A high school debating team trains you to argue one side of anything. You learn the most your can about hot button topics so you’re prepared the argue on any subject, whether you believe it or not. You can talk to anything, regardless of your own lived experience. You go into competition, trying to impress judges with your rhetoric, even if it’s skill over substance. You can talk them into anything.
talk yourself into anything.
Scott and David are from the elite private school boys school Imperium College,
and they are ready to debate their sister school. They want to win. They need
to win. This is their last and biggest challenge in their final year of high
The topic? That
feminism has failed women. And the boys have to argue in the affirmative.
the debate prep room – a white board at one end, photographs of famous women at
the other end, staring down at them. It’s high school, so everything is illuminated
in fluorescent white light, with nowhere for the actors to hide. The audience
broken into two, facing each other, as if in a school sports stadium. Ready to
cheer on the team or go into battle. The stage is set.
to be the smartest of the four. He’s the lead debater and he runs off at the
mouth, spouting a list of tactics they could use before the other boys can get
a word in. He even wonders out loud if they might forfeit the debate – unable to
argue the position in good conscience.
boys are keen to tackle the impossible, knowing that what matters is how they
argue; how they structure their points, and making sure they can see ahead to
everything the enemy, um, competition might argue back.
If Owen prepares
them all to argue the position on its merits, Jared and Scott want to convince
themselves they are the right people to make the argument – whether they
believe it or not. Jared’s girlfriend is on the opposing teams and he “loves
women”, so of course he’s a feminist and they need not worry about how any of
it looks. Scott wants to support Jared in any way he can, perhaps because he has
feelings for Jared that he hasn’t ever been able to express.
And as one
of them says, they might have white male private school boy privilege, but they
are on the debate team not the rugby team. It’s not like their masculinity is
toxic or anything.
production of Trophy Boys by debut playwright Emmanuelle Mattana has no men on stage. This targets something deep within the text itself – if debating
is the performance of a truth, this show reminds us that gender is
performative, too. And that can present itself in the most complicated ways in
an all-boys school.
The first half
of the show is clever in the way it presents these boys as archetypes and then
slowly transforms how we see them. It’s sharp in its social commentary –
bitingly truthful and hilariously funny. Owen clinging onto his allyship and
his extensive knowledge of feminism leads to a few truly complicated monologues
trying to get his head around the complex task at hand.
And if this
room is the high school debate version of the sports-movie locker room, when
the boys start to spitball ideas and make notes and draw mind maps in their
exercise books, we’re treated to the thinking man’s version of a training montage.
With their brain chemistry mixed with teenage hormones, the cast dances and
thrusts around the stage – their note books never far from hand or groin.
the play, the outside world intrudes on the sealed prep room. In a so-called “safe
space”, the boys find out some news that divides them – pits them against each
other and all of a sudden, the real debate is in the room. And they have to use
their finely-tuned rhetoric to clear their own names. Use debate tactics to
convince the rest of the boys of anything they want. And all of a sudden, it’s
not fun and games anymore.
script is perfectly crafted. She has experience in high school debate so everything
about the setting feels right. And the inspiration for the play itself? Former
Attorney-General Christian Porter being accused of rape at a high school debating
tournament in Sydney in the 1980s. His victim later died by suicide and he
faced no lasting consequences.
– Mattana, Fran Sweeney-Nash, Leigh Lule, Gaby Seow – bounce off each other so
well, giving a truly believable performance as both a team united and later, when
the cracks start to appear, a team divided. Mattana takes a lot of the dramatic
load; certainly, the bulk of the dialogue, but she is also able to tease out
layers in Owen, whose change in the play is the most satisfying to watch. Gaby
Seow is the comic highlight, pulling Scott in and out of the closet, while also
humorously performing the straightness this group of boys expects or wants.
Marni Mount keeps the show on track and adeptly navigates the change in tone. Her
direction keeps everything tight, allowing the laughs to flow freely early on
and skilfully guiding the dramatic performances near the end.
Boys is a
remarkable piece of work from such young theatremakers. The subject matter would
be tricky under any circumstances, but in this dark comedy, the sharp satire hits
in the most intelligent and resonant of ways.
needs to tour. School children need to see this play. Adults need to see this
play. I would be very surprised if this show didn’t pop up again in the near
future, but I think it has a life outside the Fringe circuit. What Trophy
Boys has to say and the way it has to say it, it’s vital that it finds a
wide, wide audience.
And that final
line and blackout? So astute. And so fucking powerful.
- Keith Gow, Theatre First
Photos: Ben Andrews