REVIEW: Trophy Boys by Emmanuelle Mattana

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.

You can talk yourself into anything.

Owen, Jared, 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 school.

The topic? That feminism has failed women. And the boys have to argue in the affirmative.

We’re in 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.

Owen seems 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.

The other 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.

This 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.

Halfway through 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.

Emmanuelle Mattana’s 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.

The ensemble – 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.

Director 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.

Trophy 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.

This play 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.

Trophy Boys played as part of Midsumma and closed today.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Photos: Ben Andrews