I’m Your Man – Belvoir
A mixture of verbatim and physical performance will interest even placid non-athletes in the world of boxing.
At most, I expected to tolerate I'm Your Man. It is, after all, about boxing, for which I (and, let's generalise, most theatregoing folk) care not. So it came as a surprise when I loved I'm Your Man, and if you allow yourself to be transported through the doors of Belvoir Downstairs into a so-real-seeming boxing gym, creator/director Roslyn Oades and her multitalented, impressively athletic cast ensure you will, too. My (self-appointed) job is to convince you to take that first step and turn up.
I'm Your Man spends time with the fighters, trainers and aspirants at a Sydney gym, and one in particular, Billy Dib, as he gears up for his world title fight. Oades spent 18 months observing and gathering interviews with these athletes, scratching at the psychology and culture that makes them. Her little bit journalistic, little bit anthropological documentation is distilled through a technique she's pioneered called headphone-verbatim, last seen in her Stories of Love and Hate. Rather than memorising the lines, the actors have the recorded audio from these interviews fed to them onstage through headsets and focus on wholly and accurately replicating the subtleties of speech.
It might sound awkward, but it really works. We're used to theatre speech being worlds removed from everyday speech, and there are some great verbal quirks fast-talking, stumbling, on-the-run grammar that would normally never survive the flattening of the rehearsal process. These rediscovered idiosyncrasies of voice prove totally bewitching, and it's a neat antidote to theatrey declamation. (Plus, no complaints about dodgy accents here.)
But more than just document, I'm Your Man immerses you in its characters' world. Even before you see your seats, the walk down the corridor carries you into another, intoxicating world one where whitewashed walls brandish fight posters, articles, autographs and inspirational quotes; one that sounds of fists hitting vinyl and sneakers squealing against the lino. It smells thankfully not of sweat but of Deep Heat. It's powerful. You soon get a sense for just how this milieu might become a clubhouse, and a comfort.
The sharp observation extends to the gym-bright but cleverly flexible fluorescent lighting (Neil Simpson), evocatively ringside sound (Bob Scott), and host of behaviours, exercises and rituals enacted by the performers (Mohammed Ahmad, Billy McPherson, Katia Molino, Justin Rosniak and John Shrimpton). The wrapping of wrists is hypnotic. In place of the usual dramatic climaxes, you want to clap feats of core strength and skipping. These actors may not have memorised lines, but they've been doing some hardcore practice.
Often Billy Dib and his team seem to make boxing bear the weight of dreams and ideals bigger than it could possibly contain. Their stories of struggle, migration, self-improvement and community admiration come together to produce insight into the motivations of people who pursue something that most of us don't understand, and in some cases, can't abide. I'm Your Man acknowledges that real-life violence and the competitive violence of sport are not wholly disentwined; it just won't let the violence be the whole story. After earning their trust over many months, Oades clearly had her subjects open up to her, and she's honoured that trust by using their words with warmth, empathy and unflinching honesty.
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