It wasn’t Roger Federer’s year at this year’s Australian Open.
The 20-time Grand Slam winner went down in straight sets to Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals.
But the Swiss tennis star has made it into an altogether different Australian Open – Angus Cameron’s new play of that name – which premieres at King Cross Theatre this month.
In Cameron’s story, Federer has defeated local player Lucas, boyfriend of the play’s central character, Felix. And though it’s Felix’s 31st birthday dinner party, it’s all his parents, Belinda and Peter, want to talk about.
That is, until Felix sends down a conversational ace: that he and Lucas will continue their open relationship even after they are married.
Then Belinda fires back a sizzler of her own. Would it be so bad, she muses, if she and Peter opened up their marriage? His sister, Annabelle, an academic and physicist who has just returned from Switzerland, thinks it’s a good idea, too.
Felix? Not so sure.
Love and marriage
The idea of marriage – and what marriage means in a queer context – is central to Australian Open, says Cameron, explaining that the story began to gestate in the months prior to Australia’s gay marriage plebiscite in 2017.
“What I was most interested in was what happens next? For me, the question was – assuming the law passed – what does a queer marriage look like?”
Cameron’s script was developed through Melbourne Theatre Company’s CYBEC Electric program. His aim, he says, was to create a queer work with mainstream appeal.
Among his playwriting models were those doyens of mainstage comedy, Yasmina Reza, writer of the international hits Art and God of Carnage, and Melbourne-based playwright and screenwriter Joanna Murray-Smith.
“I’m really drawn to those kinds of fast-paced comedies of manners,” he says, adding that he’s a particular admirer of Murray-Smith. “Her ability to take something from observed life and repackage it into a theatrical question mark is amazing. I’ve always had a feeling that I could write a play like that some day, and so I deliberately set out to prove to myself I could.”
Cameron is also a tennis fan. “I used to play tennis and I love Roger Federer and watching the Australian Open every summer. The game is at the core of the writing because it plays out as a series of singles and doubles matches.”
Cameron also sees Australian Open as a challenge to a storytelling culture that habitually tilts queer narratives toward tragedy.
“I feel there’s a real history of queer characters in theatre, film and TV who are killed off for dramatic effect,” Cameron says. “That trope really frustrates me. Yes, there’s a long history of suffering and trauma in the queer community, and that’s very important and a large part of the queer experience. But that’s not the whole queer experience. I think there’s something radical in showing joy. I want to centre queer narratives, and I wanted to show queer characters having a good time, and to push the conversation beyond the usual narratives.”
“A total slam-dunk”
The premiere production of Australian Open will be the first show from new, queer work-focused independent theatre company bub. Directed by Riley Spadaro (This Bitter Earth), it features Tom Anson Mesker (Felix), Gerard Carroll and Di Adams (Belinda and Peter), Miranda Daughtry (Annabelle) and Patrick Jhanur as Lucas, the tennis champ.
Spadaro discovered the play during its CYBEC Electric reading in Melbourne in March 2019. “I thought it was a total slam-dunk and from there I just bullied Angus into giving me the rights to produce it.”
From there, the play underwent further development session the KXTeethcutting program in August 2019.
“Angus originally wrote it with the MTC Sumner Theatre in mind and it was longer than it is now,” Spadaro says. “When you work in a venue like KXT, you want everything to be a bit leaner, more muscular.”
The end product of all that work is a tight, sports-themed rom-com that breaks some new ground, says Mesker.
“It’s rare in Australia to see a story about an athlete who’s out and completely open about it and not have it cause some kind of hoo-ha, like it did for Ian Thorpe. In this play, Lucas is a hugely successful tennis player who is celebrated for all that he is, and that’s really nice to see.”
“It’s also very camp,” Spadaro says. “One of the references I’ve been using is the film How To Lose a Guy in Ten Days. That might give you a sense of the overall tone. Think sparkling romantic comedy – but gay. I’ve inserted a character dressed as a ball boy – a really hot ball boy – to help with the scene transitions, just because it’s Mardi Gras.
The beauty of Australian Open is that it poses a lot of questions but does so very playfully, Spadaro says. “I hope people leave the theatre feeling entertained and maybe with a bit of a different outlook on what love can look like. We want to celebrate queerness as something that’s enjoyable and exciting – and normal.”
Australian Open plays at KXT, Kings Cross Hotel, from February 14.