Venue: NIDA Parade Theatres (Kensington NSW), June 11 – 18, 2016
Playwright: Stephen Sewell
Director: Jeff Janisheski
Cast: Saxon Blackett, Callan Colley, Laura Djanegara, Megan Hind, Imogen Morgan, Wil Ridley, Louis Seguier, Emele Ugavule, Ross Walker
We take sport very seriously in Australia. Billions of dollars have been generated from the industry, and countless personalities have attained national iconic status over the years. Stephen Sewell’s The Olympians attempts to deconstruct the sporting hero, with a story set in the Olympic village of the 2016 Rio games. It is a piece of writing highly critical of sporting and popular culture, using a narrative about a fallen star lost in sex and drugs, appealing to the same need in our audienceship that keeps tabloid journalism in business. Its characters are familiar but caricatured, and although hugely ambitious in scope, the play would probably be more effective if scaled down to its simple essence. Greek tragedy meets television realism in The Olympians for a curious exploration of dramatic form, but the play would make a stronger point if its many subtexts are trimmed down to a more succinct articulation of its thoughtful message.
Direction by Jeff Janiesheski is equally adventurous and imaginative with its approach. The very generously sized stage poses a challenge that Janiesheski responds by delivering amplified theatrical expressions for every scene, resulting in a work that can often feel too obvious with how it chooses to communicate, leaving little room for nuance or irony. The production’s humour is rarely effective but energy from a tireless cast and vigorous lighting effects by Ross Graham help retain our attention. Lead actor Wil Ridley shows good precision and discipline as the dishonoured Porter, especially proficient in some of the play’s more heightened sequences of sentimentality. Imogen Morgan is memorable as Jess, a bimbo type who encounters the goddess Aphrodite. Morgan’s ability to convey consistent authenticity in her role sets her apart in a group that seems to work more intently on exterior presentations than on emotional efficacy and psychological believability.
In an arena where individuals are ruthlessly pitted against each other, the sporting field allows only one winner at a time. Perhaps it is the idea of making concrete the abstract concept of “the best” that gives sport an allure that art has been unable to compete with. Awards are given out in artistic communities the world over, but there is nothing definitive about the good and bad in art, and certainly, the judgements we may bestow upon them are almost never more than irrelevant privileged perspective. People are drawn to the certainties of sport, and the creation of winners and losers in its equations. The nature of art resists that singular objectivity. Great art dismantles systems of segregation and exclusion to speak with universality as though at the Olympics, except all are to emerge victorious.