See article in its original context here by Seanna van Helten for Milk Bar.
Patricia Cornelius’s Savages opens with four prowling male bodies, hungry and raging in the semi-darkness. What are these beasts in human form?
Then just as quickly they disappear and we’re brought to a harbour in daylight, where four middle-aged mates are about to board a cruise liner for a “trip of a lifetime.”
Before they do, ringleader Craze (Mark Tregonning) insists that they each declare what miseries they hope to leave behind. Craze himself is escaping a painful divorce and a child custody dispute. For mechanic Rabbit (James O’Connell) it’s work troubles, for lovesick George (Lyall Brooks) it’s a complicated new relationship, while for Runt (Luke Elliot) it is any mention of his diminutive stature. The men are here for to have a good time, to let loose, to let boys be boys.
Aboard ship, however, these hopes proves illusory. Cornelius’s script, with its subtle rhymes, free-verse repetitions and a broad “ocker” staccato, both highlights and masks the men’s hang-ups, as beneath their superficial banter and macho posturing lie growing resentments about their daily lives. They are adrift, unsteady; set designer Marg Horwell’s sloping stage provides no sure footing, resembling the upended deck of the sinking Titanic.
Recent writing about misogyny and masculinity explores the group dynamics of male bonding, and how being part of a testosterone-fuelled pack—whether boys-only trip, army unit, or football team (as journalist Anna Krien explores in her book Night Games)—exploits and sometimes dangerously derails expectations of macho culture. Cornelius takes a real-life incident as her starting point but the play, expertly realised by director Susie Dee, manages to be both polemical and poetic. The characters are loosely sketched, creatures of circumstances that include family breakdown and economic disenfranchisement. This makes it clear that the men’s misplaced sense of entitlement comes not only from within these four individuals, but in the ways in which certain codes of masculinity—strength, sexual prowess, even mateship—can breed indignation.
Here, the seemingly uncomplicated alliance between the four men grows suffocating. When George wants a moment to himself, to maybe call his girlfriend, the others pressure him into a night out instead. Together the quartet seem incapable of accommodating their own emotions and desires.
This leads to the chilling ending, which places the men at the brink of a final descent into shameful release. What happens next is less important than how they arrived there: How did these four likeable men turn savage?