| By: Jason Whyte | Reviews
First performed at the MTC in 1977 and on countless school reading lists, David Williamson’s The Club holds a particular notoriety in AFL-loving Australia as it gives a plausible imagining of the off-field tensions in a famous club at the time.
It’s a time when traditions were confronted by the pragmatic need to make money and there’s conflict between those claiming to revere tradition and a new president looking to impose corporate practices in the quest for a premiership. While I found the main interest of the play was as a chronicle of its time, there is still comment relevant to today’s professional sport.
This is the story of Jock Riley (John Wood), past club champion, coach and recently deposed president. His replacement, Ted Parker (Geoff Kelso), runs a pie company and hasn’t played a single game. Ted sees footy as a business with success meaning sponsorship and members, and has started discarding club traditions. He’s appointed an administrator GerryCooper (Ezra Bix) and pushes to buy promising youngster Geoff Hayward (Kade Greenland). He also thinks he can tell current club coach and legendary player Laurie Holden (Peter Finlay) how to do his job. It’s an unhappy group, and the players lead by current champ Danny Rowe (Luke McKenzie), antagonised by the highly-paid recruit Geoff and wanting to support Laurie, are threatening a strike.
The success of the production is in the quality of its characterisations. As events unfold, we see the natural divide between the club’s old guard and the reforming new and as everyone’s agenda is revealed, loyalties shift with believable results.
Wood convincingly inhabits the club elder looking to maintain his prestige, even if it means making concessions to modern times. He also gets the best laughs of the night in physical comedy in a scene with under-performing recruit Geoff. Finlay as the man in the middle is a laconic Aussie with an uncompromising passion for his club who, while quick to read the play as a player, is slower to read the boardroom. Bix recalls Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes Minister in his study in subterfuge as he tries to play a professional role amongst amateurs, which allows the audience to judge proceedings for themselves.
As president, Kelso manifests the zealotry of the long-time supporter unable to play but keen to contribute. The events of the second half that consume Ted have lead people to describe the character as tragic, but I didn’t feel sympathy for Ted, probably as a result of a less permissive community attitude towards violence against women.
Denis Moore’s direction mostly gives a taut evening of boardroom threats and compromises, however, an overly long scene in act two between Jock and Geoff didn’t illuminate the characters enough to justify its duration. Maybe we have another case of too much reverence for tradition.
The design of the production contributes to its success in capturing place and time. The feel of 1970s Australia and generational difference is communicated through touches of Adrienne Chisholm’s costume design, such as Laurie’s tan leather jacket to contrast with Jock’s suit and club tie. Shaun Gurton’s set design of dark wood walls and black and white player photos is effective at projecting the conservatism and celebrated history of the 100-year-old footy club.
By considering the start of player buying, The Club highlights the commodification of the sportsperson, creating a situation where stars make it big and lesser lights or the injured can please themselves. For the AFL, in which the average career is only six years, it’s a point worth thinking about. This aside, the essence of conflicts in The Club will be recognisable to those involved in various community organisations and it’s an enjoyably lively evening.
The Melbourne season is very short, but it is touring around other capitals and regional centres, so there’s opportunity for many to see this Aussie icon.
|Review Date:||Thursday 16 May 2013|
|Presented By:||Hit Productions|
|Directed By:||Denis Moore|
Topics Mentioned:Adrienne ChisholmDavid WilliamsonDenis MooreEzra BixGeoff KelsoJohn WoodKade GreenlandLuke McKenziePeter FinlayShaun GurtonAuthor
Jason has written 104 articles on AussieTheatre | Read more articles by Jason Whyte
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Tradition plays a very important part in The Club. Each of the characters of course has his own ideas and attitudes towards tradition, but there are some which are more or less universal throughout the play. In The Club, tradition is mainly presented as the opposite to progress and success; that is, to achieve success in today’s world, tradition must be abandoned. For example, Laurie (the coach) blames an old Club tradition for his failure to win a premiership, ‘You and your cronies wouldn’t let me buy players.’ Jock (the vice-president) replies, ‘We were upholding an old tradition. It was wrong, but we believed in it.’ Then in the next line, Laurie accuses Jock of supporting the rest of the committee in upholding the tradition not because he believed in it himself, but because he didn’t want Laurie to succeed, ‘They might have believed in it but the reason why you wouldn’t let the Club buy players was to stop me winning a flag.’
