The relationship between Australian sport and the LGBTQI+ community has always been a rocky one. The hyper masculine footy environment doesn’t always demonstrate an accepting attitude, as reignited in recent Israel Folau bigotry controversy. In Relative Merits, conservative Australia comes up against a love of footy in unexpected ways to explore the gay community in the early 1990s.
Clay (Isaac Broadbent) has run away from his rural farming hometown to find his brother, who also ran away ten years prior. In that time, Adam (Samuel Welsh) has been building an entirely new life for himself as a star rugby player with a secret gay love life. The appearance of his younger brother has coincided with Adam’s retirement from rugby as his HIV/AIDS diagnosis has begun to make a serious impact on his health. As the brothers reconnect, they learn a lot more about each other than they expected.
Barry Lowe’s script sets traditional notions of Catholicism and masculinity against a modern understanding of individuality and freedom of expression in the LGBTQIA+ community. Written in a time when non-heterosexuality was far from the mainstream; before Ellen DeGeneres came out on her sitcom, before Will & Grace, and in the middle of the Reagan administration’s silence about the AIDS epidemic in the United States, Relative Merits provided an opportunity to open up the underground gay scene in Sydney for wider audiences. Watching it in 2019, the script operates like an afternoon special with overwritten sentimental monologues and corny attempts at sibling banter. The story is good at heart, but leans heavily on educational tones that feel particularly outdated in an arts scene moving towards more nuanced representation of gender and sexuality.
Welsh plays a gentle and confident footy player with a surprisingly level head about the end of his career and impending illness. He does well to juggle his religious upbringing with the demanding presence of his younger brother and the added complication of living a sharply divided public and private life. Perhaps the character’s practicality could be attributed to the little time afforded to his personal arc. On the other hand, Clay goes through a remarkable evolution which Broadbent plays with a complex conflict between religion, fear, and love. The two work well off each other to overcome a period of separation and develop a report.
Staged in traverse in the small El Rocco space, the audience feels an intimate part of Adam’s life within his apartment and hospital room. The small space adds further difficulty in terms of lighting with Lachlan Steel’s design including plenty of side-lighting unusual for an otherwise realistic staging. During certain monologues, especially as Clay comes to terms with his brother’s future, the use of heavenly warm hues heightens the drama and sentimentality already prevalent in the script.
Originally performed 25 years ago with Scott Ferguson and David Campbell in the cast, Relative Merits marked a turning point in LGBTQIA+ history and civil rights in Australia by reframing the discussion around found family, acceptance, and love.
Relative Merits is running at El Rocco from July 10th – 25th