Brent Lyle is a footy star on the up and up. His performance on the field is at its peak and his manager is finding excellent opportunities to make more money off the field, too, but something is holding Brent back. A secret he’s been keeping for years that just might ruin the future laid out in front of him.
In true David Williamson style, Managing Carmen incorporates exploration of masculinity, football, and misogyny into a plot about the backroom dealings of powerful and rich men. In particular, though, this 2012 script comes out swinging with overwhelming amounts of transphobia and homophobia and sly punches thrown at suicide, domestic violence, PTSD, and sex workers along the way.
Sports manager Rohan (Steve Dula) wants to make more money out of his star player Brent (Cam Ralph) through sponsorships and advertising deals, but Brent cannot naturally deliver a line to the camera to save himself. In comes Jessica (Angelica Madani), a psychologist who promises to get to the root of Brent’s psychological knots and make him camera-ready in no time. What no one suspected was Brent’s personal secret: he cross-dresses as a female persona named Carmen. What ensues is a multi-directional attempt to rid Brent of his alter-ego to save him from career-ending shame and embarrassment at the hands of nosy, sleaze reporter Max (Alexander Morgan).
The premise is not alone a worry, but the script very quickly dives into the offensive. Williamson’s take on cross-dressing is deeply troubling for reasons that include Jessica’s instant diagnosis of Brent as “addicted” to cross-dressing and her recommendation to keep this part of himself a secret, Brent’s admission that his interest in cross-dressing grew from a place of childhood trauma, implications that cross-dressing isn’t a problem as long as you “can’t pick it”, and the repeated conflation of being transgender and cross-dressing. Clearly, this script is out-dated and lacks understanding about the nuance of presentation, gender, and sexuality but if that wasn’t enough to classify Managing Carmen as a relic, the constant stream of homophobic and transphobic slurs thrown across stage puts the final nail in its coffin.
When Managing Carmen opened in Perth in 2012, Williamson explained his motivation for writing the script as a response to sports managers taking advantage of their players for profit. Rohan is certainly an unlikeable character with a red-hot temper and foul mouth; he shows little interest in anything other than demoralising the women and queer people around him and making money, but his storyline is hardly the key plot. Brent’s professional girlfriend Clara (Kelsey Hunter) is equally money hungry and Jessica is a pushover when it comes to Brent’s psychological well-being. Each character plays a role in trying to control Brent and convince him that his shame and confusion are justified, whether or not they individually stand to gain anything.
Direction from Isaac Downey strives to find the humour in the characters’ sarcastic banter, their stretched metaphors, and their quirky characteristics like Brent’s unusual love of documentaries, but with a crack that punches down looming around every corner, it’s difficult to laugh freely. Additionally, liberal use of swear words as greetings, punctuation, exclamations, and everything in between wore thin over the nearly two hour performance, not allowing for much articulated development of the characters and their relationships.
Ralph as both the titular Carmen and Brent did his best in a bad situation by approaching the performances with an open honesty. Brent’s attempts to authenticate Carmen and let her roam free were sweet and remarkably resistant to the voices of those around him. The development of Brent’s characterisation from closed-off footyhead to comfortable and confident in the final scenes demonstrated Ralph’s compassion for the characters and dedication to doing them justice.
One could argue that the press conference Brent holds, against Rohan’s will, where he declares his commitment to being genuine to both Carmen and Brent combined with Jessica yelling at a homophobe at the footy are indications of the true message of this script but these scenes are simply too little, too late in a show that perpetuates harmful, bigoted, and untrue myths and attitudes about the LGBTQIA+ community. Managing Carmen is not a show about difference or acceptance but is instead a raging reiteration of mainstream hatred targeting the already ostracised and vulnerable.
Managing Carmen is running at St Aidan’s from August 16th – 31st