MTC: The Sublime

The MTC’s production of Brendan Cowell’s The Sublime left me angry. So, I took some time to think, read and discuss. I’m still angry, and horrified at the arguments being offered that try and explain how this is powerful and brave theatre.

The Sublime
The Sublime

Cowell’s play is about football, AFL and NRL. I love AFL. I love going to the G, indulging in the palpable passion and watching a story that I don’t know the ending to.

In this play, a teenage girl watches a player rape her best friend. That’s not what left me so angry.

In The Age, reviewer Cameron Woodhead said that someone is going to accuse this play of trivialising rape. I don’t think it trivialises rape. Rape is trivialised with every “What did she expect?”, “Rape is a very strong word”, “She was so drunk”, “But you weren’t hurt”, “You got in the car”, “You’ve done worse”, “Think about his future”, “She should be grateful”, “He’s your husband”, “We saw you kiss him”,  “Are you sure?”, “Vindictive slut” and so on.

And yes, for every “she” I wrote, there is an implied “he”, but the first turning point of this play is the rape of a 17-year-old girl and it goes beyond trivialisation.

From the playing of Bon Jovi’s “Living on Prayer”, the first 15 or so minutes of The Sublime are as exciting to watch as a Grand Final. With three intertwining monologues, the pitch-perfect performances and writing capture our obsession with the male ball sports, the hero worship that accompanies being a young player, and the aspirations to be one of those admired men. As David Williamson’s 1978 play The Club remains a remarkable look at football world from the management office, this looked like a spot-on look at the world of the players and their fans.

Dean (Josh McConville) is 25 and an AFL role model living in Melbourne who on his way to a Brownlow medal. His younger 20-something brother Liam (Ben O’Toole) plays NRL and is doing everything he can to be selected for the NSW team. They tell us about their childhood, their ambitions and their love for the games. They’re nice young men who deserve to do well. Their story is paralleled with that of Amber, a teenage runner (Anna Samson), who is close to Olympic selection. One night after training, Dean joins Amber for a run along the Yarra and invites her to a match.

And then it – literally – loses the plot. Serious spoilers follow; the forced plot is so linked with the politics of this play, that it can’t be ignored. If you don’t want to read them, skip the next three paragraphs.

On their first brief meeting with Dean, Amber’s star-struck parents suggest their underage teenage daughter, and her friend Zoe, join Dean, Liam and Liam’s NRL team in Thailand for their end of year trip.

But put aside Hell freezing over because something needed to happen to get them to a resort and a Moon Party in Thailand. The party is a dream rage. Amber gives her first ever blow job to Dean because she knows that’s how to get a boyfriend (and the immediate BJ aftermath may be the sweetest and most honest scene in the play), but the fantasy holiday ends when Liam’s best mate encourages Liam to fuck shit-faced Zoe while he masturbates and Dean cowers in the corner. All of them ignore Amber, who’s filming it on her phone.

When they get back to Australia, it gets messy and the legal action is as believable as the parents giving their virgin daughter to the football team. And that’s before Amber is abandoned by her parents, releases the video to the media, pretends the teenager being fucked face down on the couch is her (and that she loved it), gives up running, and moves in with Liam. She moves in and develops a sexual relationship with the man who raped her friend in front of her.

This play acknowledges that non-consensual sex is rape but goes on to explain and exonerate the behaviour of the rapist and his mates, while throwing in a dose of questionable victim behaviour to ensure that the question it poses is “Should the lads be blamed for their behaviour?”.

To make it easier to watch, there are lots of laughs, which help it to hide under the safety net of satire.

Great satire makes us look at ourselves and cringe with shame when we recognise our own behaviour.

The behaviour this work is begging us to see is that we let teenage girls ruin men’s lives. We let girls get away with it.

Dramaturgically, it’s also made easier to watch because the described rape is diluted to be less confronting that it could be. The age differences aren’t much. It’s only one guy. It’s quick. There are no absent partners or children to be hurt. Unseen Zoe is the one raped, so the act is distanced from the character we know and care about. Zoe’s over 16 (age of consent), had been flirting all night, wasn’t a virgin, had said how much she wanted have sex with Liam, and was so drunk that she doesn’t realise she’s being fucked face down in a couch.

