A study of masculinity in 1970s Australia, David Williamson’s The Club may seem an unlikely choice for an all-woman theatre company. But that is in many ways what drew isthisyours? director Tessa Leong to the script.
In her work as an associate artist at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre in 2017, Leong had seen companies using recognisable or canonical works “that speak to people even just with the title and the playwright’s name” and thought “that [it] was an interesting stage of my practice to think through that sort of lens”.
Leong was also keen to preserve The Club and its original intentions. “A lot of people have sort of misremembered the work and said how misogynist it was, how disgusting it was, and how a company like ours would probably tear it apart. I thought that in itself is quite interesting.” Leong continues that perhaps “it’s the beauty of hindsight, but I don’t read this work at all and think there’s a celebration of misogyny in it or a celebration of masculinity. I certainly think [it is] dissecting a lot of things that were going on at the time and potentially people who read it and saw it then didn’t see that, but we can certainly see it in spades now.”
isthisyours? met as students at Flinders University’s Drama Centre. Leong says after four years of working closely together they had “shared views and ideologies about the world, and we were really curious to start making our own work from it”. Pragmatically, the group saw the DIY approach as “a really great way we could put our skills to use without having to wait by the phone” for offers or auditions. They also saw a niche to create the kind of work “that we felt wasn’t all around us”, work that was “female-centred”.
After forming in 2006 and putting on their first Fringe show, the company has grown to now be collaborating with and working on the stages of some of Australia’s most well-established theatre companies. Leong says that while they’re currently “making on different scales” to their early days, “we’re still really intrigued about what kind of experiences we can create for audiences while still wrestling with how we feel about the world and what’s happening around us, as well as what we think our audiences might be wrestling with as well”.
In seeking permission to stage The Club, the group was up-front with Williamson from the beginning. Leong says, “The proposal [isthisyours?] sent him was around doing it with three actors who are women. And in that initial proposal we spoke in depth about how and why we were doing that.” The approach is one that Leong attributes to “the shorthand and the shared ideals that we have” as a company, as well as working with what was at their disposal, including the number of actors available. “Then he said yes, and the only stipulation really is that we speak every word of the text that he wrote, which we do.”
The work was first staged at Belvoir in Sydney in December last year under the organisation’s 25A program, which includes a stipulation that the show must be made for less than $1500. In bringing the show to Adelaide, not only will the company have a bigger budget to work with, they also join a tradition of women directing this play: former State Theatre Company of South Australia (STC) artistic director Rosalba Clemente was the first woman to direct a professional production of The Club when STC staged it in 1997.
While Leong is excited to return to her home ground, she says the way The Club spoke to audiences in non-Aussie Rules obsessed Sydney proves the work is about a lot more than footy: it is first and foremost a comedy. “If we don’t get people on board and if we don’t make them laugh it’s a pretty clear fail,” Leong says.
“We are obviously having a conversation with the work and with what may or may not have changed in Australian society and culture from 1977 to now … We feel like we’re interrogating the performance of gender but none of that works if that’s not funny.” Leong is also acutely aware that “David Williamson wrote it as a comedy, so it needs to remain a comedy. We’re not shifting the genre of it.”
It is in many ways a perfect time to restage The Club as a feminist satire, with the #MeToo movement sweeping the entertainment industry (including Australian main stage theatres), debates raging over toxic masculinity, as well as the establishment of AFLW and the huge growth in women playing Aussie Rules at the grassroots level. Leong acknowledges that these issues certainly play into the way the work will be seen by 2019 audiences.
“As theatre makers we try and talk to the audience about what experiences they’re having in the world and it would be crazy not to address what those things are that they’re experiencing along with us. So, of course, there’s a huge awareness about the world we’re living in and what issues and kind of changes that are going on around us which, you know, I think are in some ways extremely exciting and radical and amazing and in other ways deeply disturbing [in terms of] how this could all play out and what this might mean.”
Leong continues that with the changes in politics and the ways in which we use technology in particular, “it feels like we are undergoing some new developments that speak to what was going on in the 70s with second-wave feminism”. So “rather than [being] an instantaneous response to AFLW”, Leong is careful to note that The Club speaks about much more than what goes on in locker rooms.
“Sport in Australia is not something that indicates what society should be like or is like, it’s actually what society is. A play like this very clearly talks to whatever thing[s have been] going on in Canberra for the last few years, it very clearly talks to a whole broad spectrum of industries and ideas around how we live and how we relate to each other.”
Having said that, Leong is looking forward to playing to audiences “who probably will be [more] familiar with Aussie Rules and the AFLW”.
“It’s always a joy to work on something where there are people who have knowledge and a connection to something already, I think that’s really exciting,” she says. “I’m looking forward to the Adelaide season and seeing what conversations that may or may not begin.”
Friday, April 5 to Saturday, April 20