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Blokes behaving badly

See article in its original context here by Rosemary Neill for The Australian.

DIANNE Brimble’s death caused such widespread public revulsion, it is engraved on the nation’s consciousness. In September 2002, Brimble, a middle-aged mother of three, was found dead on the floor of a cruise ship cabin shared by four men.

Eight years later, coroner Jacqueline Milledge made a formal finding that Brimble was “drugged by unscrupulous individuals who were intent on denigrating her for their own sexual gratification”. Despite a drawn-out court process, none of the men charged or investigated in relation to the Queensland mother’s death was jailed.

Melbourne playwright Patricia Cornelius says the case “had an incredible impact on me and was one of the reasons I wanted to write about men and their behaviour”. The result is Savages, a short, sharp, sometimes shocking play that, as the press release puts it, explores the dark side of mateship.

Cornelius stresses that although her play, which opens tomorrow at Melbourne’s fortyfivedownstairs theatre, was partly motivated by the Brimble tragedy, “it is not the story of Dianne Brimble. Yes, I was interested in a case that absolutely bruised the national pysche — I think we were appalled at how little justice appeared to have been done.

“But mostly I looked at so many other cases — at the attitude of men in sport around women, the insatiable appetite to score, to use women as some sort of trophy, or some sort of punching bag.

“This is an absolute investigation of men in packs and, whether they be on a boat or a footy trip or wherever they go, it’s about their impact on each other and the notion of no restraint.”

Savages is set on a cruise ship and features four male, 40-ish characters who want to let loose on a “journey of a lifetime”. As they ratchet up the hooning and testosterone-fuelled horseplay, the frustrations and disappointments of their daily lives are coaxed into sharp focus.

Cornelius uses a heightened realism — at certain points, her characters howl in unison — and a bleak humour runs through her script. The dramatist says of this: “I wanted to look at that behaviour that we’ve tolerated for so long, that we condone and are sometimes a bit bemused by — the larrikin, the naughty boy, all that stuff we forgive. I wanted to have a very unforgiving look at the sort of behaviour which, in the end, can only end in disaster.”

Brimble is not mentioned and no crime is depicted — the script relies for its impact on the audience’s prior knowledge of the case. Here, the dramatist took her cue from the Rowan Woods feature film The Boys, which references the Anita Cobby murder without depicting it. Referring to the film, Cornelius notes how “the audience knows the boys are going to abduct a woman, because they have been shown what they are capable of. I thought that was a really wonderful way of not sensationalising the terrible things that were done to someone. You don’t go there and you don’t need to, because the audience is totally in the know. So definitely I was influenced by that approach.”

Having written more than 25 plays, she knew she couldn’t afford to demonise her characters. Her script walks a tightrope, examining the reasons for her characters’ behaviour without excusing it.

As she puts it, she wanted to look at her quartet of mates on holiday “sympathetically but not sentimentally”.

“I often deal with characters who are not likable,” she says. “I find it really interesting, but part of my craft is to enable an audience to stick with them, to stay right until the end. If they’re too unlikable right from the beginning, we want to dismiss them and leave.”

With a career spanning several decades, the veteran playwright has notched up Green Room and 10 AWGIE awards for her stage and screen writing — Savages was a runner up for the 2012 Griffin Award.

For this play, she draws on the Susan Faludi book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, which explores the collapse of a traditional masculinity (blue-collar jobs, stable marriages, civic roles) that has left many men feeling betrayed. “I wanted to look at men and see what they’re so angry about,” she explains. “Why they feel so bereft and what it is about the impoverishment of their cultural, emotional and financial world that enables them to respond so violently.”

Cornelius’s work is often avowedly political, as is suggested by titles such as Slut and Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? A founding member of Melbourne Workers Theatre, she was a co-screenwriter of the 2009 feature film Blessed. Her recent play Do Not Go Gentle juxtaposes the story of Robert Scott’s doomed South Pole expedition with the lives of nursing home residents. It garnered a slew of playwriting prizes, including the NSW and Victorian premiers’ prizes, and had a sell-out season at fortyfivedownstairs in 2010, but it was not picked up by bigger companies.

In previous interviews with The Australian, Cornelius has been outspoken about a lack of industry support for new Australian plays, and for women writers and directors. The gender argument, she says, has become muddied by the heated debate over adaptations versus new plays. “There is a diminishment of plays and new plays by Australian playwrights, for sure, because of adaptations,” she argues. “And the gender issue has been disguised by this.”

Does she see signs of change for women dramatists? “Nuh,” she replies emphatically. “I think it’s still dreadful. The figures will still be dreadful . . .

“I’ve seen it too often now. We have a big meeting up at the Australia Council about the unbelievable inequity in the industry and then we think we’ve solved it. We’re not allowed to keep doing what I’m doing — going on and on about it, the whining woman. It’s a load of crap. It’s so lacking in courage, both not taking on new Australian works but certainly not taking on women’s works. It’s just a lack of courage.”

On the other hand, the playwright feels the theatre’s indifference to works dealing with gender issues is breaking down. “I think there has been no appetite in the arts to look at feminists exploring masculinity or the gender question, but it’s been freed up of late.” She cites — perhaps ironically — two adapations from the Melbourne Theatre Company’s recent season of independent theatre, The Rabble’s Story Of O and Fraught Outfit’s On the Bodily Education of Young Girls.

Ever prolific, Cornelius is working on two new plays. The first, Big Heart, is about international adoptions. The second, titled Shit (“I don’t know why the MTC haven’t asked for it!” she jokes), is a collaborative play about “tough young women living really difficult lives”.

Savages is directed by Susie Dee; she and Cornelius are long-term collaborators. “Susie’s great, because she’s tough and unsentimental and used to working with actors in a physical way,” the playwright says.

For the actors charged with animating the script, the biggest challenge, she adds, “is that this is not a slice-of-life play. It’s a play that works in a heightened style, so to act it as if it’s a slice-of-life play would kill it. The biggest challenge is to meet it with a largeness, something bigger than life.”

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