of the second half that consume Ted have lead people to describe the character as tragic, but I didn’t feel sympathy for Ted, probably as a result of a less permissive community attitude towards violence against women.
Denis Moore’s direction mostly gives a taut evening of boardroom threats and compromises, however, an overly long scene in act two between Jock and Geoff didn’t illuminate the characters enough to justify its duration. Maybe we have another case of too much reverence for tradition.
The design of the production contributes to its success in capturing place and time. The feel of 1970s Australia and generational difference is communicated through touches of Adrienne Chisholm’s costume design, such as Laurie’s tan leather jacket to contrast with Jock’s suit and club tie. Shaun Gurton’s set design of dark wood walls and black and white player photos is effective at projecting the conservatism and celebrated history of the 100-year-old footy club.
By considering the start of player buying, The Club highlights the commodification of the sportsperson, creating a situation where stars make it big and lesser lights or the injured can please themselves. For the AFL, in which the average career is only six years, it’s a point worth thinking about. This aside, the essence of conflicts in The Club will be recognisable to those involved in various community organisations and it’s an enjoyably lively evening.
The Melbourne season is very short, but it is touring around other capitals and regional centres, so there’s opportunity for many to see this Aussie icon.