At the end of Savages, I had to joke about hoping that no one sees it on a first date because it was too uncomfortable to talk about its content.
Walking into 45downstairs, a sea of paper streamers and an imposing slanting deck beg for sunshine and a party, but I felt a heaviness in my belly the moment that George, Runt, Rabbit and Craze boarded their trip-of-a-lifetime cruise because I thought of Dianne Brimble. I didn't know that Savages was based on this case.
In 2002, 42-year-old Brimble took her daughter on their trip of a lifetime where she died from a combination of alcohol and the drug GHB, known as the date rape drug. There were eight men from Adelaide involved. There have been trials, but none have served gaol time for the death of the fat, old “ugly dog”. One judge said that their suffering since her death is as bad as time incarcerated. I wonder if it would be the same if it had been one of the pretty young things the men had playfully harassed who had ended up face down and naked in the tiny cabin.
I struggle to find sympathy or understanding for these men and the people who support them
This is what's so remarkable about Patricia Cornelius's new play; she tells a similar story from the men's point view. She doesn't justify, judge or even confront their behaviour, but tries to understand how men behave in a group; how nice-enough guys follow the pack and behave in ways they might never consider if they were alone.
This four (Lyall Brooks, Luke Elliot, James O'Connell and Mark Tregonning) are 40ish and have been mates for years. Before boarding they abandon their usual baggage of women, exes and kids so that for a few days they can be the men they are meant to be. On board, there's nothing unusual about how they compete, share and exaggerate and each might easily pick up if they didn't expect to attract the attention of the gorgeous young or fear being judged by their mates.
Despite their constant guard, Cornelius writes men who are funny and vulnerable and real. She reveals secrets that help to understand them and lend hope that each will be man enough to walk away from his pack or lead them somewhere safe. But this isn't a safe story. It's one that needs to be told and talked about, because these are men aren't freaks or monsters. It's this that's so confronting and unsettling; they are men just like men we all know.
Director Susie Dee ensures that this is theatre that exposes the bigger picture by telling the smaller story. She guides her cast – who are all exceptional in roles that, I hope, are difficult to inhabit – from playful pack to broken men who need to re-claim power. This supports Cornelius's language that's bloke-on-the-street vernacular, but is heightened with a rhythm and delightfully self-conscious rhyme that reminds that it's telling a more important story.
And it all takes place on a set (Marg Howell) that makes the space feel as huge and isolated as a ship so far from land that the unspoken rules of civilisation don't apply. And with Kelly Ryall's sound and Andy Turner's lighting, it's raised and steeply slanted deck creates a world that's always moments away from toppling into the waves.
Savages is theatre that bites and barks at the end of a chain that's about to break, but we don't know if the escaping animal attack or will roll over for a tummy rub. Its telling is theatrically beautiful as it holds firmly to the belief that we – men and women – have to get closer to this problem if we're ever going to understand it and change ourselves so that the packs and everyone near them can feel safe.