The Sweet Science of Bruising

23 Jun

I’m a huge fan of historical work. It transports you to the exotic, to another time and place. This facilitates big, bold story telling.

But the very fact you’re in a time and place other than your own inevitably forces a question: “What relevance does this have to my world?” (It’s all a neat way of eliciting a personal response from an audience without being too personal.)

First produced in 2018, Joy Wilkinson’s The Sweet Science of Bruising tells the story of female boxers in nineteenth century London. Because it’s about fighting, it’s the perfect parable for the ongoing struggle for equality. And it raises two salient questions: 1. Do women have to become like men to win? (The play asks this explicitly) and 2. Will the fight require women to fight each other? (The play obviously does ask this, but chooses not to make it the dramatic nub, settling rather for a broader promotion of sisterhood. In regard to this issue, I wish it had taken the gloves off, instead of just loosening the laces a little. But the most pointless theatre criticism of all is of the if-I-had-written-this-play variety. And, anyway, see my final comments.)

The story presents four equal protagonists, each a woman who takes to boxing for her own reasons. This makes for a longer show than average – two and a half hours of stage time – but a very engaging two and a half hours it is.

Period plays lay traps for actors; it’s easy to be blinded by our progressive prejudice and assume the past was not peopled with….well, people, but types. For the main, this production avoids this trap. The four leads (Sonya Kerr, Kian Pitman, Kitty Simpson and Esther Williams) are wonderful, creating rich, utterly captivating portraits of transgressive women. Cormac Costello as Professor Charlie Sharp, the arranger and promoter of the fights, gives a performance that crackles with gleeful possibility. The scenes between boxer Polly (Williams) and he are heart-warming magic.    

Period plays (especially the big and bold) also posit challenges for directors: How should I costume? What is my set? How real to make the physicality? Carly Fischer, with the help of a great design team, turns these challenges into fun opportunities.

Historical fiction poses one more question: how much is history and how much is fiction? (And, yes, there was female boxing in the nineteenth century.) Pedants love finding anachronisms, getting great delight out of pointing out that gramophones (say) weren’t invented until XXXX, or characters in XXXX were unlikely to express values not common until XXXX. In contrast, grownups appreciate the nature of fiction; you don’t find the truth in a tale by stepping on it, but by letting it wag. It’s in the joy it expresses, in its gift of hope; not in what it asserts about the past, but what it suggests for the future – and this play is a gift.

Paul Gilchrist

The Sweet Science of Bruising by Joy Wilkinson

Flight Path Theatre until July 2

https://www.flightpaththeatre.org/whats-on/sweet-science-of-bruising

Image by Becky Matthews 

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