Interview: Theatre of hard knocks

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Elissa Blake - Sydney Morning Herald

A melding of dance and drama reveals the beauty and brutality of a much-maligned sport, writes ELISSA BLAKE.

When you're talking to a boxer or someone with a love of the sport, don't use the terms ''blood sport'' or ''brain damage''. They don't like it. Don't talk about the blood. Don't talk about the damage.

''Blood sport is a term used for hunting,'' says theatre director Scott Graham of British company Frantic Assembly, whose high-energy paean to pugilism, Beautiful Burnout, makes its Australian debut during the 2012 Sydney Festival.

''Blood sport is about slaughtering an innocent for your gain, whereas boxers and the boxing community would see boxing as a martial art. It's certainly a sport that people enter of their own free will, and also a sport that has an incredibly good safety record. It is so much safer than sports like rugby, football, horse riding.

''But what is distasteful to some people is the idea of inflicting temporary brain damage upon your opponent. Boxers and the boxing world wouldn't use those words, but those are the words you can't escape from. It is what it is. That's the heart of the moral issue.''

Graham and his co-director, Steven Hoggett, tackle this issue head on in Beautiful Burnout. Set in a boxing gym, with a thumping techno soundtrack by electronic dance outfit Underworld, Frantic Assembly's fighting-fit actors punch, skip, jump and dance through a fiercely aggressive show that lays out the beauty and the horrors of the sport.

''We focus on the physicality, the burn, what it feels like,'' Graham says. ''How it becomes seductive, how it becomes addictive, and how things change as you move from the amateur world into the professional. Boxing is a brutal business. But it's also one filled with focus, spirit and hope.

''It sets gladiator up against gladiator, and these people have incredible hearts and incredible bravery and incredible skills. I can see the grace and the power, and the speed of thought and the speed of action.''

Beautiful Burnout was conceived after Hoggett walked into the legendary Gleason's Gym during the New York run of the National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch (choreographed by Hoggett and a highlight of Sydney Festival in 2008). It was here that the young Cassius Clay trained. Other fighters to train at the gym include Jake LaMotta (the ''Raging Bull''), Mike Tyson and Cuban welterweight Benny ''Kid'' Paret, who died after a fight at Madison Square Garden in 1962.

''Steven was completely blown away by the atmosphere in the room and the application of the boxers,'' Graham says. ''There was an order and a chaos. Everyone was moving and turning different parts of their bodies and using different techniques. He'd never seen boxing before and it blew his mind.

''He came back and told me about it, and I told him I'd been a massive boxing fan for 20 years. Then it just all poured out.''

Written by playwright Bryony Lavery (Black Watch, Stockholm, Kursk), Beautiful Burnout is a co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and Frantic Assembly, known for its dance theatre productions. The play was critically acclaimed at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, winning a Fringe First Award.

Boxing has deep roots in Scotland, Graham says, particularly among the working class. ''It's about communities, sometimes where there is none,'' he says. ''When we were doing our research we found these tiny rooms on desolate estates where people would congregate two or three nights a week to train local boys and girls. They work incredibly hard and it hurts - all aspects of boxing hurt - but you can see people growing, their confidence growing, their physicality becoming sharper and more balanced.''

The elders are respected for their knowledge, wisdom and experience, Graham says. The young are credited for their application and willingness to learn.

''Everybody is rewarded,'' he says. ''So, while you're in the room there is a kind of perfect society; the absent father is here; the role model is here. Outside, there might be a lack of rules, but within, there's an incredible set of values and incredibly strong mutual respect.''

Actress Blythe Duff, who plays the mother of one of the boxers in the show, says her character is seduced by the boxing gym culture. ''There's a nice moment where she says 'all of a sudden, I'm completely hooked'. She just totally gets it. She loves the adrenalin and she understands how the sport and its discipline will be good for the kids. The play is sweaty and noisy and smelly but it has real sensitivity and humour, too. It doesn't shirk from the difficulties, either.''

Graham hopes theatre-lovers won't shy away.

''I really want the nervous theatregoers to come,'' he says. ''There is so much that is positive about boxing in the show you might have your attitudes tested.

''There is blood and sweat but there are also moments of great beauty. This whole story of aspiration and love and hope will give you a better understanding of how seductive this flame is for young people.''

Dance or drama?

SCOTT GRAHAM and Steven Hoggett work as choreographers and theatre directors. What they do as Frantic Assembly, a London-based company formed 17 years ago, is dance and theatre. Initially inspired by pioneering physical theatre companies, such as DV8, Volcano and the Cholmondeleys, Frantic Assembly's performers hurl themselves across the stage in ways unseen in dance or theatre.

''We're all about capturing the adrenalin rush, capturing the emotion and giving the audience a thrill,'' Graham says.

The pair are inspired by people with inherent physicality, he says. They can be athletes, dancers, labourers or soldiers. ''We love how body language can tell a story, we adore the physical dynamic,'' Graham says. ''Whether it's an explosive, huge, brave moment of a dancer on stage, or the bat of an eyelash … those are moments we love.''

Writers, filmmakers, sound designers and musicians all play an equal role in devising a new work, Graham says. ''That's why our work feels complex … We draw on movement and sound and it's highly visual and highly collaborative. We work with very exciting people who are all at the top of their game.''

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