It’s written to be a forgivable or understandable rape.

Lawers get involved, but Amber doesn’t share the proof she has on her phone. It’s too hard for Zoe and she disappears interstate. She’s not part of the story anymore and the moral responsibility and consequences of that problem are removed.

The second half explores the brothers’ upbringing and personal hells or “why they act like they do” and looks at the consequences of being videoed.

It’s here where The Sublime sinks below the scum as it shifts the blame and the power to Amber.

Let’s never forget that Amber’s 17. She’s devoted her life to running and had never had sex or a boyfriend. She’s a child. A child who was given dangerous amounts of alcohol by a far-more-life-experienced 25-year-old and saw her friend get raped in front of her. This is a traumatised child. And I hope that as a society we seek to still protect traumatised children and never blame them for the behaviour of the adults who are with them.

It’s a story about how Amber’s eventual release of the video ruined the men’s lives. Where’s the reflection on how the behaviour – criminal behaviour – that was videoed ruined the men’s lives?

Cowell says that his Amber was written to be “on the edge of complicity and victimhood”. There’s not a moment when the 17-year-old is complicit and in control over the adult men. Not when she’s hero worshipping them. Not when she’s dancing drunk. Not even when she grabs Dean’s cock and puts it in her mouth, after he bought the teenager her first ever cocktail and continued to give her $6 buckets of gin and guava.

Meanwhile, to ensure that we know just how difficult it must be for the men to resist such a situation, there’s a young gorgeous actor on the stage with long hair and tiny shorts.

Amber is made complicit because she knows that men like looking at her.

In Crikey, the MTC have published a “holds up a mirror to our society” justification of this play. After all, they are just showing us how it is. But by showing “how it is”, they are supporting how it is.

Victim blaming. Slut Shaming. Boys will be boys. They couldn’t help themselves. Look at what she was wearing. What about their future.

There’s a phrase for this: Rape culture.

As long as women are blamed for being raped or abused, rape culture is preserved and encouraged.

The Sublime is not a powerful work that makes us question if we – the educated ones who go to the theatre and tut tut at tabloid headlines – are complicit in supporting rape culture and the abuse of women. It’s a cowardly work that hints that women, especially young women, should ask themselves if they “deserved it” or if they are to blame for being raped or abused. It’s a work that encourages them to shut up and think very hard before subjecting a “nice boy” to something that might ruin his life, even if his behaviour has already made her own life hell.

Or perhaps I misread the whole thing? So I’m giving the last word to writer Cowell who spoke about his play at the MTC season launch:

“It’s about how a teenage girl with an iPhone can destroy not only a man’s life but entire power structures and industries who are the victims in this play.”

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

9 thoughts on “MTC: The Sublime

  • This sounds disgusting. Victim blaming is wrong, and MTC really need to hold up a mirror up of themselves and see what messages they are really perpetuating. Ugh.

  • I thought the play was terrible, but I fundamentally disagree with the statement that ‘by showing “how it is”, they are supporting how it is.’

  • Hi Anne-Marie. Thank you for this important piece of writing. The mere fact that Brendan Cowell stated his play was “… about how a teenage girl with an iPhone can destroy not only a man’s life but entire power structures and industries who are the victims in this play.” should have been enough for the MTC to refuse to go ahead with it. As the mother of a seventeen year old girl, I find it disturbing that men like Cowell – ‘creative artists’ – are no better than the worst of the uneducated men who think like this. In fact, they are probably worse. Brendon Cowell wrote that “summary”, so that means he believes it is possible. You are correct in observing the fact that it is impossible for a child to have such power over men and their ‘industries’. What a vile playwright, and what a vile company for staging this work!

  • Hi Anne-Marie. Thank you for your thought provoking review.

    Are you sure about your quote at the end? I think you have run together two sentences giving words a radically different meaning, and coincidentally apparent confirmation for the thesis of your review. On my listening there is a break between industries and who. Heard and read that way it speaks of a desired moral ambiguity, which may not have been achieved, rather than an actual intention of the playwright to perpetuate rape culture.

