There’s something in the Sydney theatre air that means 2022 has been the year of productions focused on women’s emancipation and their right to choose their life path. Hush, A Letter for Molly, and Ghosting the Party considered mothering; Lady Windermere’s Fan, Lady Precious Stream, and A Doll’s House saw women navigating marriage contracts; and Chef, Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, and now the Sweet Science of Bruising turn different lens on violence in women’s lives to examine power, freedom, and choice.
In 19th century England, the options for women were pretty limited as they had few freedoms and their bodies and lives were tightly controlled by their fathers, husbands, and brothers. The Sweet Science of Bruising follows four women who took an unconventional approach to gaining independence and control: women’s boxing. Polly (Esther Williams) was abandoned as a baby and grew up in her adopted family alongside Paul (Benjamin Balte Russell). Paul is a professional boxer, though Polly is a pretty good sparring partner herself, and they have dreams of following Paul’s success together. Anna (Sonya Kerr) lives in fear of her abusive husband Gabriel (Davey Seagle) and feels powerful learning how to fight back. Matty (Kian Pitman) is having a hard go of it and is currently working as a sex worker in the theatre district but she sees freedom and security in the prize money available through boxing. Then there’s Violet (Kitty Simpson) who is frustrated by her involvement with the women’s movement and wants to make real change by becoming a doctor like Dr James (Antony Makhlouf) but she sees in boxing the possibility of showing the world what a woman’s body is actually capable of. And rounding them all together is the crafty Professor Sharp (Cormac Costello) who is dedicated to the physical science of boxing but he has a soft spot for the money, too. In the underground world of back rooms and inconspicuous clubs, these women use their bodies as unorthodox tools for their own emancipation from patriarchal violence and control.
Joy Wilkinson’s script is lengthy and detailed in its attempt to recreate the gritty context of life for many women in 19th century England and director Carly Fisher’s approach to the production demonstrates a real care for the women the production represents and their varied circumstances and similarities. The script is historically rich though often inundated with information which overburdened some characterisations as too simply villainous or virtuous in order to move the protracted plot along. For example, Violet’s Aunt George (Michelle Masefield) had been her benefactor up until she announced she was sick and had spent all her money on her medical care. This confrontation was a fertile moment to explore the intertwined financial and familial relationship of the characters and their disparate opinions about women’s social and professional roles as well as the characters own personalities of mixed selfishness and generosity. However, due to the crunch of an already 150 minute long runtime, the scene was reduced to a cartoon villain monologue of unbelievable self-exposition. That being said, Fisher’s realisation of other characters like the scrappy Polly and wily Professor were more organic with a sense of their lives expanding past the realm of the staged scene.
Additionally, this penchant for detail was well utilised in the production design. Hannah Yardley recreated a dank London street with brick archways and uneven stairs that added dynamic movement while Capri Harris’s lighting design showed an eye for atmosphere with streetlights casting spooky shadows around the set and drop-down bare bulbs creating interesting contrasts in the fight scenes in the Angel boxing ring. The costuming by Bella Rose Saltearn with plenty of swooshing skirts and smart waistcoats was particularly effective for providing historical context and the juxtaposition of this seedy underworld and its “reputable” participants. Then there was Akesiu Poitaha’s sound design which amplified the tension of the boxing matches underneath the crowd’s cheering while also adding intrigue to the boxers’ personal lives in those scenes, too.
Polly, as the Professor’s first champion female boxer, got a lot of stage-time to explore her relationship with her adoptive brother and future husband but it was Williams’s physical looseness and cheeky banter with Costello that endeared her character to the audience. Her balance between characterising Polly as calculating and breezy was astute and demonstrated a considered approach to the character and her position. Similarly, Simpson’s portrayal of Violet as an intelligent and ambitious woman with complex emotional concerns provided a strong grounding for the narrative. Raechyl French was a crowd favourite in her dual performance as Violet’s enthusiastic sister and Anna’s protective maid for her truthful portrayal of their side plots. And, in particular, Costello made great contributions as the Professor to constructing the appropriate atmosphere on the stage with a ring master’s authority and a salesman’s energy.
The idea of women’s sport and the history of women competing professionally have come to the fore of political discussion in unfortunate circumstances in recent months so the link that the Sweet Science of Bruising makes between sport and women’s emancipation and self-determination feels especially pertinent now. Whether it’s Polly, Violet, Anna, or Matty, boxing represented for all of them the right to control over their own bodies and the power, freedom, and happiness that that amassed.
The Sweet Science of Bruising is running at Flight Path Theatre from June 15th – July 2nd
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