I bought Australian playwright David Williamson’s The Club from an opportunity shop for 50 cents. Back in the day, this play was studied by high school students, which means that these days, every op shop in Australia always has at least three copies for sale.
The play was set in the clubrooms of an Australian Rules football club in Melbourne during the 1970’s, with the action taking place over a single evening. There are only six characters, all male, in the play; the coach, the Club President, the go-getting young administrator, a high flying new recruit, the ageing team captain and a board member who was a former player and coach.
The politics and backstabbing going on in the club’s board room is ridiculously over the top, but probably typical of many sporting clubs at the time. The board members have been angling to have the coach sacked but the team captain is threatening a player’s strike if that happens. The coach wants to drop the non-performing star recruit back to the reserves to straighten him out, and to cap things off, the Club President has assaulted a stripper at a boy’s night and is desperately trying to keep the incident out of the press. Other board members see this as an opportunity to oust the old President and bring in fresh money in the form of a new President.
Violence against women is a theme in The Club. The characters disparage other men who hurt women, but they try and buy off the stripper with $20, and in another exchange which left my jaw on the ground, one of the older characters said he once played a bad game, went home and hit his wife after she said, “I think you met your match today.” He then complained about the harm done to his playing psyche; She apologised later but by that time the damage (to him) was done.
The themes in The Club are very familiar to me, as a child during the 1970’s in a country area where the local football club was the centre of the community. Everybody knew which club members, ‘good’ blokes who would do anything for the club, went home and belted their wives. Wives and girlfriends, who turned a blind eye to regular club fundraisers in the form of stripper’s nights, tirelessly ran the canteen and washed the jumpers. The centre-half forward had his pick of local girls who all wanted the associated glamour of going out with the team’s biggest hero, and even in the under-7’s, the father’s had to drink with the coach and selection committee for their kid to get a game. Kids learned the words to Up There Cazaly at school and imagined taking a screamer in front of the crowd.
But back to the play.
The story is set at a time when football clubs where just starting to play their players, and the club’s coach, Laurie and other players resent the club President and board members paying $90,000 for Geoff Hayward. Geoff has under-performed since joining the team and at one point during the last week’s game, was day-dreaming and completely oblivious to the ball going past him. Later Geoff owned up to Laurie that he was stoned and was watching a seagull instead of the ball, because he was afraid of failing. Laurie eventually found a way to connect with and motivate Geoff, and the reader got the sense that Geoff will play like a star again in the future.
These days, Australian Rules football is big business and the themes in The Club are still relevant. The ‘boy’s club’ mentality still exists up to a point, although women now have places on the highest-level boards and work with the players on their fitness and injuries. The media speculate on the likelihood of under-performing coaches being sacked and on ageing players being traded. The women’s league has just started and is proving to be very popular, although old men are yet to be convinced of the merits of women playing football. The biggest change however is that these days the only people who are loyal to their club are the fans. Go the Cats…
David Williamson is best known in Australia for writing the screenplays for Gallipoli (starring a very young Mel Gibson), Phar Lap, and The Year of Living Dangerously, although Don’s Party, a play based on the 1969 Australian Federal Election, was the work which kick-started his career.
I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch a performance of The Club, but David Williamson has captured the boys club mentality perfectly. And as a spectator, I’m a bit jaded with business of Australian Rules Football at the highest level, but I am quite happy to stand on the fence at the ground down the road and cheer on my local team team.