Prize Fighter introduces us to the world of Congolese refugee, Isa, and the atrocities that lead him to Australia. This powerful theatre uncovers harsh and violent realities of radicalism and war, displacement and loss, interrogating morality, empathy, loyalty & betrayal, manipulation, kindness and forgiveness in the many experiences and relationships we bear witness to, along the way.
I enter the space, which is set to resemble the layout of a boxing ring rather than a theatrical setup
Audiences sit and we can see each other across the room – the usual fourth wall dynamic of theatre is immediately disrupted. The room explodes with excited, loud music, colourful lights spraying the room, the sound of audiences screaming and cheering, the aggressive pep-talk of a coach off-side and the physical preparation of the boxers throws us into another world. As the boxers do their lap around the ring, we all clap and cheer; it is not hard to feel like we are truly at a boxing match. We watch the fighters in the ring, a visceral and impressively realistic experience. Incredibly timed and precisely manoeuvred fight scenes play out, the actors’ visible sweat only adding to the realism.
Although this action is engaging, the true meat of the play sits between these segments. We are led through seamlessly managed transitions from the ring to flashbacks of key memories of Isa’s past, providing the context and understanding for how this man came to be in the ring. Actors move with expert clarity between past and present, sometimes even between different characters, and I am never left confused as to who is who, where we are or what is happening. The characters of the play have depth and authenticity; they carry us through moments that are delivered so realistically I almost forget this is theatre. The script and action are raw, uncensored and brutally honest, as the violence of town massacres and the experiences of a child soldier are uncovered. The pain of Isa’s past is splayed out, intertwined with poetics and song, for us to witness and to recognise.
Moments of comic relief cut through complex and painful realities; which, I am sure, speak to the experiences of many refugees in this nation. What I found most beautiful about this play was that, while it addressed the violence and hardships of Isa’s experience as a refugee, it presented us Isa as a multidimensional person – allowing us to see, not only his struggles, but all of him; the humour, the confusion, the innocence, the romance, the desire for love and family. Theatre like this is incredibly important – to not only be presenting the stories that are often left untold, but to tell them in a way which is wholistic, which is human; which fights the socially formed stereotypes that are so violent towards marginalised and oppressed peoples.
Prize Fighter provides an anchor point and an invitation into thought and conversation that is incredibly important but seldom discussed in this nation, a means of access and understanding for peoples who have never been through these things, myself included. I look at the faces around the room as they laugh at a joke about weetbix and I hope that this experience is one, which can extend its impact beyond entertainment – that it can engender greater empathy and compassion (and, most importantly, ACTION) for refugee communities and peoples.
Prize Fighter is powerful, immersive, honest and emotional; a masterfully shaped and meticulously delivered piece of theatre. My only wish was that it had not ended so soon.