Images: Kate O’Sullivan
Everything you’ve heard about The Truth About Kookaburras is true. Yes, the cast is over twenty in number. Yes, most of these are men. Yes, almost all of these men appear naked in the first twenty minutes of the show – unashamedly, fully naked. In short, (seriously no pun intended) you get a wrestling wall of penis. And it’s not fleeting. They are touched, fondled, squashed, flicked, twirled and shoved into faces.
It’s good fun. It would be unsettling or slightly weird if perceptions of masculinity weren’t at the absolute core of Sven Swenson’s play. Which they are. Swenson has written, directed (and even features in) this memorable play, which had its first outing back in 2009 at Metro Arts Independents. The Kookbaurras are a fictional Gold Coast footy team, who come under fire when one of the members is killed in their locker room on the evening of a buck’s party. Most of the play unfolds in parallel timelines: the investigation of the murder, and the night it happened. This has some of the structure of a classic whodunnit, but there’s a lot more going on here.
It’s rare that you see more than a cast of four or five on an independent stage. To see over twenty is stunning. It’s no small feat to choreograph that many actors on stage at any one time. So much of the action is physical: boys wrestling, fighting, playing etc. Swenson’s triumph here is collaborating with Brian Lucas (choreographer) and Justin Palazzo-Orr (fight director). It’s a fruitful and often beautiful mix.
The cast are too numerous to mention. This is an ensemble piece in every sense of the word. Performances range from the brilliant to the inexperienced. The men are given tough roles here that require bravery: full nudity, complicated physical choreography, and a balance between vulnerability and bravado. Everyone commits, and the energy of the piece is sustained for its full three-hour length.
Most difficult are the moments where characters have profound and extremely well-articulated insights into the contemporary masculine identity crisis. The insights are important and powerful, but they are Swenson’s, not the characters’. The play’s didactic final scenes include characters unblinkingly taking on fundamental ideological change. Swenson is attempting to teach us an extremely important lesson. In doing so, he flirts with the boundaries of realism. Throughout, we venture into increasingly Brechtian territory; social gestus and alienation feature heavily. This isn’t a bad thing at all, and I’m incredibly grateful to see any work tackling (again, no pun intended) these contemporary masculine issues. Swenson does so beautifully.
Phil Slade’s sound design is beautiful and extremely well-placed. Jason Glenwright’s lighting renders several fantastic moments, especially in the play’s third act. The design by Tim Wallace is instantly recognisable and familiar; these boys look like ones you meet everyday. Their locker room is something we all know. The team add another credit to an already outstanding year for technical designers and independent shows.
The play’s biggest, and almost only downfall, is its length. Clocking in at three hours with two intervals, it’s epic in both style and structure. The potential tension of the murder investigation is difficult to sustain over such a period of time. The potential for a powerful and disturbing message about contemporary masculinity loses its impact as the night wears on. Swenson’s desires for the piece would likely be met if it were much shorter, and there seems to be very little reason for its length. But you should go and see The Truth About Kookburras. It’s a Brechtian-inspired spectacle and discusses desperately important themes. It’s beautifully directed. The dialogue is tight, funny, and intelligent. It’s certainly not a show for young ones, and probably best seen with a group of your friends on a fun night out. It’s like nothing else on a Brisbane stage this year.