Brendan Cowell’s MTC play about the horrifying world of footballers and sexual abuse is a Jacobean triumph. By Peter Craven.

The Sublime explores dark matter

Josh McConville and Anna Samson.
Credit: Courtesy MTC

The sublime. Now there’s a literary term to conjure with. There’s Longinus – the chap who’s not Aristotle – and isn’t there something memorable in Edmund Burke, or Hazlitt? It’s one of those words that summons up paeans to the engulfing power of Milton’s Paradise Lost, its sense of vast space through sonority. Or the Romantics’ feeling for landscape: Caspar David Friedrich with his mountains and abysses, Turner with his sunsets and shipwrecks. Yes, and always somewhere, there’s the idea of the transcendent, the supreme thing, the wild untameable majesty of nature, of “brute beauty” as Gerard Manley Hopkins called it. And then, like a memory of some adolescent itch, there’s the E. E. Cummings poem about sex; the one that whispers let’s go said he / not too far said she, and ends, you’re divine! said he / you are Mine said she.

All of which is by way of preamble to the fact that Brendan Cowell has written a play about football and sex, and it is (in every sense of the word) a beauty. Though to put it like that is to risk every kind of confusion because The Sublime is a play about the worst things in the world, a play about rape and abuse, and ghastly, groping bewilderments of identity; about grief and mutilation and stark horror.

It is a superb piece of work, the finest piece of Australian dramatic writing I’ve come across in years, and it’s performed with almost perfect pitch and great musical power and co-ordination in an utterly sure-footed production for the Melbourne Theatre Company directed by Sam Strong. It has Josh McConville as a weedily voiced, supremely buff Australian rules football player, utterly grave and crushed by turns; Ben O’Toole as his rugby league-playing brother, a great spurt of incandescent yobbo boyishness; and Anna Samson, absolutely magnetic as the schoolgirl runner who gets mixed up with them, and thence with the mire of macho horror that is one take on a masculinist ethos writ bloody and bludgeoning and awful beyond belief.

So at one level The Sublime is a play about sport and sexual abuse, though that hardly does justice to its shimmering black magnificence of articulation.

A girl, all suburban gush, hoping to make it to Olympic level in running, meets an Aussie rules star who invites her to see him play at the MCG. He then invites her – with the permission of her parents, as she’s still at school – to come on a football trip to Thailand, together with her girlfriend. On the trip, there’s also the league-playing brother and a particularly charismatic alpha male star from his team. It would be wrong to give away too much of the plot of what is a ravishingly surprising piece of writing, but it involves rape, cover-ups, confusion and several bizarre forms of revenge and repercussion.

A beautifully constructed three-hander, The Sublime uses a brilliant winding stair technique that goes from something like Greek messenger style reportage (“and then do you know what he did?”) to direct enactment with lightning transitions that amaze and delight the mind, even though much of the subject matter is bleak, and even when it’s not, it’s pretty consistently icky.

But this is consummate dramatic writing of extraordinary originality and formal brilliance. It has a remarkable structural elan that brings to mind works such as Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier or the way Helen Garner can condense the cumulative effect of pages of action into a paragraph. And it is all the more remarkable that Cowell can achieve this while never deviating from the idiolect and idiom of ragged shopsoiled Aussie speech, rank with every old cliché and shortcut, but delivered here like a comet of viable rhetoric.

Most of the writing is at the edge of black comedy and it encompasses a lot of piteous and horrifying subject matter, yet it never for a moment appears pious or politically correct (or, conversely, implicated in the ethos it represents). Cowell exhibits a sweeping moral courage and an ability to use grotesquerie and caricature as features of an overall tapestry that is – weird as it sounds – just a bit like Jacobean tragedy. There’s the same audacity of design in the face of subject matter that juggles potential laughter and tears and plays with the audience’s capacity for something like hysteria – which is, as it were, the logical response to this absolutely familiar nightmare world. It’s never more than an inch or two away from our conventional boundaries but with a knife-edge quality that’s all the more creepy because it’s so close to the easy horrors of 60 Minutes or the Sydney Tele or the Melbourne Herald Sun.

Part of what makes The Sublime such a good play is that Cowell understands the popular world he’s presenting so well, even as he presents its underside. This is not a play that condescends to footy or to blokes from working or country backgrounds, or suburban girls who think you can run or suck your way to stardom.

Not the least disconcerting thing is that the faces we see through a glass darkly in this rather tragic image of Australian life are ones we know intimately.

Strong brings The Sublime to life with an absolute sureness of touch. There is no conventional set to speak of, though Strong uses Dayna Morrissey’s wooden tiers to create a viable, superbly orchestrated sense of dramatic space. The filmic scope of the action, with its graphically murderous moment on the football field, its appalling sex with an unconscious girl as the urger-on masturbates – all this unspeakably vivid action is very powerfully conveyed at one remove, as the three actors who both tell and enact this story are at any given moment in a dynamic position in relation to each other and the audience. It’s like a masterclass for any young modernista of the stage who thinks she can do wonders with an empty space, and it’s in stark contrast with the current use of the main Sumner stage in The Effect.

The Sublime is done with a rich and inventive minimalism. From the opening strains of Bon Jovi through the moments of graphic and modulated lighting, we are everywhere in the presence of the magic, the frequently black magic, of the theatre. And this trio of actors performs Cowell’s play with great savagery and style and panache.

McConville is all bald head and beard with daunting musculature but the rabbiting tenor voice of
a country boy. The character is reserved and conserving of his AFL stardom and McConville is wonderful in the way he brings out a defensive man’s way of armouring himself against a world that confounds him. He manages – and it is a thing of wonder – to convey the monk-like qualities of the man, his strong lean towards celibacy and his blindness in the face of any womanliness, mature or immature. It is a performance of iron discipline, and in its latter movement, when he tells the audience about the fate of his drug-torn brother, it has a breathtaking power.

So too does O’Toole as the “softer” brother, all blond mop and hero worship and fatally complicit in any horror that is laid on his plate. It’s a bright, sympathetic rendering of a man who scarcely has the language codes, the elementary symbols, to work his way through to the faintest moral clarity about anything. But O’Toole brings to the characterisation a tremendous and all too feasible poignancy, as well as – God help us and him – a lot of charm.

Is it charm that Samson has? Although she’s the one who starts as the innocent here, she remains – throughout the revelation of this low-rent gesture towards tragedy – groping towards some vision of something. It is a grand performance, although not flawless, an immensely vivid characterisation of the young woman who is the bright, hopeful face of this horror story and who in various ways turns into a horror of her own. But this play would be intolerable
if it didn’t have the glimpse of hope and splendour the girl proffers.

Samson is one of the most talented actresses of her generation and exceptionally starry. McConville and O’Toole give highly disciplined performances with a beautiful interplay, and an utterly accurate and observed ockerdom, which together constitute a model of Australian character acting. But Samson gleams and prances, she rolls and shimmies and flirts with considerable grandeur. If her performance has a touch more histrionic narcissism than it ideally needs – at least for the occasional snatch – that doesn’t stop it from being wonderfully energised and commanding.

This is a fine play with a spiral construction, it is delivered in a superb production, and its three actors, both individually and as a group, summon up a world of horror and sensuous hope that will fill you with pity and wonder. So cancel anything that gets in the way and see it. And if you’re a film producer, consider the brilliance of this writing, the vitamin of this story and the accuracy and articulateness of this acting.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 6, 2014 as "Dark matter".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.