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When masculinity is cast adrift

See article in its original context here by Stephen A. Russell for The Age.

Drawing on the death of Dianne Brimble on a P&O cruise ship more than 10 years ago, and the slew of sex scandals swirling around Australia’s football codes, award-winning playwright and novelist Patricia Cornelius explores the dark heart of man in her latest work, Savages.

Making its debut at fortyfivedownstairs next month, the play focuses on four mates, Rabbit, Runt, Craze and George, who embark on a holiday cruise of a lifetime that instead turns to tragedy. A cautionary tale, Savages explores what happens when men who cannot articulate personal disappointment behave appallingly, and the willingness of society to overlook or even condone this behaviour.

Cornelius says she wasn’t interested in lampooning these men, or engendering anti-male sentiment. ”I knew I had to seduce the audience with these bad fellows, otherwise why would you stay to the end?” she says. ”They’re not inherently evil. They’re sort of pathetic, and humorous. There’s a sweetness at times, not much, but you recognise these traits that we excuse in male behaviour, that larrikinism. The victim often becomes more victimised.”

Picking at the scab of exaggerated masculinity and entrenched misogyny, the play is delivered in a darkly poetic rhythm that electrifies, while positing the question: what happens when four men with pent-up frustrations are let loose on a ship, with too much booze and something to prove?

Cornelius extensively researched the Brimble case, in which the 42-year-old Brisbane mother of three died following an overdose of the date rape drug ”fantasy”. Her body was discovered on the floor of a cabin shared by four men, with a further four implicated, though none of the subsequent prosecutions ended in a jail term.

Taking cues from Rowan Woods’ 1998 film The Boys, Cornelius looks at just how easily mateship can lead to a pack mentality in the wrong circumstances.

She also revisited Pulitzer Prize-winning author Susan Faludi’s book Stiffed: the Betrayal of the American Man, which explores the effect of massive layoffs during the ’90s on an understanding of masculinity.

”She looks at how things have shifted for men historically,” Cornelius says. ”Where there was a huge pride and power in things like war and jobs, a lot of those things have gone, or are really underrated now. There’s no sense of yourself in the world now for many men.”

Loss of identity sits at the heart of many of Cornelius’ plays, and Savages is no different. There’s a sense of men lost at sea, taking out their pent-up aggression on those around them. ”Their lives are not good enough,” she says. ”That period when they’re turning 40, when they’re beginning to look back, not like young bucks who only look forward.”

She was interested in getting to the heart of the disappointment experienced by a certain breed of men who thought life would offer them something more. ”They’ve been working hard labour jobs, and there’s a point where they ask, ‘Is this it? Is this the world? I’m going to have grease on my hands forever and it’s never going to wash off. I don’t like it, but I don’t even know what I do want.”’

The fact that these bitter men have such a high regard for their own sexual prowess, and the demeaning way in which they look at women, is a central facet of Savages. ”It’s sad that these men are so bereft that women become the only thing they can score,” she says. ”Maybe once sport gave them that amazing high or sense of achievement, but when they get to this age, it’s just about getting a root for the night. It’s pathetic.”

While Cornelius is reluctant to say that such behaviour is particularly prevalent in Australia, she’s aware of a growing reputation internationally. ”We’re into a very narrow vision of masculinity,” she says. ”It’s not fluid enough. There’s a lot of pressure on men to appear strong. It’s such a silly notion, that they always have to be in control.”

Cornelius says that in the aftermath of Jill Meagher’s murder, ”people are worried walking the streets at night in their own city. That’s something to write about.”

Director Susie Dee was drawn to the challenging subject matter. ”We’re really lacking plays with meat in them, where actors can work as an ensemble and really go places physically, visually and viscerally,” she says. ”I’m hungry, as a director, to work with actors like that, who want to dig deep.”

Dee says there was a long and rigorous audition process for Savages, with Lyall Brooks, Luke Elliot, James O’Connell and Mark Tregonning ultimately cast in the quartet of complex, layered roles. ”They had to not be afraid of the material,” she says. ”I wanted to work with physically charged actors who aren’t afraid to sweat, or go there emotionally.”

Despite the dark undercurrent, Dee says the play contains a lot of humour, and that the men’s backstories, which are slowly teased out, reveal an unexpected tenderness. ”I was really surprised with Patricia’s empathy with these four men and where they sit in society,” she says.

It’s part of the strength of Cornelius’ script that the audience is lulled into a false sense of security. ”When it starts to turn, there are beautiful little barbs that come through. There’s a slow build; you start to question their behaviour, why they’re like this. You start to dislike them and it puts you in an interesting head space … It has much more potency like that.”

The subtlety is what makes Savages so devastating. Dee believes it’s important for theatre to push the boundaries of what audiences will accept: ”It walks such a fine line, and I’m hungry for theatre to walk that line.”

Cornelius agrees: ”I hear a lot of people saying, ‘I don’t want to go to that film, or that play. I just want to see something that makes me happy.’ Theatre is about tension and drama. You want to have resonance in your work, and bite.”

She hopes that when audiences walk away, they’ll have something to talk about.

”I’m not going to let men off the hook, nor am I simply condemning them,” she says. ”I love plays that leave me a bit unsettled. You want to be intellectually stimulated. This play is about something bigger than these men, and I hope that’s the kind of conversation people have after watching it.”


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