Sunday, January 15, 2017

Prize Fighter

Belvoir presents a La Boite Theatre Company and Brisbane Festival production in association with Sydney Festival, PRIZE FIGHTER, by Future D. Fidel, in the Upstairs Theatre, at Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills. 6-22 January.

This Australian play, PRIZE FIGHTER, has been written by a refugee from the civil war torn Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Future D. Fidel. It is his first play. It was developed by the La BoƮte Theatre Company in Brisbane. In the program notes Mr Fidel tells us, reminds some of us, that the mineral rich DRC has had a reported death toll of 5.4 million Congolese since 1996. "Part of this work," says Director Todd MacDonald, "reflects Future's story, his history. Part is a fiction but his stories are real and everything in this work derived from real situations that Future experienced directly or indirectly."

The play focuses on the story of Isa and moves between his aspirational pursuit of a Boxing career in Brisbane and his history as a survivor of family massacre and recruitment as a child soldier in Africa. The text moves between both worlds with the white raised canvas platform - a boxing ring - becoming the stage for this 'epic' journey to overcome his opponent in the ring and his own demons from a past life. All of the elements of this tight production - the play is only 65 minutes in length - is infused with the total investment of all the artists in a visceral physical enlivening. The excitement of the pre-training that the audience observes of the participants, before the play actually begins, is palpable and is the major ingredient in the affect of this production. The bodies of the players gleam with the perspiration of total commitment, the boxing matches under the guidance of Movement and Fight Director, Nigel Poulton, fiercely believable. The sudden shifts from the Brisbane gym-ring to the killing fields of Africa, are wrung suddenly with the atmospheric Lighting Design of David Waters, while the action is propelled by the Composition and Sound Design of Felix Cross with some extra pump and heft with Music Remix by Busty Beatz. The production is a whirlwind of sensation effects that is almost irresistible.

The writing concerns itself with the narrative of Isa's journey and is cleverly chopped and shaped from one place to the other in a dramatic non-linear manner that keeps the audience in a strict pay-attention mode. The Dramaturgy, by Chris Kohn with Mr Fidel, is polished and extremely successful in its sudden shifts - it reminded me of Simon Stone's THYESTES in its dramatic structuring impacts. The content of the play, particularly the African journey, has the shock of unmitigated confrontation in its exposure of the horrors of war with its ruthless emotional and physical savagery, perpetrated by the 'pollution' of the innocent lives of children, by recklessly 'possessed' adults in a kind of recall of the Maenads and their dismembering of Penthesus in Euripides' THE BACCHAE ( has man 'grown' through the ages? It seems not). This drama is then balanced with the familiar (and comforting) myth of the Boxing sport as often told in films like THE CHAMP, in silent movie days through to the relative contemporary ROCKY, MILLION DOLLAR BABY, THE FIGHTER, which we as a culture have embraced with some constancy of box office enthusiasm. The juxtaposition of both stories in PRIZE FIGHTER keeps one able to be enthralled in the ugliness of brutality - one being of a truth we would rather not know of that is made more easily palatable with the cultural myth of the Boxing sport, despite its brutality.

Mr MacDonald has, with his company, honed this work into a speedy no-time-for-thinking 'adventure' and all the actors give wholehearted fully charged adrenalin-pumped performances that sweeps one away. And there are, as well, some poetic gestures of metaphor, occasionally offered by the Director and his Designer, Bill Haycock, that attempts to give a depth to the work that is basically a cleverly disguised narrative of shocking truths in the wrappings of a sporting myth, delivered with a pellmell of sensual bombardment. It is easy to surrender to the production. Most of us did. Have done. What is missing, on reflection, afterwards, is the nuance of character motivational moments. It is all, mostly, generalised physical and 'cartoon' sentiment, as moving as the last moments of the play may be in production, with no breathing time taken for insightful personal discoveries by the principal characters, during the storytelling, to deepen, enrich, what was being created.

All the actors are exemplary in their missionary zeal to tell this story and within the limits of the production (writing?) could not be bettered. Pachero Mzembe, as Isa, is a marvel of passionate physical ownership with a keen sense of the 'altruistic' need to tell this story well. He is all there from the first moment you see him in the preliminary set-up before the play begins to the very last moments of the play. It is a physical tour de force - however, one wished for him to mark Isa's journey with more nuance of the possible 'turning' points of this character's journey, for his creation to give fuller satisfaction. There was, for me, not sufficient 'revealing'. It is mostly 'showing'. It was, for me, the difference between a 'good' performance and a 'great' one. Gideon Mzembe, as the principal antagonist figure in both the story structures is a natural balance. Kenneth Ransom, Margi Brown-Ash, Thuso Lekwape, and Zindzi Okenyo make up the rest of the company in a variety of convincing supporting roles. Mr Lekwape, especially, is frighteningly impressive as the leader of the Boy Soldiers, whilst Ms Okenyo playing the go-between in Africa, demonstrates, in one of the later scenes of the play, all that I was looking for from the others, in her capacity to reveal the internal, sub-textual shifts of her character's journey, together with the literal story information. Ms Okenyo is always impressive - we need to see her more often, in more challenging tasks.

PRIZE FIGHTER is a flawed but marvellous theatrical experience and well worth catching.

This production written by a Congolese refugee, acted by Zimbabwean refugees, and other actors of African heritage is a sign of the multicultural demographic of Australia. It is significant to me that this story is appearing at the same time that Deng Adut, a Sudanese refugee, has been nominated as Australian of the Year. His book, SONGS OF A WAR BOY (with Ben McKevey) like, PRIZE FIGHTER, recounts a story that is tremendous in its revelations of the will to survive. That we as a culture do claim these stories as part of our Cultural Heritage is a shift of maturation in Australia. It helps us to see 'those scarred, confused black men that [one sees] in the outer suburbs of western cities; [where] their look of fear [is] often mistaken for anger' with some deeper appreciation and perspective.

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