Placing a female AFL player at the centre of a play is at once bold and captivating, and Suzie Flack, played by Lauren Richardson in Jane e Thompson’s Fierce, was just that. It is unfortunately rare to see such a strong female character, who is at the same time unapologetically flawed and messy. Fierce does not sugar-coat the consequences of existing as a woman in a completely male-dominated landscape – namely, the cold exterior Flack feels she is expected to adopt in order to survive. Often this exterior makes Flack almost unlikeable in her brusque persona, but this is precisely what makes her character powerful. This could have been a play about a heroine defying the patriarchy and succeeding, but that would have been a fraud. Instead, Thompson has crafted a play about an authentic heroine, one who is constantly expected to navigate the unavoidable patriarchal confines of her world.
Opening with a spotlight on Flack, passionately boxing under a reddish dim light, the play began with an aura of intrigue. Flack has an unrelenting determination to play in the male AFL league, and she brazenly demands a training spot amongst the team. From then on, Flack must navigate an arena of fear, defiance and opposition to her goals. A scene depicting a media conference, Flack is forced to engage with questions which singularly focus upon her being a woman, neglecting any conversation about her game or tactics.
Transposing the at times violent sport of AFL onto the small stage of the old Fitz, Thompson’s script incorporated the physicality of the sport. The physical dialogue between Flack and her male teammates highlighted the intense scrutiny that the female body undergoes, particularly in sport. The audience could empathise with Flack’s disconcerting feelings of invasiveness, as she underwent rigid assessments to simply be permitted to train with the male AFL league. It was difficult, however, not to feel as though this imagery often felt like a disruption to the overall narrative arc, particularly one break-out routine to Justin Bieber’s ‘Sorry’.
Poignant scenes exploring Flack’s personal life provided an intimate portrait of the consequences of emotional withdrawal. Brushes with a male escort, awkwardly stagnant conversations with her fellow teammates and touching moments of Flack with her deteriorating father pointed to the intimate vulnerabilities which Flack hid in a flawed self-preservation. However, these themes had the potential for greater exploration. For example, Flack’s relationship with her father never reached its dramatic potential. Similarly, while abrupt conversations with her teammate, played by Andrew Shaw, provided a comical reflection on masculinity’s emotional negation, it would have been interesting to extend this interrogation. What did this emotional disengagement ultimately mean for Flack and her teammate’s ability for genuine human connection? While pointing to these ideas in a number of scenes, greater attention towards fewer narrative paths would have enhanced the audience’s immersion in the play’s delicate intertwining of the personal and public realm.
Perhaps one of the most original scenes was when Shaw and teammate Zelman Cressy-Gladwin were dressed in elaborate ballgowns to play female partners attending the AFL awards night. Boldly addressing the play’s challenge to rigid gender roles, this proved both a humorous and beautifully powerful mechanism for spotlighting the play’s key question: who determines the roles which women and men are forced to play? While Fierce certainly did an apt job at unpacking this increasingly urgent question, it could have benefited from deeper explorations of Flack’s unique challenges.