This play is not about AFL.
But I love AFL. Not necessarily because of the game itself. I’m not into the sport that much, although I’ve spent a bit of time watching it in my life. When you’re born in Melbourne you inherit a team, like it or not.
I sat on my dad’s shoulders in the pouring rain at Victoria Park when I was very small and watched Collingwood play when it was still known as the VFL. When I had to choose between a Tupperware party with all my cool primary school friends and their mums or Collingwood vs Essendon at the MCG with my dad and little brother, I chose the latter.
When the Pies were in the 1990 Grand Final my dad was so superstitious and convinced they’d lose if we watched it live on the tele that we had to go on a convoluted day trip, only arriving home when he was certain there was 10 minutes to go and their fate would most likely be decided. They won that day. My dad yelled “YOU BLOODY BEAUTY” at the top of his lungs and bought fish and chips for dinner.
That’s why I love AFL – because it unleashes a passion in its supporters that unifies them. And because of that I love Melbourne in autumn and winter. The heckling between supporters from opposing teams on the trams, the crowds moving as one down Swan Street … my memories are rich with those things. They are filled with my dad, my grandfather, my uncle, my brother and their big booming obnoxious funny “joking not joking” love of the game. The men in my life. Me tagging along.
My grandmother, on the other hand, was quieter about her passion but her love for the game was greatest of all. Those who knew her may even have called it obsession.
When I read Jane e Thompson’s Fierce for the first time, the story of a female player, Suzie Flack, who is selected to play for an all-male club, I kept thinking of her. I wondered what she would’ve thought about a story of a woman playing her beloved game.
She died before the AFLW was inaugurated but I think it all would’ve thrilled her. She was a competitive lawn bowler. The operative word being “competitive”. She lived for the competition and the community it created. In her heart I think she was a Suzie Flack. Given the chance she would’ve taken on the men.
Why is that important?
Because this play, while wholly submerged in the world of AFL, is not about AFL. This play is about Suzie Flack, a complex, brilliantly ambitious, flawed and relentlessly courageous female protagonist.
Like so many women who came before her, Suzie is trying to wedge herself into conversations designed to exclude her. She hasn’t comprehended yet the notion of being a part of a new, separate conversation and making herself visible through the mobilisation of women, of the women’s game. She rejects the feminine qualifier: “girls” sport, “girls” footy. She is driven by one vital human need: to be taken seriously in a culture that insists she doesn’t belong there. Her one-eyed goal to achieving this is to be given equity alongside the men.
My way into directing this work was imagining how that human need manifests as a visceral, dynamic physical journey.
Suzie’s body is her weapon. She keeps relationships at a safe distance so that weapon cannot be disarmed. Her psychology is inseparable from her physiology. The humans in her life variously challenge her, anger her, terrify her and enthral her.
I knew I wanted to direct Fierce eventually. But when I was having a casual Saturday afternoon drink with Lauren Richardson, who was describing in depth how her body was changing through intense physical exercise, how she loved her tag footy team, how she wanted to push herself to new physical limits as a human, I knew I could do it now because I’d found my Suzie Flack – someone so hungry and passionate they would read Flack and believe in the totality of her ambitions.
Lauren’s connection was instant. Then the wonderful cast and brilliant creative team have found their way into the play through a similarly rigorous engagement with the material.
Jane says she wanted a premise that was explosive enough to “gather scenes in the wreckage”.
From a directorial perspective, that’s a potent image from which to structure a production. I imagine the scenes tumbling over each other, each wiping out the previous one, opposing forces of opinion and argument.
I see AFL as a theatrical experience.
It’s a very strategic, technical sport but when the players are in flow, the whole thing is alive with a sense of improvisation and surprise. Players communicate with their bodies first. Their game plan is a secret code only their teammates can really perceive yet the crowd feels privy to it. Games are finely planned in order to seem entirely unplanned.
Theatre is the same. Football codes have the thrill of danger because players are asked to simulate a kind of gladiatorial combat. They don’t “play act” it; their minds must believe it’s real in order for them to be capable of putting their bodies on the line like they do, in order for the spectators to believe and invest in their journey.
Using a similarly exhaustive physical and emotional simulation, actors do this, too. And in doing so they often make us believe that the impossible is, in fact, possible. That an ordinary human being, irrespective of gender, can be imagined into an utterly extraordinary situation and, in being so, allow an audience to understand they could actually belong there.