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Prize Fighter theatre review (Melbourne Festival)

Kill everyone over 15 and under 8 and bring the woman to me.’ 

Turns out there’s not really much to say about Prize Fighter.

That it’s an exceptional piece of theatre is probably the least important thing about it.

That the story of an ex-child soldier is harrowing, confronting and brutal, should be no surprise. That this is a play as much about hope and survival, as it is about war and pain, is a testament to all of those involved.

It’s the story of a young Congolese man, Isa Alaki; a refugee and a gifted boxer, now resident in Australia. Preparing for an attempt at a national title fight, Isa experiences PTS flashbacks – both during training and during actual bouts – that reveal a past of unspeakable horrors.

As a 10 year old he has witnessed the murder of his father (played with moving dignity by Marcus Johnson), and the rape and murder of his feisty, pitiable sister (a beautifully judged performance from Ratidzo Mambo); and he’s been forced at gun point, by the perpetrators of these acts, to join them as a child soldier. He has murdered at least once, a young woman he was attempting to save. And not once has he had a choice in what he has done; other than if you don’t, you die.

Playwright Future D. Fidel uses elements of his own life in this piece. Like Isa, he too fled the Congolese civil war and spent several years in a refugee camp. His mother was killed. At the age of 18, he was granted refugee status in Australia.

Fidel’s writing is powerful, compelling and beautifully realised in Todd MacDonald’s production.

And, yes, the Northcote Town Hall is a ways from what one might think of as the Melbourne Festival proper but really is the perfect venue for this piece.

Designed by Bill Haycock, the theatre space is transformed. A no-ropes boxing ring in the centre of the space, is surrounded on all four sides by seating, raising the action and casting the audience as spectators at a sports event.

Distinctive lighting changes (by lighting designer David Walters) clearly distinguish between Isa remembering – and battling with – past events: the childhood that shaped him, his time in a refugee camp, interviews with the Australian immigration authorities: and now, in Australia, the training sessions, bouts, and the big fight.

The prelude to the show has members of the cast and a local Northcote boxing mob, warming up, sparring, training. By the time the show proper begins, the cast are sweating. By the time the show ends, they’re dripping with the stuff.

As Isa, Pacharo Mzembe is heart-wrenching. His growing desperate friendship with a 13 years old ‘mentor’ Kodogo (Mandela Mathia, a powerful presence ) – who boasts of having slashed his eight months pregnant mother to death, and is one of those responsible for the deaths of Isa’s father and sister – is beyond disturbing, as is Isa’s repeated plea ‘you’ll never leave me?’

Apart from Pacharo Mzembe, the cast play multiple roles; the doubling emphasising the impossibility of easy moral judgement as sympathetic characters merge with savage survivors.

Gideon Mzembe (real brother to Pacharo), for example, plays a ruthless killer responsible for the deaths of Isa’s family. But he is also Moses, Isa’s funny loving elder brother who is sent from home for safety reasons as the story begins. Isa’s need to find Moses is one of the strongest drives in the play.

Both Mzembe brothers are experienced boxers and athletes. Their bouts in the ring (Gideon Mzembe is also one of Isa’s boxing opponents) are fabulous. In fact the fighting (movement and fight director Nigel Poulton) is so organic I was almost surprised to see that it actually was choreographed (the lack of black eyes might have given me a hint).

Margi Brown-Ash is dynamic as Isa’s tough, spunky coach. Her energy crackles. She also causes some of the most uncomfortable (as distinct from horrendous) moments in the play: the upcoming fight, she says, will be the most important thing that’s ever happened to Isa. He must have a new name for an Australian public. Something a bit less, y’know, weird… Steve!: come on Steve, you’re a killer!!

Has she ever asked how such a young man came to Australia? How it is he has no family? What his story is? Do we ever ask? And if not, why not? Do we persuade ourselves that it would be insensitive to ask? Or is the truth more unworthy: would we rather not know?

Fidel’s play is not, he says, in a note for the previous Belvoir Sydney season, about statistics, but he quotes the International Rescue Committee as giving an estimated death toll of the Congolese civil wars as 5.4 million since 1996. To put that in context, about a quarter of Australia’s population.

Fidel wants us to know. In an interview for local ABC radio in Brisbane where the play originated at La Boite, he spoke about his return to Congo: ‘The images I got when I got back to Congo was horrifying, very horrifying.’

‘What kind of things were you seeing?’ asks the interviewer.

’Dead. Bodies on the street, dead bodies in the forest… you have to go in the forest to find food and that was where the war was happening. you find, decomposing corpse on the floor.. so as a little kid, those images really can haunt you for the rest of your life’

This is a powerhouse production. Performances are committed, forceful, moving, true.

Turns out there’s only one thing to say about Prize Fighter: see it for yourself.

Until October 20 

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One response to “Prize Fighter theatre review (Melbourne Festival)

  1. Puts my bullying abusive step-father back in the 1950s/early 1960s well into the shade. This story/these people – the Cool Hand Lukes of our society – as Tom Keneally once described survivors of the European “Holocaust” who had made it to Australia – some of Schindler’s List/Ark – they make us strong – give a kind of moral backbone to our society – no longer provided by the spineless politicians running the show. Excellent review, Fiona. Thanks.

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