37? It’s the number of Adam Goode’s jersey when he played for the Sydney Swans team of the Australian Football League (AFL). This play has it all. It expresses the views, not only of the male characters portrayed, but also of many women in the audience. While keeping the audience laughing, it doesn’t dodge any of the controversy of the tensions between First Nations’ peoples and migrant peoples living in Australia.

Combining the cultures of Football and theatre makes it a lively evening. The standing ovation at the opening night of “37” says it all.

Nathan Maynard, the playwright, is a Trawlwoolway man, from larapuna country, North East Tasmania, a place where AFL is the major code.

The play starts by reminding us that the popular game we know today as Aussie Rules began its life as an game played by First Nations peoples they called marn-grook. It was formalised by Europeans who observed the game, although this history is disputed by one of the characters. When does a significant influence from one culture on a need in another require acknowledgement?

The differing values of First Nations and Colonialists are nicely brought to the fore in this play. It’s very much a play for the time. It’s a man’s play. It’s about male culture, male bonding and it is about footie. The rough and tumble of male bonding is exposed in all its idiocy and intimacy. The needs to make one’s mark, to redress long held wrongs, to overcome, to fight, to work through the pain and to be part of something bigger than yourself are all on show.

Syd Brisbane as the Coach ‘The General’ was outstanding in his ability to keep the story line going, to bring together the various motivations of the characters and to make the audience (mostly of footie tragics) believe that the goal of winning a premiership is an undisputed holy grail of manhood. He kept the show grounded and led it to an uncomfortable place where despair goes to picnic.

The team of nine players, including a board member and player Dazza, played by Athony Standish, was from a small town somewhere on the coast. More than 10% of the population are members of the club. Its hope for a premiership, after 25 years of sitting at the bottom of the ladder (St Kilda anyone?) relies on the athleticism of two aboriginal men enticed to the club from “the valley”. Jayma, played brilliantly by Ngali Shaw, and Sonny, by Tibian Wyles, have their differing motivations for joining the club. Jayma wants to fulfil his father’s legacy, and Tibian wants to put food on his family’s table. The other team members, Apples (Samuel Buckley), Ant (Costa D’angel), Gorby (Mitchell Brotz), GJ (Thomas Larkin) Joe (Ben O’Toole) and the captain Woodsy (Eddie Orton) are part of the town. Dazza, on the board of the club, is also a sponsor. Apples’ family of abalone divers is also a sponsor. The team has bonded over the years with the players fitting into the town, doing their job well, for the benefit of everyone. There aren’t too many officious players on the team.

But the time comes when officiousness overcomes fairness. Or “fairness” is very differently defined. The captain “Woodsey” comes from a family who has lived in the area for seven generations. He is most comfortable expressing views that, in this day and age, are called racist. But there are arguments about the boundaries between racism and “taking the piss”. The argy bargy of male relationships is given free reign. Until it comes too close to the bone and punches are thrown. In 21st century Australia, that’s a step too far. Any hint of capability or achieving the ultimate goal is left on the altar of law and order, free of justice. One side sees an advantage and plays it.

But there are two sides in this play. And the underlying principle of the game, to have fun, wins in the end. Who pays the price? That’s left for the audience to decide.

And think it will.

Beautifully directed and co choreographed by Isaac Drandic, with resounding choreography also by Waangenga Blanco, the play has sharp language with many “laugh-out loud” moments. It is probably a year too late to the stage. But that’s what the plays about, really. Timing.

The play was commissioned by the Melbourne Theatre Company and co-produced by the QTC. It premiered in Melbourne in March. It opened in Brisbane on 11th April and runs until 4th May 2024 at Billie Brown Theatre. Book here: https://queenslandtheatre.com.au/plays/37

Kerry McGovern