Reviews, Stage, Theatre

Prize Fighter review (Sydney Festival, Belvoir)

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In the 65 thrilling minutes that make up Prize Fighter, Future D. Fidel manages to say more about our world and internal lives than many playwrights do in a lifetime.

This debut play, which premiered at La Boite Theatre at Brisbane Festival in 2015, is drawn partly from Fidel’s own experiences as a refugee from Congo to Australia, and is an extraordinary expression of the difficult emotional landscape of being a refugee. It’s an experience that many, many Australians have as a defining part of their lives, but not one that we often see examined on our stages or screens.

But beyond that specific story, Prize Fighter explores how a person’s past and trauma becomes part of their whole being.

The play opens with Isa (Pacharo Mzembe), finally in Australia, entering the boxing ring to take on an opponent. He’s been coached by the tough and brutally straight forward Brisbanite Luke (Margi Brown-Ash), who has given Isa his new boxing identity: Steve, the killer.

But every time Isa finds himself up against a new opponent, he delves deep into his past in Congo, forced to be a child soldier and live in a violent, brutal and deadly corner of the world. Isa learnt the basics of boxing — jab, jab, duck — from his brother, but has been separated from all of his family from a very young age.

While Luke sees Isa’s fighting skills as a key to professional success, Isa puts those skills to use in the hope that they might help him bring his brother to Australia.

Fidel’s text flawlessly weaves together the narrative threads of Isa’s life in Brisbane, and his life in Congo and a refugee camp. It’s witty, full of tension and heart.

Todd MacDonald’s direction finds a great sense of movement, using the physical language of boxing to tell much of this story, and praise has to go to fight director Nigel Poulton for lots of vividly-realised fight sequences. Bill Haycock’s boxing ring set becomes every location in Isa’s life, thanks to some abstract lighting from David Walters and a great sound design by Felix Cross (with remixes by Busty Beatz, which help to encourage the audience to whoop and cheer during the boxing scenes).

All the performances are excellent, led by Pacharo Mzembe as Isa, who delivers what’s maybe the most muscular performance I’ve ever seen (quite literally). He traces Isa’s emotional journey perfectly, moving at lightning pace from the young and naive Isa through to the adult finding his place in a strange, new country.

It’s a treat to see one of Brisbane’s finest, Margi Brown-Ash on a Sydney stage in a huge performance as the no-bullshit coach, while Pacharo’s real life brother, Gideon Mzembe, is fantastic in a range of roles.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Prize Fighter is the emotional knockout it lands in its final few scenes. It’s obviously a very accomplished and thrilling piece of theatre, but it’s not until the final 10 minutes that it becomes apparent just how powerful it is.

Prize Fighter is not just a breath of fresh air because it’s unlike most of what we see at our biggest theatre companies, it’s also one of the most intelligent, dramaturgically sound and surprisingly uplifting plays I’ve seen in years.

It’s only the start of January, but it feels like this could easily be one of the best productions to play Sydney this year.

[box]Prize Fighter is at Belvoir until January 22

Featured image by Brett Boardman[/box]

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