A Winning punch

Nicola Fearn: Roslyn Oades, I’m Your Man

Mohammed Ahmad, Billy MacPherson, I'm Your Man

Mohammed Ahmad, Billy MacPherson, I’m Your Man

Mohammed Ahmad, Billy MacPherson, I’m Your Man

The sound of punches landing, grunts, shouted words of encouragement, background pop music and the smell of liniment hits you the minute you enter the slightly shabby gym (Brown’s Mart theatre transformed) to witness the world of the professional boxer.

For 18 months writer/director Roslyn Oades accompanied Featherweight fighter Billy ‘The Kid’ Dib as he prepared for the World Title. She recorded interviews with Billy and legendary boxers on the circuit and from this created an audio script which the actors listen to through headphones and faithfully reproduce—every stutter, pause, laugh, mumble. I’m Your Man is the third work in a trilogy exploring acts of courage using this headphone-verbatim technique.

The five performers, some playing two characters, train hard for the full 70 minutes of the show—real sparring, real chin-ups, real competitive skipping with ropes moving so fast you can’t see them. It is physically impressive but that is just one aspect of the show. The boxers’ stories reveal the pride, powerful loyalty and the drive that makes them want success so much.

It’s a violent world—“Its war… break that guys face…put him in a world of hurt”—contrasted with brotherly love and loyalty. John Shrimpton plays Wale ‘Lucky Boy’ Omotoso, a Welterweight boxer from Nigeria, who cries in the hospital for his sparring partner, the 2-year-old boy he killed with a punch to the head. Omotoso talks of street life back in Nigeria and how he had to fight to survive. He speaks softly about looking after his family and bringing his brothers to Australia, thanking God before he drops into a harder voice declaring that now he has to ‘keep doing what I’m good at” and belts the punching bag viciously.

The actors play across cultures. Shrimpton is not Nigerian but the exact reproduction of the recorded voice creates a strongly believable character irrespective of the actor’s own cultural background. Katia Molino plays across genders as CJ from London’s East End. CJ is a wild-eyed fighter you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. He’s up on a charge of grievous bodily harm but wants to win then join the police force to “help others…kick that door in…wear that badge.” Despite his obvious violence he is a likeable character, full of charm and funny one-liners. This is the key to the production’s success: these boxers are three dimensional characters—we see their dreams, their fears and their vulnerability and, for people like myself who have not known the world of professional boxing, it is a fascinating peek into an alien environment.

Contrasting with the young hopefuls is the older boxing icon, the gravelly-voiced Gus Mercurio, played by Justin Rozniak. He sits on a stool in the corner of the gym speaking with a stutter about his early life. He is what the younger ones may become. He embodies the damage done from years of being hit—the punch-drunk “success” story.

I’m Your Man moves fluidly, counterpointing solos, duets and group scenes. The soundtrack provides moments of respite from the show’s direct address as the actors move into their own silent worlds preparing for the fight. We hear white noise, crowds roaring, punches landing hard and the boxers’ breathing amplified and slowed to a pulsing heartbeat. The lighting moves from harshly lit gym to a contained boxing ring surrounded by darkness echoing the single-mindedness of these men.

Billy stands in this square of light as he’s pumped up and prepared by his entourage: “you can do it Billy…love you bro…he can’t hurt ya Bill..”—the five actors hearing five voices simultaneously on their headphones. Then Billy is alone and ready to face his opponent.

I’m Your Man is a powerful work with an immediacy and gutsy realism created as much by the fact that the actors work hard to listen to voices in their ears as they’re performing as by the content. The usual theatre-going audience was gripped by the sheer physicality of it and the members of the local boxing club hooked into the theatricality. I’m Your Man delivered a winning punch.

4 September 2013