By Patricia CorneliusDrama Fortyfivedownstairs
Inspired by the Dianne Brimble case, Savages examines masculinity, misogyny and the dark side of mateship. Despite its subject matter, it comes from a place of empathy – trying to understand what drives ordinary men to do terrible things, and how the pack mentality can exert a dangerous influence.
Four young men are on a cruise ship holiday, hoping to escape the disappointments of their everyday lives: divorce, the challenges of raising kids, unfulfilled jobs and difficult childhoods. With the entitlement of being on holiday and the shared energy when their frustrations turn to a different kind of urgency, the pack joins to hunt down women, with shocking consequences.
‘These men are yearning for something that they cannot articulate – and that loss comes with not knowing what will make your life good,’ says Patricia Cornelius. ‘Not knowing what to dream for and that is incredibly disheartening.’
Cornelius has researched the men-and-sex sports scandals that have emerged from football and rugby culture. And though the men in this portrait are not let off the hook, society (and the pressures of ‘being a man’ within a certain framework) is critiqued as part of the problem.
The Herald Sun praised the play as ‘a disturbing, abstracted and thought-provoking glimpse at the devolution of men from civilised playfulness into bestial, instinctive action’.
Four Australian men prowl an ocean liner, cruising for sex, connection or simply acknowledgement of each other’s humanity. As the play progresses, their search creates unbearable tension. From the first page, Cornelius asks us to reconsider form as a function of character. Her blokes speak in rhyme, and sometimes in chorus, like an oratorio. Repetition and rhythm dominate, and many lines are not assigned to specific characters.
This is poetry, but it is poetry of paucity. One of Cornelius’ accomplishments is that we maintain empathy for her characters, despite knowing violence is only a breath away. The unspeakable becomes the inevitable in this chilling evocation of male pack behaviour.
The more one reads about the events surrounding Dianne Brimble’s death on the Pacific Sky cruise ship in September 2002 — from witness statements, media and coroner’s reports, and from Geesche Jacobsen’s book Abandoned (Allen & Unwin, 2010) in particular — the less one understands the eight men named as ‘persons of interest’. They seem to have been on the hunt from the moment they boarded their respective planes in Adelaide.
In Savages, rather than conduct an inquest into the events, playwright Patricia Cornelius tries to climb into the minds of the men in the ten or eleven hours between boarding and making their move on the last woman standing, just before closing time in the ship’s disco.
Cornelius focuses on four men — Rabbit, Runt, Craze and George — who share a cabin on the budget deck of the cruise ship. Unlike the eight in the Brimble case (who ranged in ages from 25 to 41), the protagonists in Savages are all 40 or thereabouts, all Anglo and all working class. Cornelius also dials down the abhorrent behaviour markedly. Her men are, apparently, decent. They adore their mums, their kids and, for the most part, their wives, lovers and exes.
Now, this type of bloke is not exactly renowned for his ability to articulate his emotions and innermost thought, so Cornelius — rather brilliantly — heightens the language to a terse and boisterous rap. It’s poetic, swirling and driven; it has a sprung rhythm; there’s pararhyme, internal rhyme, half rhyme and alliteration. When the men explore the ship and compare notes, the number of beats to the bar increases with their excitement, and the lines expand like their prospects:
Other exchanges (about real, sweat-inducing work and stripe-earning brawls) wouldn’t look out of place in a TV commercial for Victoria Bitter or Yakka. As soon as Cornelius has acclimatised us — and won our trust — she takes us down deep. Suddenly her men are talking about their brutal fathers and their own too-soft sons, about fucking (‘like taking a piss’) and love (‘it’s drowning me’), about their love of women (‘run your fingers along the inside of their arms’) and their mothers (‘my mum’s a goddess … she’s 66 and she’s fucking gorgeous’), about cheating on their partners and being cheated on, and about turning 40 and the badges they should have earned by that age.
We watch their mood sour as the limitless prospects at the start of the night (‘we’ve struck it rich’) evaporate, and the men face — or, rather, fail to face — their own ineptness, undesirability and desperation.
Savages, mercifully, ends before the criminal act. Before the drugging, the overdose and the victim’s humiliating death. We’re spared those details. They’re left to our own horrified imaginations. This is a play with just the four men.
Savages is not, in any sense, a man-hating exercise. With the dispassionate curiosity of a forensic criminologist, Patricia Cornelius asks: why do men hate women? She doesn’t, finally, come up with a satisfactory answer. But the questioning makes for a powerful, troubling and deeply satisfying hour and a half of theatre.
Chris Boyd is Melbourne theatre critic for the Australian.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist