The MTC’s production of Brendan Cowell’s The Sublime left me angry. So, I took some time to think, read and discuss. I’m still angry, and horrified at the arguments being offered that try and explain how this is powerful and brave theatre.
Cowell’s play is about football, AFL and NRL. I love AFL. I love going to the G, indulging in the palpable passion and watching a story that I don’t know the ending to.
In this play, a teenage girl watches a player rape her best friend. That’s not what left me so angry.
In The Age, reviewer Cameron Woodhead said that someone is going to accuse this play of trivialising rape. I don’t think it trivialises rape. Rape is trivialised with every “What did she expect?”, “Rape is a very strong word”, “She was so drunk”, “But you weren’t hurt”, “You got in the car”, “You’ve done worse”, “Think about his future”, “She should be grateful”, “He’s your husband”, “We saw you kiss him”, “Are you sure?”, “Vindictive slut” and so on.
And yes, for every “she” I wrote, there is an implied “he”, but the first turning point of this play is the rape of a 17-year-old girl and it goes beyond trivialisation.
From the playing of Bon Jovi’s “Living on Prayer”, the first 15 or so minutes of The Sublime are as exciting to watch as a Grand Final. With three intertwining monologues, the pitch-perfect performances and writing capture our obsession with the male ball sports, the hero worship that accompanies being a young player, and the aspirations to be one of those admired men. As David Williamson’s 1978 play The Club remains a remarkable look at football world from the management office, this looked like a spot-on look at the world of the players and their fans.
Dean (Josh McConville) is 25 and an AFL role model living in Melbourne who on his way to a Brownlow medal. His younger 20-something brother Liam (Ben O’Toole) plays NRL and is doing everything he can to be selected for the NSW team. They tell us about their childhood, their ambitions and their love for the games. They’re nice young men who deserve to do well. Their story is paralleled with that of Amber, a teenage runner (Anna Samson), who is close to Olympic selection. One night after training, Dean joins Amber for a run along the Yarra and invites her to a match.
And then it – literally – loses the plot. Serious spoilers follow; the forced plot is so linked with the politics of this play, that it can’t be ignored. If you don’t want to read them, skip the next three paragraphs.
On their first brief meeting with Dean, Amber’s star-struck parents suggest their underage teenage daughter, and her friend Zoe, join Dean, Liam and Liam’s NRL team in Thailand for their end of year trip.
But put aside Hell freezing over because something needed to happen to get them to a resort and a Moon Party in Thailand. The party is a dream rage. Amber gives her first ever blow job to Dean because she knows that’s how to get a boyfriend (and the immediate BJ aftermath may be the sweetest and most honest scene in the play), but the fantasy holiday ends when Liam’s best mate encourages Liam to fuck shit-faced Zoe while he masturbates and Dean cowers in the corner. All of them ignore Amber, who’s filming it on her phone.
When they get back to Australia, it gets messy and the legal action is as believable as the parents giving their virgin daughter to the football team. And that’s before Amber is abandoned by her parents, releases the video to the media, pretends the teenager being fucked face down on the couch is her (and that she loved it), gives up running, and moves in with Liam. She moves in and develops a sexual relationship with the man who raped her friend in front of her.
This play acknowledges that non-consensual sex is rape but goes on to explain and exonerate the behaviour of the rapist and his mates, while throwing in a dose of questionable victim behaviour to ensure that the question it poses is “Should the lads be blamed for their behaviour?”.
To make it easier to watch, there are lots of laughs, which help it to hide under the safety net of satire.
Great satire makes us look at ourselves and cringe with shame when we recognise our own behaviour.
The behaviour this work is begging us to see is that we let teenage girls ruin men’s lives. We let girls get away with it.
Dramaturgically, it’s also made easier to watch because the described rape is diluted to be less confronting that it could be. The age differences aren’t much. It’s only one guy. It’s quick. There are no absent partners or children to be hurt. Unseen Zoe is the one raped, so the act is distanced from the character we know and care about. Zoe’s over 16 (age of consent), had been flirting all night, wasn’t a virgin, had said how much she wanted have sex with Liam, and was so drunk that she doesn’t realise she’s being fucked face down in a couch.
It’s written to be a forgivable or understandable rape.
Lawers get involved, but Amber doesn’t share the proof she has on her phone. It’s too hard for Zoe and she disappears interstate. She’s not part of the story anymore and the moral responsibility and consequences of that problem are removed.
The second half explores the brothers’ upbringing and personal hells or “why they act like they do” and looks at the consequences of being videoed.
It’s here where The Sublime sinks below the scum as it shifts the blame and the power to Amber.
Let’s never forget that Amber’s 17. She’s devoted her life to running and had never had sex or a boyfriend. She’s a child. A child who was given dangerous amounts of alcohol by a far-more-life-experienced 25-year-old and saw her friend get raped in front of her. This is a traumatised child. And I hope that as a society we seek to still protect traumatised children and never blame them for the behaviour of the adults who are with them.
It’s a story about how Amber’s eventual release of the video ruined the men’s lives. Where’s the reflection on how the behaviour – criminal behaviour – that was videoed ruined the men’s lives?
Cowell says that his Amber was written to be “on the edge of complicity and victimhood”. There’s not a moment when the 17-year-old is complicit and in control over the adult men. Not when she’s hero worshipping them. Not when she’s dancing drunk. Not even when she grabs Dean’s cock and puts it in her mouth, after he bought the teenager her first ever cocktail and continued to give her $6 buckets of gin and guava.
Meanwhile, to ensure that we know just how difficult it must be for the men to resist such a situation, there’s a young gorgeous actor on the stage with long hair and tiny shorts.
Amber is made complicit because she knows that men like looking at her.
In Crikey, the MTC have published a “holds up a mirror to our society” justification of this play. After all, they are just showing us how it is. But by showing “how it is”, they are supporting how it is.
Victim blaming. Slut Shaming. Boys will be boys. They couldn’t help themselves. Look at what she was wearing. What about their future.
There’s a phrase for this: Rape culture.
As long as women are blamed for being raped or abused, rape culture is preserved and encouraged.
The Sublime is not a powerful work that makes us question if we – the educated ones who go to the theatre and tut tut at tabloid headlines – are complicit in supporting rape culture and the abuse of women. It’s a cowardly work that hints that women, especially young women, should ask themselves if they “deserved it” or if they are to blame for being raped or abused. It’s a work that encourages them to shut up and think very hard before subjecting a “nice boy” to something that might ruin his life, even if his behaviour has already made her own life hell.
Or perhaps I misread the whole thing? So I’m giving the last word to writer Cowell who spoke about his play at the MTC season launch:
“It’s about how a teenage girl with an iPhone can destroy not only a man’s life but entire power structures and industries who are the victims in this play.”