Melbourne-based writer Jane e Thompson’s play is one of the best on the subject of football I can recall.
The classics of the genre – David Storey’s The Changing Room, David Williamson’s The Club – can look dusty now, their stories overtaken by root and branch changes to the nature of professional sport.
Fierce offers something more: an unflinching look at the national game as it is – and as it might be some day – that transcends the boundaries of the world its set in.
What’s more, the travails of AFLW star Tayla Harris in recent weeks make this production of Fierce – its Sydney debut – feel truly ripped-from-the-headlines.
Thompson’s focus is Suzie Flack (Lauren Richardson), a gifted and ferociously driven footy player. She’s mixed it with the boys since she was a kid and sees no reason why she can’t do it now, as a mature, fearless and skilled athlete.
She could walk into any AFLW team in town, it’s pointed out. She’d be a credit to the emerging code and a marquee name. But Suzie is steadfast: there is only one real game in town, and she’s good enough to play it.
Veteran coach Corey (Martin Jacobs) thinks so too. He drafts her into The Falcons and comes up with a plan to maximise Suzie’s potential while minimising the amount of physical harm she might suffer from the attentions – on-field and off – of her male opponents.
But still, it rankles. Suzie has a powerful and deep-seated need to put her body on the line. She wants no quarter given.
The backlash Suzie experiences from male players and colleagues is disheartening but she toughs it out. The media roasting is similarly predictable: a female sports journalist (Stacey Duckworth) seems determined to take her down and The Footy Show rips into her in a ghastly segment featuring Suzie’s brain-damaged dad Ray, a former player himself.
But even that pales beside the onslaught she faces from the online trolls and sideline haters, whose comments and threats seem a very real portal into the sexism and reactionary culture of Australian society.
Sinewy and lean in its expression, political yet never didactic, Thompson’s script doesn’t put a foot wrong.
She describes the world with a mix of admiration for its beauty and skill and disgust for its culture. One player’s description of a sexual encounter in an Uber rates a trigger warning and the shadow of predatory sexual behaviour is often apparent.
And yet Fierce is often very funny, too and this production, directed by Janine Watson, taps its humour expertly: in an awkward beer drinking scene featuring Suzie and footy captain Vance (Andrew Shaw); in a gym workout that morphs into a burst of pop choreography; in a Brownlow Medal ceremony bathroom scene during which Vance’s partner Melanie (Chantelle Jamieson) expresses her admiration for Suzie in no uncertain terms.
Scenes featuring Suzie and male escort Nate (Felix Johnson) are similarly well handled.
Watson has assembled a terrific cast, led by the glowering Richardson, whose focus and bluntness can be intimidating in one minute, endearing the next. Her physical confidence on the field is cleverly counterpointed by perfectly judged fumblings in her personal relationships.
Jacobs seamlessly switches between senior male roles: assured as Corey; broken as Ray. Jamieson demonstrates exquisite comic touch. Shaw, Johnson and Zelman Cressey-Gladwin have individually fine moments while capably serving as anonymous moving bodies in space.
Lighting (Kelsey Lee) and sound (Ben Pierpoint) feature strongly. Melanie Liertz’s design is very effective. In every respect, Watson’s production matches the quality of Thompson’s script.
Sport not your thing? Doesn’t matter. Thompson’s portrait of a young woman trying to make her mark and her eviscerating eye for male power structures and fragilities make Fierce very compelling indeed.