The Boys by Gordon Graham. Producers: Alchemy Artistic (Amy Kowalczuk), Shadow House PITS (Joe Woodward) and Sophie Benassi. At the Australian Capital Theatre Hub, Causeway Hall, Kingston, Canberra, April 13-16, 2022.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Director/Designer: Amy Kowalczuk; Stage Manager: Carmen King; Production Manager: Alice Ferguson; Movement Director: Michelle Norris; Photographer: Mark Actually (Mark Kowalczuk); Set/Technical Advisor: Stephen Crossley; Sound Design: Neville Pye; Graphic Scribe: Arran McKenna; Lighting Design: Murray Wenham
Sandra Sprague: Liz St Clair Long; Understudy: Alice Ferguson; Brett Sprague: Alex Hoskison; Glenn Sprague: Cole Hilder; Stevie Sprague: Blue Hyslop; Michelle: Meaghan Stewart; Jackie: Indy Scarletti; Nola: Caitlin Baker
Presenting The Boys at Easter – based partly on the true story of the rape and murder of Anita Cobby – is significant. Long before Christianity, Easter was a European celebration of Spring, which is why we still treat it as a holiday to be enjoyed, rather than as a commemoration of the death of an innocent.
Of the five men found guilty and sent to prison for life – without the possibility of parole – on 16 June 1987, Gordon Graham imagines the family relationships of the three who were brothers, aged 22, 28 and 33 at the time. “Sandra Sprague”, her three sons and their women partners are fictional; public information about the original Murphy brothers provides no clues about the women, if there were any – as it must to maintain privacy.
The Boys is about why the boys took part in the rape and murder; and what are the roles of these four women – the mother Sandra; Michelle (with Brett); Jackie (with Glenn); Nola (with Stevie). Essentially the question is, could a mother and her sons’ sexual partners have changed the boys’ attitudes and behaviours away from anti-women violence?
To attempt to write this play is to take a great risk, perhaps of seeming to disrespect women as weak if they can’t bring up boys better; or of seeming to accept men’s sexism, belief in their own superiority and right to be violent, as inevitable.
Or is ‘society’ to blame for not ensuring all people live well above the poverty line; have thorough family and medical support from birth through all the vicissitudes of life until death; and have suitable education and satisfying work?
It’s a big ask of a new local theatre company, directed by Amy Kowalczuk, who many will know as Amy Dunham. I must raise the possibility-of-bias flag, since I taught her parents, Kathleen Montgomery and Trevor Dunham, in the first drama class at Hawker College in 1976/77, when they directed, with Sue Richards, the first student written and directed show – a rock/folk musical Anna. It’s great to see theatrical tradition continuing through the generations.
Has Amy made it work?
Indeed she has. Being present for this in-the-round performance, reminded me of country-town theatre in the local community hall – which is exactly what the Causeway Hall (1926) once was when Kingston was still called “Eastlake”, the first area settled in the new National Capital, Canberra.
I was also not surprised, since Amy has acted and sung in many shows (I’m sure I remember her singing at the National Folk Festival as a teenager) and is now teaching Performing Arts, to find myself watching what felt like a drama improvisation workshop, followed by a debrief discussion – to wind down from the emotional intensity for those watching as much as for those in the action. Here’s a top-class teacher at work, I thought: the teacher as enabler, setting up the situation for the actors to explore the theme of male violence against women, using the awful Anita Cobby story as the stimulus.
The sense of improvisation, oddly enough, makes the actors – in their characters with personalities and background histories – seem real as they say what they think and do what they want, in the room with us. In the Q&A afterwards, everyone spoke about the fictional characters as if they had really been there for the past two hours. Even in the interval I found myself talking concernedly to someone nearby about how the boys’ behaviour might be treated by a counsellor – or even if that could be possible.
Of course, we all knew they were acting out a playscript already written for them – and the rearranging of “improvised” drama studio rostra blocks and other crude props as scenes changed, kept our Brechtian distancing in place. A particularly effective device was for the boys to almost dance together (or rather against each other) between scenes, culminating in the scene which is described in the script beginning with the oldest brother, Brett, fighting the next brother down, Glenn, who Brett sees as challenging his dominance. The youngest, Stevie, breaks down in frightening wild movement, banging himself into the floor.
It was Amy Kowalczuk’s directing of the acting, in close concert with Michelle Norris’ movement directing that shaped the script (which I had had some doubts about on my quick reading) into so much more than just an important play about a worrying social issue. Watching, we became engaged directly in the experience of Sandra, left by a husband, perhaps very like her terrifyingly angry eldest, when her third boy was still very young and who then only had eleven-year-old Brett as his model. The middle boy, Glenn, seemed to have taken on some of Sandra’s demands about behaving with respect for women – and had found some hope in Jackie. But in the end he could not escape Brett’s power in the threesome, which must always stick together against any authority, including their mother and – now in their twenties plus – against all women, who they see as restricting their freedoms and right to do as they please.
Finally, the right to abduct an innocent woman, rape her and kill her.
In the discussion, the point was made that this behaviour is not restricted to the poverty-stricken class, but can be seen throughout our society including in corporate life and political life, up to the violence in deliberate warfare. Putin is Brett in extremis, I thought, as women and men spoke of their experiences and how the play had affected them. Someone pointed out that these boys in earlier times would have been expected to be and praised for becoming soldiers – with the same attitudes and behaviours. I thought of the court case still underway at this very time, where a soldier claims to have been defamed when accused of such behaviour.
But I also thought, as the women in the play tried to overcome their impossible situation (left to bring up Nola’s and Stevie’s newborn boy), and as the women spoke in the discussion, that social change has begun since the real case happened in the 1980s and the play was written, made into a film, and has been performed (at the Griffin Theatre in Sydney 2012, www.griffintheatre.com.au/whats-on/the-boys ) and used as a school text for study.
The feeling of horror around the world at what has been happening in Ukraine is, I hope, a change; an unwillingness to accept the violence of such warfare as any kind of normal.
And for these thoughts I thank Amy (Dunham) Kowalczuk, her outstanding cast, and all the many people she thanks in her program, for setting up Alchemy Artistic and taking on the risk of performing The Boys first up. If this is the standard of the company’s upcoming productions we can look forward, in our community and I hope further afield, for more drama which has revived my trust in humanity. This Easter has been as it should be – the commemoration of an innocent’s death; and a hope for the future of humankind.