Grass in the backyard of The Sprague family is bleached blonde by sun and neglect – the usual emblem of a happy, well-cared for family home: a plush green carpet for backyard cricket – is, instead, crisp and struggling. And not unlike the relationships within the house.

In 1991, when Gordon Graham’s The Boys was premiering at the Stables in Kings Cross, I was a world away from Sydney. On the verge of adolescence, I was living in a small rural town populated by illiterate, single (teenage) mums and flannelet-shirted highschool drop outs. I busied myself reading poetry and Patrick White and listening to poorly taped versions of Pearl Jam’s debut album (and wishing I was friends with William Wordsworth.) It was the era of grunge- of a style of music and a mindset which I (still) affectionately regard as a form of neo-nihilism. It seemed to me that the candy-bright bubble of greed in the 80s collapsed in a recession “Australia had to have.” Movie stars and musicians were overdosing – bright eyed young men killing themselves. Australia was no longer just a place of Paul Hogan, zinc-creamed noses, boxing kangaroos and larrikin attitudes…

Twenty-one years later, in 2012 there is a similar feeling lurking about in the collective consciousness. The dotcom boom (the contemporary equivalent to the 80s bubble machine) has created a financial confidence which has been crashing across the world… Australia only now starting to feel the shudder of the Global Financial Crisis shock waves. I’m living in Sydney, in an apartment near three adjoining terraces reserved for those recently out of jail and within stone’s throw of a strip club. I read a lot of Malcolm Gladwell and I wish Alain De Botton was my best friend. Saturday night soundtracks include the occasional domestic which finds its way onto the street a woman accusing a man of betrayal and screaming in poor grammar for him to face up to his wrong doing/ the man barking back generic insults “slut” “bitch” “cunt” etc.

In times of financial hardship – when education is the luxury of a few – we are reduced to the most base and basic self-interests – pride. And it seems to me, that often the poor are people with the most amount of pride. Pride in their car, in their strength, pride in their survival, pride in their status, or their house, or their family. And as theatre often reminds us, pride comes before a fall.

Is it any wonder that this production has re-emerge at this time to crack us in the face with broken fist? Perhaps the hardest of all to shake-off is the fact that we find ourselves again in a situation where our civil society is not as civil or elevated as we thought or wished.

Layer ontop of this larger context the industry context. Here we are, three years after the “Where Are the Women?” discussion erupted due to the Belvoir Mainstage launch of the 2010 season, with a very male-dominated Sydney Festival. Though programmed by Lindy Hume – this seems to be a festival dominated by male story and male artists. Muezzins, boxing, ancient greeks eating their children et al. I note it merely as a point of interest not to rally any action, nor to criticize the choice of Hume (it is after all up to her, what she program and I reserve her right to program what ever she wants.) But I can’t help but ask the question: what is it about the world of men that we find so interesting and how is it different to the world of women?

(I know. Apologies. A rather long preamble, which I know you’ve skimmed, or skipped. I just wanted to set my thinking about where I’m coming from in my response to The Boys)

Sounds that scrape and jar – rumble and hum under the seats and scream and pulse. Breathing quickens as the level rises and we are trembled by the bass.

We start in darkness a screen door squeaks over hits the wall. Black-rimmed eyes. Voices squawk like galahs. The boys have stayed out all night.

Moss-coloured lounges.

In the neglected corners of the floor, a few light green threads of grass are growing.

A rusted hills hoist, the wires stabbed by pegs.

The website blurb says:
“Brett Sprague’s just out of jail. Reunited with his mum Sandra and brothers Glenn and Stevie, he’s ready to reclaim his life. But things have changed while Brett’s been inside. Girlfriend Michelle may have moved on, Glenn’s moved out and Stevie’s about to be a dad. As Brett’s disruptive force takes hold, tensions flare and Brett embarks on a drink-fuelled rampage, sweeping his brothers along with him – with terrifying consequences.”

It would be a mistake to view this play as a thriller – because the genre is smashed out of the water. It is never is question who did “it.” Not at all. The question of this play is really about responsibility, complicity and throws open the question of “who is to blame for this?” But it’s more interesting than that – not about attributing blame “it’s his fault, it’s the mum’s fault, is her fault for putting up with it”. In The Boys we are observing behaviour and patterns of justification for actions.

The tragedy of this play lies not in the individual’s situation but in the desperation of poverty, inflamed by ignorance which dis-empowers a whole class, a community of people. It is too simplistic to say this is an examination of the culture of the women & the culture of the men. It’s not about male violence – that is an aspect of the action. The women, are fierce and determined and down-trodden AND the men are fierce and determined and down-trodden. Both express violence with equivalent force – women with words, men with physical force: they are, equally matched. And equally as terrifying.

The tragedy, is therefore, not tied to a protagonist, but to a social class. And what is frightening is how familiar and how close we are to this world.

United after a year of incarceration, Michelle (Cheree Cassidy) and Brett (Josh McConville) circle each other like ravenous caged animals. Tearing and grasping at each other. Enveloping each other in fierce and desperate passion by the hills hoist. Sandra (Jeanette Cronin) the matriarch smirks through the tantrums and occasionally bites her cubs to remind them to keep in line. Stevie (Anthony Gee) is struggling and storming about – a baby who’s made a baby. Nola (eryn Jean Norville) is struggling – a baby who’s made a baby. Jackie (Louisa Mignone) who aspires and is trying to be more and trying to help Glenn (Johnny Carr) reach beyond what he knows. Everyone is doing their best – all of them struggling with their situation – all of them clinging to principals and pride and their identity.

And it’s not disturbing because this is unfamiliar voices, or unfamiliar territory or an unfamiliar world – but it is disturbing because it taps into our fear – our fear of being trapped and tangled in a life and identity we can’t escape or ignore. It’s frightening because we fear the power of desperation – the violence of ignorance – we fear the energy of those who have nothing to lose and alot to prove. The Boys strikes at us from our deepest and darkest insecurities – our fear of ignorance, poverty.

But this is not a play about men. It’s not showing us or revealing anything that we haven’t heard before – but we fear it’s force. We also fear the unaffective influence of the women – that are powerless to stop or curb the violence. They are, after all combating years of practiced down-trodden victim speeches. But this is not a play about how women shape or make men.

It’s a portrait of desperation.

The script is not without it’s lumps or bumps – nor it’s over-written explanations. But it’s ideas are intense and evocative and too close, too true sometimes. I am not bothered by it’s inability to solve the social issues it raises – and don’t think the text is about male violence (specifically or exclusively). It is about context. About people’s action within their context. And for me , Brett’s speech is no different to Hilter’s address to the German people, or even the St Crispin’s day speech. I hungered for more moments of light, for relief or for empathy towards these people – I yearned to connect with them more as people and perhaps this would have deepened the horror. An embrace by Sandra of Brett – made me smart -as I saw for a moment that armour revealing a chink.

Sam Strong has led a team of artists to construct a beautiful design – light (Verity Hampson), Design (Renee Mulde) and Sound (Kelly Ryall) are perfectly in sync -terrifying bleak, corrosive collisions. The ensemble of actors muster bold performances, completely focused in their performances as the characters jab at each other to find their place in the pecking order. The production itself is consistent in it’s sway between rage and interrogation, evenly paced and horrifyingly predictable – the calm comes before the storm, always.

Another brave and bold contribution by Sam Strong to the Griffin legacy and to the honouring of classic Australian play repertoire. And it’s little wonder why this show is selling out – it’s a killer combination: provocative content plus stirring soundtrack plus brutal design, and king-hit performances – get there. See it.