You enter the theatre with the play already begun, ‘in medias res.’ Boxing gloves slam against punching bags, hook-and-jab pads, speed balls; the countless wallops form a stuttering cacophony, drowning out your footsteps as you gingerly seek the seat-number printed on your ticket. Once seated, what you’re seeing is a cross-section of a gym in full swing. There’s music pumping and sweat spraying. For all intents and purposes, this is a real gym, and a real session. The perspiration is genuine. The scene may be artificial, but it’s not fake. Immediately you’re struck with a sort of paradox, a tension that will permeate the entire show: the fine, or even invisible line between truth and artifice.
“I’m Your Man” is the third in a trilogy of plays by Sydney-based theatre maker Roslyn Oades, each of which explores acts of courage. The first two – ‘Stories of Love & Hate’ and ‘Fast Cars & Tractor Engines’ – contended with social and political bravery. With this instalment, we’re exposed to courage at its most primal and immediate: the willingness to face physical danger, to put one’s body on the line. What the play probes and unravels is the complex array of motivations and experiences that might lead someone to voluntarily put themselves in such a situation. The subject matter of professional boxing is, in itself, an intriguing premise for a contemporary theatre work – but the way it’s delivered leads to something really quite astonishing, the likes of which I’ve never seen in my life.
From the audial cloud of punching, verbal barks and music emerge calmly-paced, isolated monologues. Something about the whole scene, though, looks and feels unusual. Suddenly an awareness hits you: everyone, every actor on stage, is wearing headphones. If they walk close enough to you (it helps that I’m in the front row) you can hear a voice emanating from the earpieces. This faint vocal track matches the voice of the actor with uncanny precision. Really, of course, it’s the other way round: the actor is matching the voice in their ear. It’s a technique called “headphone-verbatim” which Oades has championed since 2001; rather than reciting memorised, scripted dialogue, actors hear recorded speech in their headphones and speak along with it – matching every phrase, every idiosyncrasy, cough, stammer and inflection with precision. Because Oades uses audio of actual candid interviews as her source material, the result is a hyperrealist, almost eerily believable replication of genuine encounters.
We meet Billy ‘The Kid’ Dib (portrayed by Michael Mohammed Ahmad), a talented 26-year old upstart gunning for the world featherweight title; Wale Omotoso (John Shrimpton), a Nigerian welterweight who cut his teeth in Lagos street fights and dreams of bringing his family to Australia; Jeff Fenech (Justin Rosniak), the fast-rambling“Marrickville Mauler” who took the world title three times. Then there’s Tony Mundine (also played by Shrimpton), father of Anthony, a jocular fighter and coach; Wally Carr (Billy McPherson), who fought 101 professional fights in a wild assortment of weight ranges; Gus Mercurio (Rosniak), a husky-voiced, American-born legend of the Australian boxing community; and an enigmatic, disenchanted Londoner known only as CJ (portrayed here by Katia Molino).
These real-world characters are rendered onstage in a stunning blend of verisimilitude and artistic recontextualisation. We’re not presented with what looks like people doing interviews: these are intimate monologues accompanied by physical sequences, actors commanding the space, “training” as they speak, often interacting as a group. Like disjointed, everyday sounds interlocking into a strange symphony, these conversational (and admittedly, often not-so-profound) snippets of speech amass into something far greater than the sum of their parts.
Meanwhile, as the characters’ tales unfurl and intermingle, we become increasingly invested in each of their lives. Wale is charming and softly-spoken (Shrimpton does magnificently here); his faith and outspoken love for his family are poignant and endearing. Yet his straightforward motivations to take up boxing (“I wanted to bash people in the street, with no weapon”) embed repulsion in his persona, too. Katia Molino is wonderfully expressive as CJ, infusing the ex-boxer with a haunting blend of cockney humour and simmering bellicosity. As Fenech and Mercurio, Justin Rosniak’s voice-work is jaw-droppingly great – you have to marvel at his ability to keep up with Fenech’s mile-a-minute stream of consciousness in the headphones. Billy McPherson (who’s got a boxing background himself, as it happens) is a warm, contemplative counterpoint as the retired Wally Carr, reflecting on his career and former destructive habits with what feels like a rare sense of wisdom. Yet the real central figure here is Billy ‘The Kid,’ whose high-stakes quest for the world title played out as the play was put together, and whose nail-biting pre-fight psych-up forms the play’s intense climatic coda. His single-minded pursuit of fame and victory means his tale can only go two ways: triumph or personal tragedy. The lights extinguish before we discover his fate, meaning we’re left to ponder not so much the trajectories of these individuals – rather the intensity of feeling, the determination, the emotional vulnerability and the flawed but inspiring idealism they all somehow share.
The “headphone-verbatim” technique seen tonight is in itself innovative and impressive; it will no doubt be mentioned in any and all descriptions and appraisals of “I’m Your Man.” But the technique – and its virtuosic deployment – relies on the vision of Oades in selecting and arranging this source material, the expertise of dramaturg Raimondo Cortese, and the casts’ willingness to be not only rigorous but also to invest their hearts and bodies in the performance. Tremendous credit must go to Bob Scott (sound design) Neil Simpson (lighting/production) and Lee Wilson (movement director) whose contributions may play out on a more subconscious level, but in this way create a rich, dramatic and convincing atmosphere in which to experience the work.
A thousand words later, I’m still not sure I’m any closer to distilling the feeling of seeing “I’m Your Man.” It’s a remarkable project on Oades’ part: an alchemy of creative vision, great performances, and an unabashed injection of content carbon-copied from the world. Typically, art based on true events and real people moulds and arranges itself according to a singular intent or worldview; the “real” elements come together into a tactfully crafted arrow, pointing at this or that. While it would be foolish to suggest that “I’m Your Man” paints an objective portait, it does seem astoundingly direct – detached from all-too-familiar tendencies towards judgement or didacticism. This is reality filtered, certainly – but it emerges with its complexity and contradictions, its humour, sadness and strange beauty left in tact.