  • I cant help but feel you came into this one a little one sided. Which you’re entitled to of course as a member of the audience. But instead of picking it apart with ‘plot hole’ and strange unbelievable tangents let’s just step back and take it as it was presented to us…

    I’m a female and I do not in any way support rape or violence against anyone (women or men). But i took this completely differently and couldn’t stop sympathizing with the character Amber. By showing how shiftily and unsympathetically it was covered up and by having the story and media focus on the boys you see how much it harms Amber. Which is holding up a mirror to society. By showing how much Amber had to sacrifice, lie, and try to gain some sort of justice out of the horrific actions, we see what she had to put up with, manipulate information etc. We see her sacrifices and resilience that she is forced to have because of how it was covered up. This does not support. This does not encourage such a cover up but reflects on the damage on “Amber”. She shouldn’t have to put up with this no, this should never have involved her no, and the gang-like ‘impressing the captain’ sort of behaviour that some players might use as an excuse for their weakness and aggression should not exist no. Not in an ideal world, but this is what happened in this story. And it made me uncomfortable thinking that in this country such stories might exsist for real. How they reacted obviously angered you and yep, I think that was the point what happened wasn’t right. But it happened. And it reflects on our society, and opened up discussion of such events, which is the purpose of new work. We’re discussing only one layer which when out of context can be viewed very differently.

    It obviously angered you but I think you have the sense to one day rethink it objectively and realise their intentions were perhaps not as vile as you think…

  • Also I think people commenting on this without seeing is about as damaging as the propaganda surrounding such issues as rape.

  • Maryann’s point above is a good one.

    If you listen to the video what Brendan Cowell said at the launch was “It’s about how a teenage girl with an iPhone can destroy not only a man’s life but entire power structures and industries. Who are the victims in this play?” Listen to the inflexion on the question at the end.

    You have run together two sentences to create a quote and used it as a gotcha to support your contention. Worse though is that your created quote has been referred to by others as support for your and their criticism of the play.

    I think Sublime is a poor play, agreeing with Alison Croggan’s recent review of it. However, what you have done in creating that quote is defamatory because it imputes that Brendan Cowell intended this play to be just what you say it is: perpetuating rape culture. I hope you correct your review

  • Wow, Patrick. There is NO upward inflection in that “who are the victims in this play.” Seriously. What are you hearing? He also says in his interview with the Age: “The fact that an image on a pink iPhone can not only take down a man’s life and career, but superstructures – businesses, sponsors, brands, lives – is amazing,” Cowell says. “And what does that mean? Who has the power now?”
    Suppose he is referencing Kim Duthie. (Because so much of this play references real people and events, yet the way it plays out onstage is just so unbelievable to be almost laughable. And of course, the play was surely sent through legal prior to opening, but I digress…)
    How has someone like Duthie “taken down” the AFL? Seems to be
    operating okay, yeah? Not to mention the issue with, as Peard states, men being
    accountable for their own actions, like say, Ricky Nixon pretty much screwing
    up his own life, himself, without any help of these temptress “nymphs” and the like. He’s an adult. Can make his own decisions. This whole: “I can’t help myself, it’s my penis, it RULES ME” excuse is something we REALLY need to move on from, kay? So asides from maybe Nixon having to bow out and into rehab etc, Duthie really isn’t the “powerful destroyer” of all things patriarchy and economic.

  • I saw the play and did not believe any of the protagonists were cast as innocent. For a variety of self concerned reasons none of the characters did what was right. Not the men, the parents, the girl, the police, the club or the lawyers. At an audience forum after I saw the play there was twenty minutes of discussion and none of it was about Amber being blamed for the incident, because it seemed nobody in the audience felt she was. Brendan Cowell’s comments about the work are interesting however many other creative individuals have influence on a play before it is performed. I don’t think the play finished up being about a girl with an iphone ruining careers at all. It was I think a very disturbing look at our own community, and after seeing it no one should hold their head high. I personally thought it was a very strong work, and worthy of more considered analysis.


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