By Emilie Collyer. Darebin Arts Speakeasy. Directed by Prue Clark; produced by Erin Milne. Northcote Town Hall, Main Hall. 25 July – 4 August 2018

The nexus of Emilie Collyer’s play is netball – a game you can see being played any night of the week in any city and a lot of country towns across Australia.  Under lights, all seasons, mostly women – and women of all ages.  A lot of fun, a lot of bonding – and a lot of commitment – to be there, to give up something else, to work hard, to be fit and to compete.  Besides, the exercise, the physical demands, the game, the playing to win, means you can switch off for an hour from all your troubles and life’s myriad dissatisfactions.  There are contradictions in these competing desires and those contradictions are at the heart of this rich, contradictory play that constantly poses either/or, this or that, open or closed, within the rules and boundaries versus breaking out.  The play’s slogan, in the program notes, gets it succinctly: Come to play, come to win or don’t come at all.  But what if you just want to come, to move, to be there?  Is winning – or having to win - the price you pay?

The game of netball is a contest – and so it is also a clear metaphor for commitment and competition – chosen by Ms Collyer because it is so popular with women.  It fits.

Contest is not naturalistic – there’s one netball team of five players and no opposing team.  The dialogue ranges from nicely observed bitchy gossip to searing intimate revelation in heightened prose.  The playing area has a locker room and a marked-out netball court (but no net), the court taking up the transverse space.  And the play is exhaustingly physical (the cast are rarely still and up close they’re flushed and sweating) as they play and exercise to keep fighting fit – so as to play – so as to win.  The serious effort and concentration of the cast to these movements is impressive.  They ‘re not gesturing: they’re doing it.  (The expressive, stylised movements are designed by Nat Cursio and Alice Dixon.)

It begins with four women in their locker room, at the end of their day, changing into their sports gear.  There’s a desperately lonely woman in an abusive relationship (Alice Ansara), who’s funny and who’d be loveable did she not so needily talk too much.  There’s a cool, tall blonde ‘change management’ consultant (Natasha Herbert) – trapped in keeping up appearances.  There’s a younger woman (Sonya Suares) with a fractious relationship with her demented and dying mother.  She’s intense, humourless and the most conventional and moralistic of the group.  An older woman, a lawyer (Kate Hood) is now in a wheelchair but trying hard be positive about it.  She is the most intuitive.

This four discuss the absent newbie, Cass (the only named character, played by Emily Tomlins): they don’t like her, she doesn’t try to fit in, she’s a good player, but unreliable, awkward, disturbing, stand-offish…  And when Cass arrives, she is indeed terse, evasive, abrasive, even rude.  Ms Tomlins plays her character unafraid of seeming unpleasant and solipsistic – which gives her fine room for development.  But all the cast make the most of Ms Collyer’s text and give us detailed performances that engage our interest and make us care for them.

All five women have their stories, all five have their say, but the play is Cass’s story; it’s her head we get inside, and it is she who has the most to overcome.  The others don’t know her fear of her own anger, or her recurring nightmare in which she dreams of a burning house – and she isthat house.  She saw the ‘girls’ playing one night, and she thought ‘I can do that…’  In other words, an impulse to escape into mindless movement, but not expecting the onerous or intrusive social obligations.

All the strands build and build until, led by Cass, there’s a breakthrough, a revelation – and it comes so clearly and believably (that is, it’s earned) that the audience laughs in relieved appreciation.  It is a lovely moment – and it feels very much like the end of the play.  (The Companion just stopped herself in time from applauding.) 

Unfortunately – at least to me – Ms Collyer adds a coda, a heightened resolution sequence, which feels almost unnecessary, too much.  It contains some speeches and action that maybe could not have come earlier, but it feels a bit, well, wordy and tacked on – because such is the quality of the writing prior to this, and the performances that when we arrive at that breakthrough, we feel it’s over.  

If I have another reservation, it’s in the staging.  Director Prue Clark elicits great performances, but she places the locker room and too much of the dialogue up one end of the transverse playing space.  This leaves two thirds of the audience on either side with heads turned and leaning forward – in some cases blocking their neighbours – to see and hear.  When the women use the whole space and it’s lit wonderfully by Amelia Lever Davidson, the play has an energised dynamic.

Those reservations aside, Contest (the very title open to multiple interpretations) is a highly intelligent, perceptive and deeply felt work, performed by an excellent cast.  They bring out all the buried or repressed fears and emotions of their characters, layered into them by the playwright.  I hope I won’t put anyone off by saying this is genuinely feminist play which makes its convincing case by being so believable.

Michael Brindley

Photographer: Sarah Walker

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