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Savages a remarkable piece of theatre

See article in its original context here by Chris Boyd for The Australian.

THE first thing to note about Savages is that it has a cast of four men. The play, which is based on the story of Dianne Brimble, who died on a P&O cruise ship after it set sail in September 2002, has no victim. This is no snuff play. Rather, it is a quest to climb into the minds, hearts and egos of four blokes as they gear up for “the trip of a lifetime”.

It’s not a man-hating exercise either, even if the basic question asked by playwright Patricia Cornelius is: why do men hate women? Why do Australian men, of a certain age and a certain class, feel so powerless, thwarted and angry in the face of emotions that women inspire in them?

The four men, around the 40 year old mark, are fascinating. Surprising, too. Each has his flaws, but is genuinely likable. Though the men resort to date rape at the end of a long and frustrated night, Cornelius wants to explore what makes marauding men so attractive to women too. (It’s surprising the men don’t pick up after their stupidly likable karaoke number: “When a man loves a woman”.)

Cornelius’s greatest achievement in Savages – and I rate it as her finest play to date – is the way she tackles the banter between the men. At first, the repetitions are aggravating, the “Heyyy! Maaate! Whaddya say?” opening greetings in particular. But the script quickly settles into a free-form verse with weird, overlapping, off-centre rhymes. It’s incredibly clever linguistically, but it works precisely because the language is heightened. The dialogue is like a cross between Steven Berkoff and Caryl Churchill, and I’d be hard pressed to name two more brilliant and original dramatists writing in English.

Savages isn’t just a remarkable piece of writing, it’s a powerful piece of theatre at every level. Wrangled and choreographed by director Susie Dee, Marg Horwell (set) and Andy Turner (lighting) make exceptionally good use of a difficult space. Kelly Ryall’s visceral, skin-crawling music reaches a kind of apotheosis in the disco scene when it lets loose some cawing and unbelievably creepy sax samples.

And the four actors create characters you can walk around. James O’Connell makes the paradoxical plausible as ‘Rabbit’. Luke Elliot balances dark and light skilfully as ‘Runt’. The fall of George (Lyall Brooks) is sudden, but credible. As ‘Craze’, Mark Tregonning has the best journey. At the start of the performance, it seems impossible that this oh-so-civilised man could be capable of savagery. But the greater the pathology, the greater the need for a polished veneer.


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