Theatre review: Trophy Boys, fortyfivedownstairs

Melbourne-based theatre company, The Maybe Pile, tackles privilege, power and high school debating for 2023 Midsumma Festival.

A group of private school boys prepare their argument – for the affirmative – in a grand final debate against their sister school. The motion, ‘that feminism has failed women’, is the philosophical launching pad and dramatic conceit for Trophy Boys.

For the next hour, as the Year 12 boys attempt to settle on a winning strategy to beat their opponents, the audience watches as they (played by Emmanuelle Mattana, Fran Sweeney-Nash, Leigh Lule and Gaby Seow) struggle to reconcile their desire to be seen as enlightened, pro-feminist young men, with their classist, sexist and homophobic complicity.

Watching them wrestle with these duelling forces is at the heart of the questions raised by Trophy Boys (a finalist at the Queer Playwriting Awards in March 2022 and presented in a limited season at La Mama Theatre in December 2022). 

Described by the producers as a ‘queer black comedy and drag extravaganza’, Trophy Boys is the first play for actor, writer and voiceover artist, Emmanuelle Mattana, whose own background as a competitive high school debater informed this work. It’s a brave debut that confidently engages with complex debates in contemporary feminism in a scarily accurate parlance.

Sexism, misogyny and the abuse of power may be as old as civilisation but, for this Gen X reviewer, I was struck by how much more complicated things are for today’s feminists. Gone are the days of simply and clearly knowing your (patriarchal) enemy – the ones who made sexist remarks, bullied women and girls, and/or pushed ‘traditional’ gender identities as if their stereotypes depended on it.

Today’s feminists, the offspring of spin doctors and social media influencers, must contend with performative feminism, where outwitting your opponent with articulate badgering, an expensive education and lawyers on tap, is the name of the game. After all, ‘it’s not true unless you have the video or email to prove it’ or, to use a George from Seinfeld addendum, ‘it’s not a lie if you believe it’.

Haven’t we seen this tactic used successfully in recent high-profile sexual assault cases in Australia? In today’s fake news culture, ‘truth’ is a quaint concept and, while the water may be murky, Trophy Boys dives in, boater hats and all. 

For some, this play may be tough to watch, and those who are particularly vulnerable to the issue of sexual assault may decide it’s not for them. For this older feminist, I admit to a sense of exhaustion as if I’m sure we’ve been down this road before. But everything old is new again and I hope this play not only tours every private boys’ school in the country but becomes mandatory viewing for politicians and parliamentary bureaucrats.

With its immutable pillars, fortyfivedownstairs can be a challenging venue and, for this reviewer, the decision to stage the work in traverse is problematic. While it offers proximity to the actors, it makes for a strained neck and muffled vocals (the latter issue also arising from the actors rushing the text and talking over each other, particularly in the first half of the work). 

For some shows this would not be such a problem, but Trophy Boys is wordy, relying less on the poetic potential of theatre – through design, lighting and/or audiovisual elements – than on its intellectually comedic approach, where every word needs to be heard clearly and the performers’ body language and timing needs to be precise. The show relies on the actors and, while the ensemble was passionate and energetic, a sense of restlessness permeated the opening night performance that will hopefully settle over the season.

Read: Theatre review: Hubris and Humiliation, STC

Producing independent theatre is hard and it’s great to see a young company with queer sensibility take on the creation and presentation of ambitious new theatre works that reflect current issues through an Australian lens. My hat goes off to The Maybe Pile for entering the ring with such gusto and I look forward to seeing how this company evolves.

Trophy Boys
Presented by The Maybe Pile as part of Midsumma Festival

fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne
Written by Emmanuelle Mattana
Cast: Emmanuelle Mattana, Fran Sweeney-Nash, Leigh Lule, Gaby Seow
Director: Marni Mount
Producer: Ben Andrews
Lighting Designer, Stage Manager and Tech Operator: Oliver Ross
Production Designers: Marni Mount, Emmanuelle Mattana, Ben Andrews
Sound Design: Ben Andrews
Tickets $30 – $43

Trophy Boys will be performed until 12 February 2023.

Jennifer Barry is a Melbourne-based theatre producer and arts manager with over 30 years’ experience in the Australian and US arts industries. She has a BA in Communications (Theatre/Media), a Masters in Theatre Studies, and a Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne.