Renato Musolino in Rust And Bone | Griffin Theatre

Caleb Lewis’ Rust And Bone proves (if, indeed, it needed demonstration) a well-wrought phrase is worth a thousand pictures. Or can be.

This taut 70-minutes-straight-through world premiere, brought to us by Stories Like These (Peter Gahan and Luke Rogers’ production company, with a short but punchy resume that threatens to give them a good name) and Griffin Independent, adapts and reimagines Canadian writer Craig Davidson’s short stories, that prise open the closed, dimly-lit shop loosely described as masculinity, with its rusted-on, dutiful quality of stubborn forbearance. Rats scurry around the minds of these three troubled men. Their situations are vastly different from each other’s. Their dispositions? Not so very much.

Corey McMahon has found an edgy, visceral vehicle for what, I believe, is his Sydney debut, to say nothing of three dazzling actors: Wade Briggs, Renato Musolino and Sam Smith. Michael Hankin’s hard-edged design echoes the often unforgiving, unyielding, grey concrete surfaces of modern, urban life. Thanks to vivid, vigorous writing, it serves each of three men’s stories: it’s a pool; a boxing ring; a makeshift dog fighting arena.

Ben (Briggs), James (Musolino) and Eddie (Smith) are as subject to the “big boys don’t cry rule” as any men. The idea is so pervasive, after all, so ingrained in the fabric of society, the fact that it’s ridiculous, unhealthy and outmoded is barely, if at all, an inhibition. It still very much prevails, embedded somewhere deep in the mind of man; not least the Australian male. Ben works at Sea World. He rides an orca. Hey, it’s a living. One day, something goes horribly, somewhat implausibly, wrong. It changes his life forever. He goes from being carefree to intensely frustrated. If they knew each other, James could relate to that. He seems like he’s about to burst, such is his pent-up distress and aggravation, all of which is channelled into his illegal fighting dogs. Eddie’s an ageing boxer, still trying to punch above his weight and age, before it’s too late. He’s absorbed in that aspiration to the point that it’s dangerous; not just because of the risk of incapacitating physical injury, but the emotional tsunami gathering momentum, should his ambition melt into failure.

These stories and characters and the rawness with which they’re rendered would be compelling enough on their own, but it’s the form Lewis has given them that makes this work one of the best of the year. I know what you’re thinking? How can he say that?! It’s only mid-to-late January! Yet I stand by this bold prediction which, I know, I’m not the only one to venture.

So what does Lewis do with Davidson’s stories that’s so damn interesting? Well, he makes it hell for the actors, that’s for sure. By way of Teegan Lee’s lighting, each of the characters is, by overlapping twists and turns, given focus. They all but bump into each other, verbally and physically. In fact, sometimes they do, when doubling as other characters to fill out scenes from each other’s imploding lives. All this at a daunting pace, with nary a stumble or hesitation. Speaking of focus, one can only but imagine the mental nimbleness required for any of these roles. There are countless cues and the fact not a single one was missed qualifies these actors for Olympic gold. Monologues and dialogues intertwine and overlap, in a testosterone-fuelled frenzy of angst.

McMahon has the sense to direct with apparently minimal intervention: ensuring technical, textual and dramatic excellence without being showy with craft. There’s an unfashionable absence, despite a widespread epidemic, of young director’s “look at me” syndrome. Macca affords credit and impetus where it’s most due: to the script and performances. His other great success is in creating a steroidal aesthetic and tenor: it’s all bulging biceps, blue veins and dripping with a roadworker’s sweat on the hottest day of the year. It has tension, yet poise; the characters are anything but self-possessed, but the actors who play them couldn’t be moreso. When they turn to female roles, we see Lewis’ leaven what’s an otherwise laden, leaden archeological dig into the darkest recesses of manhood with welcome humour, without detracting in the merest from the integrity of the work overall. Courage accompanied by skill is a wonderful thing to behold.

These men, for all their flaws, are heroic in their way; an everyday, everyman way. They nurse their own wounds and stem their own blood as best they can, while battling demons and dragons (within and without) and locking themselves in dungeons. Rarely do they glimpse freedom. The’ve have drawn the bridge from across the moat of their emotions and sit in dank, unalleviated misery. Ben has lost a leg in a freak accident. But he’s lost more than that. He’s lost his equilibrium. Meanwhile, James has misplaced his mojo. He feels unreasonably threatened by he and his wife’s failure to conceive and closed-door conversations between her and his mother-in-law are hardly bolstering his sperm-count. In a very palpable sense, he transposes his testicles with his dog’s, whose life-and-death struggles are tantamount to his own. Eddie, the boxer, is riddled with guilt for the death of his trainer’s toddler; a burden that steals energy from his most prized endeavour.

It’s a man’s world. And, sometimes, for some men, this is it. Lewis and McMahon poke and provoke the collective beast and it roars. This is brutal, tell-it-like-it-is theatre that trades eccentricities and affectations for the real deal: writing and acting. How much more do you need?

The details: Rust And Bone plays Griffin’s SBW Stables Theatre until February 2. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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