Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Theatre: I'm Your Man

A Belvoir production
Created and directed by Roslyn Oades
Performed by Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Katia Molino, Billy McPherson, Justin Rosniak and John Shrimpton
PICA and Mandurah Performing Arts Centre until August 3
Billy 'The Kid' Dib
Boxing defies the understandable public revulsion and incontrovertible medical evidence that, you’d think, should have consigned it to history along with throwing folk to lions for the crowd’s entertainment.
One reason could be that boxing is unique among sports for the life and death drama and tight focus that allow it to work on stage and screen.
The writer and director Roslyn Oades’s singular achievement in I’m Your Man is to show how the actual words of fighters and trainers, exactly reproduced, are a fertile source of real life drama, humanity and a beaten-up, but still beautiful, poetry.
Oades shows us the central place of training in the process of the prizefighter. The rhythm of the gym, and the powerful, evocative smell of liniment makes you realize, accurately I think, that the fight itself is only an extension, and its result only an inevitable consequence, of the fighter’s training.
When Jeff Fenech (played brilliantly by Justin Rosniak) says that the punches he took in the ring didn’t hurt, he’s telling us that the real pain, and the gain, comes from the endless cycle of weights and chin-ups, ropes skipped and miles run that are what fighters actually do.
Oades is a practitioner of headphone verbatim technique, a form of documentary theatre developed by the British director Mark Wing-Davey a decade or so ago. The technique involves actors exactly reproducing dialogue they are listening to on headphones as they perform (I assume that the cast, although they claim not to have memorised their lines, have a good grasp of what’s coming).
It means that I’m Your Man’s dialogue is exactly what Fenech and the other well-known and obscure Australian fight people Oades interviewed said, warts (and coughs, long pauses and repetition) and all.
The effect is authentic, exciting and very often moving. The stories of the central character, the former, and perhaps future, IBF featherweight champion Billy ‘The Kid’ Dib (Michael Mohammed Ahmad, in a phenomenally persuasive performance) and the Nigerian/Australian welterweight contender Wale ‘Lucky Boy’ Omotoso (the expert John Shrimpton) have all the immediacy of tonight’s sport news. When Omotoso speaks about the horrific gang violence of his home town, Lagos, and his complex emotions at the death of a sparring partner, the words are vivid and chilling, while Fenech’s concern for his extended family and friends is disarming, charming and touching.
Rosniak also plays the late boxing – and acting – identity Gus Mercurio with gusto, and Billy McPherson’s avuncular Wally Carr and Shrimpton’s Tony Mundine are similarly alive and colourful. The striking Katia Molino plays CJ, a shadowy London-based fighter and trainer whose conversations with Oades inspired the play.
CJ’s story of his brutal demolition of four toughs who threatened him on a London street carried two messages. The first, that these are not men to trifle with, gives I’m Your Man much of its fascination. The second, that all of them are damaged by what they do, and what is done to them, gives it much of its impressive power.

This review appeared in The West Australian on 26.7.13            

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