However, Jock does support and use tradition when it is in agreement with his goals. For example when trying to avert a players’ strike, Jock claims that former Club heroes would be disgusted by the idea, ‘I want to turn all those photographs around so they don’t have to look down on this shameful scene.’ However, it is later revealed that Jock supports the buying of players and a coach who has not played for the Club, both of which are against traditions, to ensure that the Club wins a premiership next season. This hypocritical attitude towards tradition is probably a fairly typical Australian attitude; traditions are upheld and honoured, but only when they do not stand in the way of progress and success. This attitude presented by Williamson is probably even more widespread now in the 1990s, as success is seen as being even more important today.
Attitudes towards commercialism are also explored in The Club. In the play, the Club itself is just beginning the road to commercialisation with the purchase of Geoff Hayward (the star recruit) for $90,000. However, Gerry (the administrator) and Jock’s plans for next year not only include the dropping of some Club traditions, but also extensive commercialisation as wealthy entrepreneurs are recruited for sponsorship money which will be used to buy more players. The attitude of acceptance of the commercialisation of sport that is evident in The Club is more relevant in the 1990s than ever, when all popular sports are funded mainly by sponsorship dollars from big corporations. Even the Australian Olympic Team has received massive financial backing from sponsors, something which is accepted and considered to be good by most people.
Power is also explored extensively in The Club; much of the play is based on power struggles between the characters. As mentioned earlier, the power struggle between Laurie and Jock is evidenced by Laurie’s accusation that Jock supported the committee’s traditional approach only to stop Laurie from succeeding. Obviously some of the characters are much more successful than others. For example, Gerry is able to skilfully manipulate the other characters so he can accomplish his own hidden agenda. However the two players, Danny (the team Captain) and Geoff, do not really become involved in these power struggles except when they aid Laurie at the end of the play. Ted (the president) has the most obvious power at the start of the play, although he steadily loses it throughout as the other characters strive to improve their standing. The desire for power is basically universal, and there is resentment from those who are not in power towards those who are. These attitudes are also still relevant in the 1990s, as shown by the recent Super League fiasco.
Competitiveness is also an important attitude in the play — one which is shared by all the characters, to at least some extent. In addition to competing for power amongst themselves, the characters of The Club are also fiercely competitive with the other football clubs in the league. The fact that the Club has not been particularly successful recently and has not won a premiership for nineteen years only strengthens the characters’ competitive attitudes and desire for victory. These sorts of competitive attitudes are realistic and still held in the 1990s. Today’s society itself is highly competitive by nature, with people competing for jobs, wealth, and success, amongst other things.
Loyalty is also an important issue in The Club, although each of the characters is loyal in very different degrees and ways. Some of the characters, like Danny, are fiercely loyal to others; for example Danny threatens a players’ strike if Laurie is forced to resign, ‘If that bloody committee of yours gives Laurie the boot tonight, then we don’t play tomorrow.’ Other characters, like Jock and Gerry, lack loyalty to other people but are loyal to the Club as a whole. Gerry believes that, ‘Loyalty to any one individual is a luxury you can’t afford in a business with a multi-million dollar turnover.’ Gerry’s pragmatic attitude is perhaps typical of the attitudes which are becoming commonplace in the cutthroat business world of the 1990s.
The role of women is not explored all that extensively in The Club, but Williamson does explore some of the attitudes relating to this issue in his play. For example, all of the characters in The Club except Ted are of the belief that it is unacceptable for a man to commit acts of physical violence against a woman. For example, Jock refers to the incident where Ted hit a stripper, which forced him to resign, ‘With closed fists too, you mongrel. Don’t expect me to be sorry for you.’ However Jock’s attitude in this case is highly hypocritical as he has admittedly bashed his own wife. Society’s attitude towards such violence against women is similarly hypocritical. Although most men claim they would never hit a woman and are disgusted at those who do, the rate of domestic violence shows that not enough is being done to change true attitudes towards violence against women.
Williamson’s portrayal reflects many Australian attitudes of the 1990s very accurately, even though the play was written nearly twenty years ago. Some of the attitudes expressed, especially those regarding the commercialisation of sport, are even more relevant today than when the play was written, while others, such as tradition, are still equally relevant in the Australian society of the 1990s.